Caroline Hjelt and Aino Jawo, the Swedish synthpop duo better known as Icona Pop, immediately drew a large LGBT audience when they dominated radio playlists, iPods, and dance floors this summer with their smash hit “I Love It.”
The pair’s infectious sound — fun and fiery lyrics fueled by a swirl of electro house, punk, and indie pop — is a high-energy blend that the Swedish sirens made part of the soundtrack for equality as they toured throughout the year, performing at the White Party in Palm Springs, Calif., and several Pride celebrations throughout the U.S. as well. Tracks such as “Girlfriend” (an ode to female friendship that can be easily interpreted as a lesbian anthem for the ages) and the group’s latest music video, “All Night” (a homage to New York City’s house ballroom and drag culture), have only served to propel the duo’s popularity with LGBT audiences.
With a new full-length album, This Is … Icona Pop, now in wide release and a world tour under way, Hjelt took a few moments to speak with The Advocate about her dreams of becoming a gay icon, the Swedish dance music invasion, and why she doesn’t care if people think she’s a lesbian.
The Advocate: You’ve been eagerly embraced by an LGBT fan base around the world. Has that surprised you?
Caroline Hjelt: I don’t know if I would say we’re surprised, but we’re very honored. The gay community in general has great taste and is usually very good at zeroing in on new things in pop culture, so we’re very happy to be embraced the way we have been.
You’ve performed at a number of Pride events and even the White Party in Palm Springs this year. Did you set out to gain a gay fan base, or did it happen by serendipity?
I think it just happened. It wasn’t something we intentionally set out to do, but we’ve been embraced and are gladly just going for it.
So would you say you’re ready to be a "gay icon"?
I would be so happy to be considered a gay icon. It’s funny, we’ve always found ourselves surrounded by the LGBT community, even when we were performing back in Sweden. When we first started performing we were doing shows in little gay clubs, so it always feels like home when we perform for a gay crowd. It’s where we can really be ourselves.
Do you feel like there is a different energy when you perform for the LGBT community?
Well, every venue is different, but one thing that is always special when we perform in front of a gay crowd is the amount of love the audience shows us. Gay crowds seem to really appreciate what we’re doing when we’re up there, and that’s the best thing a performer can get when they’re onstage. When that happens, it feels more like you’re performing together with the audience, and that never fails to happen when we perform at a gay club or Pride event.
Was your experience performing for an LGBT audience part of what motivated you to base your new music video, “All Night,” on New York City's drag and ball culture?
Yes. The song is about finding your element, your way of expressing yourself. It’s about finding your people, your home, and wanting to stay there “all night.” We’re so proud of the way the video turned out because the people featured in it represent everything that song is about. Their story and the way they perform is just incredible, and they’re doing it 1,000%, so it couldn’t be a better fit. From the moment we met all of them we knew it was going to be perfect.
As has happened with many performing duos of the same sex in the past, rumors that Icona Pop was a lesbian group surfaced almost immediately. But rather than run from it, you both seem to take it in stride and have fun with it. Even your latest album cover seems to be a bit of a wink and a nudge in that sense.
[Laughs] Oh, yes! I usually say I wish I was into girls so I could marry Aino, because we would have the perfect relationship. But that’s not the case. Of course people will think what they want to think, but we don’t care. We can’t stop doing our thing because people talk. Whether we’re gay, we’re not gay — whatever.
Several of your songs can easily be interpreted as LGBT anthems. “Girlfriend,” for obvious reasons, but other tracks from your new album also easily align with a queer sensibility. Were you aware of that when you were writing those songs?
When we were writing and recording in the studio we were just in the moment, and I don’t think we had a specific crowd in mind. But afterwards — well, a lot of our songs are about being who you are, expressing yourself, and being proud. So I think that goes hand in hand with the message of equality, because you should be proud of who you are whether you’re gay or not. You shouldn’t hide it; you should live it out loud.
Another Swedish performer who is adored by the LGBT community is Robyn. Is there any chance we might see a collaboration between you in the future?
I hope so. We love Robyn and think she was such a pioneer in pop music and took it to another level. She’s always able to bring both the coolness and strong emotion to her music, which is part of why Aino and I are such big fans. It would be an honor to work with her.
A lot of great Swedish artists have been successfully crossing over into the U.S. market lately. In your opinion, why do you think Sweden is currently a hotbed for great dance and pop music?
I wish I could say for sure, but maybe it’s because Sweden is such a small country. If you’re good and working hard, you’ll eventually have the opportunity to work with someone else who is good or be able to get your stuff out there more easily. Or maybe it’s because we have long winters and people stay huddled up inside, writing until summer comes and we get a little bit of that brightness again. But I think maybe, just like so many people in the LGBT community, Swedish people are sensitive to picking up on trends without overdoing it.