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Melodifestivalen: an expat parent's gateway to Swedish culture

Melodifestivalen: an expat parent's gateway to Swedish culture

Published: 13 Jun 2012 10:42 GMT+02:00
Updated: 13 Jun 2012 10:42 GMT+02:00

As Eurovision 'Euphoria' gives way to Euro 2012 football fever, US-native and parent Rebecca Ahlfeldt reflects on how embracing Melodifestivalen is like walking through Sweden's secret cultural door.

I have a confession to make. I own the most recent Melodifestival CDs. I also have been known to sing aloud to them. In fact, I might even know all the words to a few of the songs.

This surprises me because, normally, I’m not a person who gets into this kind of thing. Our TV barely worked back in the US, and I never really watched American Idol or any other of those kinds of reality TV shows.

I had definitely never heard of Eurovision.

Until recently, I really didn’t get why some of my (normally rational) friends were spending every Friday night at Melodifestivalen gatherings.

But now, after our recent indoctrination, I realize that Melodifestivalen and all the hype around it is a part of Swedish culture that, as an immigrant, I have always admired.

The whole phenomenon would have probably slid by without notice if my son Erik hadn’t been invited to a karaoke party in the middle of May.

The invitation instructed the kids to dress as their favourite Melodifestival artist, a signal that it’s assumed our family knows enough about this competition to have an opinion about it.

At first I wasn’t sure how we were going to come up with a costume, but it turned out that Erik was a step ahead of us. In fact, he not only had a favourite artist, but he knew the chorus from more than one of the Melodifestivalen songs.

Where did he learn these?

At school. Along with “Majas alfabetsånger” and “Den blomstertid nu kommer,” his weekly music class apparently includes a kids’ choice portion, where they’ve listened to quality hits such as “Salt and Pepper” and “Amazing,” among others.

So we put together something that resembled a Sean Banan costume and headed to the party.

The irony was not lost: an American-born kid, Erik, imitating a Swedish rapper whose image is a satire of Americans.

But when we got there, I finally got to see what the hype was all about, first hand.

The kids were impressive. I am not exaggerating when I write that every kid at that party knew all the words to at least one of the songs—well, all the kids except Erik.

This is quite an accomplishment, considering half these songs are in English.

I knew Melodifestivalen was popular, but was it this big?

Apparently so, at least for the 7/8-year-old demographic. After this revelation, we broke down and got the CD.

It was like stepping through some secret cultural door. Suddenly, the music was everywhere. It’s what was playing in stores, it’s what Erik’s friends talked about at the dinner table, and it was the icebreaker when our kids met new kids.

One CD purchase later, we were tuned into popular Swedish culture.

I still had some reservations. The music wasn’t exactly my style, and after helping Erik read through the lyrics, it was hard to ignore the English language mistakes.

But it grew on me, and weeks later, I found myself humming “Sean den förste banan” in the shower, just in time for Eurovision.

By this time I realized that I had come to actually like the songs (at least some of them), but for more reasons than just musical preference.

Like Lucia and Midsummer, Melodifestivalen is a point of Swedish unity, a piece of common cultural knowledge. It fits the model for Swedish tradition (seasonal, lots of singing, continues long past kids’ bedtimes), but this one is more open to diversity and individual variation.

It’s a tradition that spans across ages, across background and class differences and across regional differences, a cultural currency that ties various divisions of the country together.

Coming from the US, an enormous country that is more likely to celebrate its diversity rather than its commonalities, it often feels like there is little that holds us together.

This is not the case in Sweden. All the 7-year-olds are watching it. And for only 99 kronor (or free on YouTube), anyone can join in.

But there are some caveats to this commonality, as my (Swedish) husband has pointed out: Growing up in such a unified culture, it can be hard if you want to/have to do something different to everyone else.

Like, for example, if your parents can’t afford to, or refuse to buy you that trendy jean jacket/Real Madrid jersey/bizarre pajama-like zip-up jumpsuit. Or if your parents don’t understand what all the Melodifestivalen fuss was about.

If there is only one way to fit in, it’s hard to be or feel different.

Now, as Loreen’s victory fades into the background, the next cultural phenomenon has taken center stage: the European Soccer Championships. But sometime next fall, the hype will begin again.

Next year, with Eurovision on home turf, it’s only going to be bigger. So by the time spring rolls around, I’m pretty sure we’ll have our costumes and karaoke songs ready.

Rebecca Ahlfeldt is an American ex-pat writer, translator and editor currently based in Stockholm.

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Your comments about this article

12:24 June 13, 2012 by Breizh
"You always admired the Swedish devotion to Melodifestivalen?", wow. That is indeed a powerful statement. If I don't deny that it is a strong (popular) cultural event, I rather pee on it, especially when it is organized in a dictatorship.

I rather admire the Nobel Price, Bellman, Taube, Swedish engagement in green energy and their welfare state.
14:38 June 13, 2012 by Opinionfool
@Breizh

What more can you expect from someone born in a land where a visit to Disneyland is considered high culture, McDonalds fine cuisine, sport in which the "World Series" only has USian teams competing, The Simpsons are considered high literature, a film industry to lacking in ideas that successful films made or stories written in/about other countries have to be remade and reset in Hollywood and a Marine corps that only remembers its own when a Dutch-owned production company has to rebuild the ex-/serving marine's house in a TV program?

Whisphers, you forgot Stringberg.
15:32 June 13, 2012 by towns
I know it's not saying much, but I actually find Melodifestivalen tends to have better quality music than Eurovision itself, especially in the last few years (this year's Eurovision was actually pretty good, especially compared to last year's. 2009 was probably the best and 2010 was good too, except for the winning entry and a few others).
17:20 June 13, 2012 by bonbon29
Melodifestivalen is AMAZING! It may not be on the same level as environmental issues, Nobel, etc, but it is 100% kitsch, which is part of Sweden's fun, camp sense of humour. Believe me, a LOT of people around the world admire Sweden for being able to have fun. It's a quality you should cherish!
20:07 June 13, 2012 by otwa
who is the woman on the right? I see her photo too often
20:47 June 13, 2012 by Opinionfool
@towns

"I know it's not saying much, but I actually find Melodifestivalen tends to have better quality music than Eurovision"

How true that is of entries from the UK over the decades of Eurovision. And this year's entry from my old homeland was execrable. The choice of artist was dreadful (who ever though a cronner with less than an octave range could win needs to be fired by the BBC) and the song was nothing but a joke. It would have been better had it received "nil point" all night or better negative points.

@otwa

We're lead to believe that she is Rebecca Ahlfeldt' you know the USian ex-pat who knows more about Swedish culture than Swedes do.
16:33 June 16, 2012 by pacian01
Give me a break with all this expat crap
16:47 June 16, 2012 by VicTaulic
Comment removed by The Local for breach of our terms.
19:20 June 16, 2012 by towns
@ VicTaulic

The first part of your comment is not very nice is it? You do realize she reads these comments?
20:02 June 16, 2012 by Opinionfool
@towns

"You do realize she reads these comments? "

Given the content of her articles and the comments made on them in the past I doubt very much whether she (or anyone from The Local) reads our comments; if she did then the quality of the prose and the focus of the articles would have improved months (even years) ago. And until the quality and ficus improves we'll keep making these comments.
10:13 June 17, 2012 by towns
@ Opinionfool

Maybe, but remember that one article that American girl (Carmen Price, I think), posted about "Sweden not being a socialist hellhole after all?" It got something like 60+ comments, the overwhelming majority of which were quite negative (to put it lightly), and she hasn't had an article published on here since.
11:36 June 17, 2012 by Opinionfool
@towns

There's an English saying "good riddance to bad rubbish".

The author of the "hellhole" article deserves to be fired. As I wrote some of those 60+ comments I want to see her fired. Rebecca Ahlfeldt has received similar critical comments on her USian view pieces. There's a lull afterwards and then oh dear we get more of the same: US is best, Sweden is a hellhole (implicit or explicit) from them all: Price, Ahlfeldt, and the out-of-work Ramsey who managed to eat in the most expensive of Stockholm's cafes and restaurants. They may be living in Sweden but they retain their US-is-the-only-place-to-live attitude. If they prefer the US over Sweden then why don't they go home.

I daily expect to see Rebecca Ahlfeldt, Carmen Price and Gwen Ramsay articles appear on The Local. I loathe when such aarticles do.

There must be other ex-pats living in Sweden. One's who can write, one's who won't always be longing for their old USian life. There must be English, Ozzies, Kiwis, Canadians even, Zimbadweans, Nigerias, Scots, Irish, Welsh. With the Local's use of Google translate hell they could have Norwegians, Frnech, German, Turkish, Israeli, Moroccan, Japanese, and many other ex-pats write for them and get an almost readable English version.

Unless of course The Local is a US tourist board publication; that's what articles from the triumvirate make it appear.
13:43 June 17, 2012 by TexasMustang
This is for Rebecca - if you do indeed get a chance to read the comments section - you make me laugh. As a fellow American, sometimes I am mystified and amused by the cultural differences we encounter on a daily basis. It doesn't mean that we think the US is better, just that it is sometimes funny to highlight the crazy stuff. I have looked at your other blog posts and we have had similiar reactions to all things Swedish. As for the negative people - if you don't like someone's posts - don't read them. No one is making you.
18:52 June 17, 2012 by towns
@ Opinionfool

Yeah, I agree.
10:16 June 18, 2012 by Opinionfool
@TexasMustang

We don't need to read junk like this but it does need to be challenged, the whole USianism-is-best culture exposed for the xenophobia it is. If you don't think that the sub-text is "US is best" then you're the one not reading.
22:36 June 18, 2012 by scandiland
I enjoyed reading the article and I think it was interesting and amusing to read your reflections on what you find different in Sweden as compared to the US. The way you embrace the Swedish customs is great, as far as I'm concerned.
10:27 June 21, 2012 by JulieLou40
Comment removed by The Local for breach of our terms.
18:54 June 24, 2012 by VicTaulic
Like I said, more hot blonds, less self-entitled ex-pats with connections on the Local staff.
10:56 June 26, 2012 by cogito
..."Rebecca Ahlfeldt, you make my blood boil...(#17, JulieLou40)

And yet you can't resist reading her. Are you some kind of masochist?

@Rebecca A., As you, TL and every publication knows, one measure of success of an article or a journalist is the number of comments provoked--especially if the comments are of the foaming-at-the-mouth, blood-boiling genre.

Congratulations.
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