In today's segmented and focused music market, there are few clear indicators of what constitutes "popular music" — no hallmarks of a definitive "sound of young America," or anywhere else for that matter. But scan the top of the charts, or as San Francisco's DJ Earworm did early last month, create a massive mash-up from a dozen or so top tracks, and dance-friendly rhythms quickly stand out as a unifying theme. As the club scene has evolved into a mainstream cultural force, Swedish dance duo Caroline Hjelt and Aino Jawo, better known as Icona Pop, have been steadily working their way into the popular consciousness since their first gig in 2009, and the eve of their full-length debut finds the pair preparing for world domination.
"We've just been in the studio having fun," says Hjelt regarding This Is ..., due Sept. 24 from Warner subsidiary Big Beat. "It's just been creative, fun chaos."
From the tip of lead single "All Night," the production is a star-studded, no-holds-barred affair, in which the pair collaborates with a multinational team of pop titans. This includes Norwegian producers Stargate, who've crafted hits for Rihanna and Wiz Khalifa; Karl Johan Schuster, better known as Shellback, who wrote "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" for Taylor Swift and "Moves Like Jagger" for Maroon 5; and longtime supporter Patrik Berger, who co-produced Icona Pop's breakout Iconic EP as well as Robyn's 2010 hit Body Talk.
Icona Pop's origin story has become familiar: Jawo, upset after a breakup, was dragged by a pal to Hjelt's party, where the two hit it off. Both had bad experiences in previous bands and were genuinely surprised to develop the working relationship they share today.
"It's so funny, because me and Aino were both so sure we were going to be solo artists — not be in a group or a duo or anything — because we didn't want the drama," says Hjelt. "You learn so much from that stuff. You learn working with people, you learn what you want, and you definitely learn what you don't want."
Their chemistry, tireless self-promotion and some perfectly timed breaks made the road a remarkably short one to 2012's floodgate-opening single "I Love It." The track, with its lyric by British dance-pop phenom Charli XCX, is a liberation anthem about dumping a possessive older boyfriend who aims too low — a recurring theme in the Icona Pop catalog. The three women's voices tower over a pounding house beat, shouting in unison "I don't care! / I love it!" That shout is key: Rather than a fed-up, hysterical scream, it's a statement of purpose, the sound of taking charge.
Strange, then, that several of the song's most famous appearances are tied to a complete lack of control. After showing up in the soundtrack to the latest Need for Speed racing game, the song's hook was snipped for the title sequence of MTV's Snooki & JWoww, in which the titular Guidettes begrudgingly slouch toward maturity. This January, "I Love It" surfaced in HBO's Girls, during a club scene involving method acting gone too far, a spate of reckless abandon that ends, as often happens, in disappointment for hapless Hannah Horvath. The single was licensed for more TV shows and commercials — Volvo understandably not among them, considering the lyric about driving a car into a bridge — which helped push sales into double-platinum territory in July. Its streamlined arrangement has made it a prime target for inventive remixes, with 14 officially sanctioned tracks by top DJs including L.A.'s Hot Mouth and the Netherlands' Tiësto, plus hundreds of unofficial versions.
Does occasional misinterpretation bother Hjelt? Maybe a little, when it puts someone in danger: "We got an email from two guys in Moscow that was, 'We were listening to your song and we accidentally drove our car into a bridge. Hahaha! Thank you for being a part of our lives.' And we were like, 'What?! Are you guys OK?' "
But for now, Icona Pop's attention is focused forward, on moving as many dancing fans on as many continents as possible, and putting the finishing touches on the stage rig that will house their drum machines and synthesizers.
"When people see two girls, they judge us without knowing anything about how we perform live, or maybe without knowing any of our songs besides 'I Love It,' " says Hjelt. "People come up afterwards and say, 'Wow, I had no idea. You're actually using all your gear onstage.' We're like, 'Yes, of course, otherwise we wouldn't be there.' "