Björn This Way – What Makes Sweden So Good at Making Pop Music?

This is a post by associate editor Blake Madden

Having lived in South Africa for a couple of years as a teenager, my memory of mid-90s culture can diverge wildly from that of my friends. Thanks to a steady diet of the European versions of VH1 and MTV, I’m clueless in conversations regarding American one-hit wonders of the era, while my friends don’t know too much about the band Kula Shaker, or quite how much Oasis and Blur disliked each other.

But even there, I was always looking for something different than the standard fare, and one day a song caught my ear: a ridiculous bubble of jazzy-pop sweetness over a slick disco beat. There was next to no distortion on the guitars, the rhythm section was in lockstep, and the chord changes just kept coming. It wasn’t British and certainly wasn’t American.

A video showed well-manicured, Nordic-looking performers intercut with scenes of a man listening intently to a tape recording of the song while getting a lapdance from a middle-aged stripper. That song was “Lovefool” by The Cardigans.

This was before the Romeo & Juliet soundtrack, before the explosive international success of “Lovefool” and First Band on the Moon, the album from which it came. It led me to discover what I’ve come to think of as The Cardigans’ best effort, their second album, Life, which was released just a year earlier.

I can’t find a harmony, rhythm, or even a single note out of place on Life; I still count it among my favorite music by anyone of any era, and I’ve been gleefully introducing it to musician friends since the day I first got it, often to profuse thanks.

Over the years, I’ve heard more Swedish pop (often from the same people I introduced to Life), and while nothing has come close to that initial peak, I’ve been enamored by some of the currents that run through the genre: the impeccable rhythm, the extended vocabulary of chords and instrumentation that wanders into jazz and even classical territory, the emphasis on melodic hooks, the well-defined structure and squeaky-clean production.

A strange stereotype has formed my in mind, influenced in part by those stoic fashion-plate portraits of The Cardigans from the liner notes to Life: That the Swedes are a race of musical super-beings. They communicate via complex harmonies and sneeze fully-formed melodies. They are incapable of bad time.

But is it really part of a national identity, or just an uncharacteristic musical trend?

Life Lagom

“Remember, Sweden is a country of engineers,” says Laura Wideberg, a teacher at Seattle’s Swedish Cultural Center. We are sitting in the bar of the Cultural Center, a private club that overlooks Lake Union from Queen Anne Hill. Short of a travel budget from Scientist, this is as close as I’ll get to haranguing musicians on the streets of Malmö, asking what makes them tick.

Laura, an American-born ‘Chicago Swede’, is herself a musician – a classically-trained upright bass player from a family that includes two bassists, a violist, and a cellist. On a research visit to her ancestral hometown, a local historian informed her that her family had been musicians in that area for over 300 years.

She explains that music education and appreciation is indeed very much ingrained in Swedish culture from early childhood:

A good part of the education in the preschool years is music and singing. By the time they start school at age 7, they’ve learned a lot about singing and rhythm.”

Music education continues throughout primary school, with many Swedes joining choir groups in their teens, regardless of gender or religious affiliation. Sweden’s official website, Sweden.se, states that ‘Sweden boasts the highest number of choirs per capita in the world’. Laura credits the Swedish Lutheran Church for the country’s heritage of choral music, but admits their role has changed:

You had a lot of musicians in the church back in the day. Of course, Sweden is now the most secularized country in the world. The churches are still areas where people perform concerts. All these choruses and choirs – nobody goes to mass, they go to these concerts… The church has found its new function in the Sweden of the 21st century.

Circling back to her comment about Sweden’s society of engineers and the implied precision, Laura introduces me to the Swedish ethos: “lagom,” which has no direct English equivalent, but translates roughly to “suitable” or “in balance”. Swedes aren’t showboats, but they’re no slouches either; they prefer order, cleanliness – and perhaps above all – doing things the right way:

The lagom ethos is: you do a good job, but enough is enough. Lagom means sufficient, or just right, perfectly right.”

Extensive musical training and a cultural emphasis on understated perfection certainly fit my narrative, but why have the Swedes seemed to master pop music specifically?

Having Some Schlager With Benny and Björn

Sweden’s pop past is a sentimental journey through the world of schlager music. Loosely translated from German to mean “a hit”, Swedish schlager music generally consists of short, simple, light songs about love and relationships that feature memorable hooks and perhaps a key change. Schlager music basically is a style of pop music. But given America’s and the UK’s bi polar attitudes towards pop in contrast to Sweden’s enduring respect for the genre, it’s fitting that the Swedes have their own term for it outside of English.

Early schlager was derived from traditional Swedish folk, classical, and cabaret music and remained that way until after World War II, when a previously-isolated Sweden began exchanging culture with the rest of the world in earnest. The biggest musical influences in the 50s and 60s came from America and the UK, changing the direction of schlager music and eventually giving birth to the mother of all schlager bands: ABBA.

Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus were already established musicians when they began working together as in-house producers at Stig Anderson’s Polar Music label. Singers Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad had also enjoyed successful careers in their own right. Between 1969 and 1972 the four crossed paths and collaborated in various combinations, before finally coupling up and forging the entity ABBA in 1973. The name came from manager Stig Anderson, opting for an abbreviation after finally tiring of saying everyone’s name individually.

The quartet’s song “Waterloo” won Sweden’s national Melodifestivalen (which Laura likens to their version of the ‘Superbowl’), earning them a spot in the Eurovision Song Contest, where they also took top honors in 1974. They never looked back: ABBA has sold over 400 million records worldwide and counting, despite calling it quits in 1982.

Sure, ABBA have left a significant mark on the world of pop music, but would I be the stereotypical lazy and uninformed American if I just assumed they were national heroes back in their native land?

“They’re on the stamps,” says Laura Wideburg. So much for conjecture.

And what group could better exemplify the flavor of Swedish lagom? The band included two producers and four seasoned performers and was notorious for its perfectionism in the studio. Individual parts might be redone several times, or scrapped altogether until the feel of a song was ‘just right.’ Oftentimes, finished recordings of entire songs were scrapped when they didn’t live up to a certain standard. And even after it was recorded, a single song might take five days to mix.

ABBA’s universal appeal has been attributed to several factors, including their schlager DNA of repetition, simplicity, glossy production and of course, their unyielding focus on sentimental love songs. But perhaps the most interesting theory comes from author and professor Daniel Levitin, who credits ABBA’s thick choral style singing (the same kind that has been performed in Swedish churches for centuries) for the band’s appeal:

If you look at the evolutionary biology of the species and the chemical reactions we have to events in the world, for tens of thousands of years when we as a species heard music we heard groups singing it, not an individual and not an individual standing on a stage… So the ABBA model of the multiple voices or the Edwin Hawkins Singers singing ‘Oh Happy Day’ is much closer to stimulating these evolutionary echoes of what music really is, fundamentally — closer than, say, Frank Sinatra or Miley Cyrus.

So if liking ABBA is the world’s evolutionary destiny, then that effect is of course amplified in their homeland. Laura comments that Benny and Björn’s 1995 musical Kristina från Duvemåla was seen by a million Swedes – over 10% of the country’s entire population.

Chuck Klosterman writes in his essay “ABBA 1, World 0” that the band’s continuing popularity is singular in that it is unaffected by time and space, so much so that in 2002, they were offered one billion dollars for a reunion tour… but turned it down.

“We had to think about it,” said Björn in an interview with The Guardian, “because one could build hospitals with that money… [But] we don’t want to go through the stress of disappointing people evening after evening.”

This line of reasoning may sound insane to American ears (or any diehard ABBA fan), but for a group of Swedes, it’s a career that is lagom.

The Swedish Invasion

The Swedish groups that would follow ABBA learned well, not only taking the torch of the band’s professionalism and perfectionism, but traveling with it across international waters in droves. Sweden is currently the third largest exporter of music in the world, just behind the US and the UK.

The bands Roxette and Europe (producers of one of hair metal’s most memorable hooks) sold millions in the 80s and early 90s. In the mid 90s, The Cardigans became the biggest Swedish act since ABBA, and still tour the world today. In more recent years, acts like The Knife, Jens Lekman, Dungen, Peter Björn & John, and Jose Gonzalez have made their way onto college and independent American radio. Dance DJs Avicii, Eric Prydz, and pop singer Robyn have all had bona fide US/UK hits, while in 2011, Swedish House Mafia became the first electronic dance band to sell out Madison Square Garden.

But Sweden’s global pop domination goes much deeper than that, even if it’s more behind the scenes than on stage. Britney Spears, ‘N Sync, Katy Perry, Kelly Clarkson, Pink: these have been the crown jewels of American pop from the late 90s until now, but would you believe that Swedes have been co-writing or in the studio twisting the knobs for all of them?

Since 2008 alone, Swedish songwriter and producer Max Martin has written or co-written thirteen #1 hits in the US. He’s also been named ASCAP’s songwriter of the year five different times. Writer and producer Andreas Carlsson has written for Spears, The Backstreet Boys, Bon Jovi, Clay Aiken, and Katy Perry. Songstress Negin Djafari has written hits for Japanese, Korean and Canadian artists, in addition to American Miley Cyrus; And Moroccan born Nadir Khayat aka “RedOne”, who moved to Sweden in his teens because “There was so much good music coming from there,” has been the production force behind hits from Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez, Enrique Iglesias, and One Direction.

The question is no longer whether or not Sweden has mastered pop, but for how long?

What Makes It Go?

Negin Djafari gives the credit for Sweden’s musical output to its strong musical traditions, saying it “has a lot to do with our heritage from folk music. That is what has given us all these strong melodies.”

A nationalized social infrastructure that supports musical pursuits from birth to adulthood surely helps, too. In addition to receiving an extensive musical education and participating in choir groups, Swedish musicians are supported and encouraged by their government in ways that would make an American Tea-Partier’s head spin, sometimes even receiving cold hard cash.

In a 2010 Pitchfork article entitled “What’s the Matter With Sweden?” writer Marc Hogan states that Swedish group The Knife received the equivalent of about $18,000 from the Swedish Arts Council for recording and touring:

The Swedish Arts Council grants about 11.5 million SEK ($1.65 million) each year to about 145 music groups out of 250 that apply, plus about 24 million SEK ($3.3 million) to venues, 222 million SEK ($30.9 million) to regional music organizations, and 64 million SEK ($8.9 million) to Concerts Sweden… The Swedish Arts Grants Committee allocates about 19 million SEK ($2.7 million) to musicians annually.

So Swedish musicians are well-educated, have an appreciation for both the history and craft behind the music they create, and receive some of the best financial support in the world for their musical endeavors. Laura Wideburg adds that Swedish education is also “tracked”, meaning children are encouraged and nudged towards a specialized field early on, with music considered a valued profession like any other. Because of all of this, Laura notes, the idea of a Swedish DIY musician or a late-bloomer picking up a guitar on a whim, seems foreign: “Swedish pop comes from the top and goes down.”

Perhaps the simplest and best statement on the Swedish pop oeuvre comes from Ulf Ekberg, songwriter and keyboard-player for Ace of Base (who once upon a time sold 10 million albums themselves), when he was interviewed by The National:

For Sweden [melody is] number one and has always been. While the Americans, it’s the lyrics first, production second and melody last. I am not saying the lyrics are not important, but for us Swedes, for whom English is our second language, we just try to make it understood by a world audience. Because of this focus on lyrics, some of the American songs are complicated and can sometimes be not much fun. While for us, we always try to reach as many people as we can, so we have feelgood melodies and simple lyrics so everyone can have fun.”

Ekberg gives praise to ABBA for introducing the world to Swedish musical sensibilities, but goes even further back to credit the bygone days of schlager:

Shlager is very hooky and has strong melodies. Also Swedish is a very melodic language and it fits well with the tune and instrumentation of Shlager music.

So the next time you find yourself in your car with the windows rolled up, singing at the top of your lungs to the latest Top 40 American hit that seems to hit all of your ‘guilty pleasure’ spots just right, recognize that you may just be listening to hundreds of years of Swedish culture and millions of dollars of national investment condensed into three minutes of catchy hooks – all perfectly lagom.

Blake Madden is a musician and author who lives and works in Seattle, WA.

This entry was posted in All Stories, Featured Stories, From The Vaults, March 2013, Most Popular, Music: Making it, Listening to it.. Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.
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