The 'Never Forget You' singer talks feminism, politics, and why she doesn't 'want to be an Ed Sheeran'

By Nolan Feeney
March 16, 2017 at 09:00 AM EDT
Credit: Britta Pedersen/AP Images

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One Saturday afternoon in late January, Zara Larsson woke up, checked her phone, and remembered it was the day of the Women’s March. The singer behind last year’s undeniable dance-pop hit “Never Forget You” was sleeping in on a rare day off in Los Angeles, but she felt she had a responsibility to be there, so she hopped out of bed and headed downtown. There, she picked up a pink “Women’s rights are human rights” sign that another protester had left behind, took in the scene, and started tearing up. “It gave me a good energy,” she recalls a week later over dinner in New York. “I was like, ‘I’m gonna fight every single one of those Trump supporters or sexists!’”

Larsson is one of pop’s most promising young stars — she has more than one billion streams on Spotify, according to the streaming service — and also one of the most outspoken. The first time she made headlines in America, it was for a viral Instagram post in which she put a condom over her leg to show men who thought they were “too big” to wear one that they should “take a seat.” She’s especially passionate about reproductive rights, and she recently called out people who identify as pro-life but don’t support, say, the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Larsson’s Instagrams sometimes feature memes that gently mock conservatives, and she’s just as irreverent about the topic in person. “Some people really think a seven-week-old fetus is a baby,” she says. ”I’m like, ‘Are you okay?’ I’m trying to check on them!”

Joking about abortion? That’s a risky move for someone trying to become a household name with her U.S. debut, So Good, out March 17. (She already has an album and two EPs out in Europe.) This is, after all, a country where Miley Cyrus twerking and Ariana Grande licking doughnuts are considered major celebrity scandals. And although stars such as Grande, Katy Perry, and Beyoncé are speaking out more than ever about the issues that matter to them, Larsson is unique for both her age — at 19, she represents an alternative to the heavily media-trained stars of the Disney-Nickelodeon machine — and the sheer breadth of issues she engages in. “This new generation [of fans] wants people to speak up,” she says. “You don’t see an artist grow big without tweeting, except for very rare people like Ed Sheeran…. I want to share my voice and everything I think. I don’t want to be an Ed Sheeran.”

Larsson is used to the attention — at 10 she won Talang (Sweden’s answer to America’s Got Talent) with a cover of Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On.” As a preteen, she started blogging about her life as a budding star and, later, the social-justice causes she learned about on social media, such as how to make feminism more inclusive to women of color. In response, Larsson would get death and rape threats, which she says only encouraged her: “That’s what keeps me fighting.”

Larsson mostly leaves her politics out of her music, at least explicitly. (The closest she gets on So Good is a hip-hop-flavored track called “Make That Money Girl,” which shouts out legendary music execs like Sylvia Rhone and tells young listeners, “You can be the next female president.”) Yet Larsson’s beliefs definitely shape her work. She originally wrote her in-your-face MNEK collaboration “Ain’t My Fault” about stealing another woman’s boyfriend, but decided later — against the advice of some members of her team — to rerecord a new version, this time about being rendered helpless by a guy’s hotness. “It would be weird to talk about how it’s important for girls to support girls,” she says, “and then come out with a song talking about how you’re too lame for the guy, so he wants to be with me.”

Larsson’s so committed to her principles that she’s not afraid to potentially upset her corporate masters. So after Kesha — who, like Larsson, is a part of the Sony Music family — accused producer Dr. Luke of sexual assault in a 2014 lawsuit, Larsson joined the chorus of fans demanding that Sony release Kesha from her deal with Luke’s label, Kemosabe. (Luke has denied Kesha’s allegations.) What’s more: Larsson was once signed to Luke’s label, though she says she left for reasons unrelated to Kesha’s case. (She already has a Swedish label, a U.K. label, and a U.S. label — throwing Luke’s imprint into the mix was too many cooks in the kitchen.) “He was never rude to me,” Larsson says of Dr. Luke, “but I’m happy I got out of there.”

If there’s a cost to speaking her mind so freely, Larsson isn’t concerned. “When people are like, ‘This won’t be good for your career’…shut up!” she says. “You don’t care about my career. You just want me to not say anything. Women’s rights are more important than my career. And if my career dies because I said something political? I don’t want to live in that world.” Larsson also doesn’t want to partake in what she calls “glittery sparkly” feminism: when artists preach girl power in their music but aren’t as committed to that message and its causes off stage. “I don’t need a cookie for it,” she says.

When Larsson gets fired up about this stuff, it’s easy to forget that she’s only 19. (At the time of this interview, she still had braces.) White privilege, intersectional feminism, the double standards women face — these are concepts that many adults twice her age might not totally grasp. But Larsson shrugs off any praise. She’s not smarter than anyone from any other generation, she says, leaning in close over the table like she’s about to share a secret, “I just spent more time on Twitter than you did.” Then she leans back, grinning, and reaches for her phone.

So Good is out March 17.