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.