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Melodifestivalen: an expat parent’s gateway to Swedish culture

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.

Melodifestivalen: an expat parent's gateway to Swedish culture

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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BUSINESS

Explained: Why is Sweden so worried about the EU’s minimum wage plan?

EU labour ministers meet in Brussels on Monday to discuss the European Commission's planned minimum wage directive. Why is the proposal causing such unease in Sweden?

Explained: Why is Sweden so worried about the EU's minimum wage plan?
Customers visit a branch of McDonalds in Stockholm. Photo: Stina Stjernkvist/TT

What’s happening on Monday? 

EU ministers responsible for employment and social affairs, including Sweden’s Eva Nordmark, will meet in Brussels for a two day meeting at which they hope to adopt a European Council position on a directive imposing “adequate minimum wages” on all EU countries. Once the Council, which represents member states, has agreed a common position, it will begin negotiations with the European Parliament and the European Commission. 

What’s Sweden’s position on the minimum wage directive? 

Sweden has been, along with Denmark, one of the most vocal opponents of the directive, arguing that it threatens the country’s collective bargaining model, in which unions and employers set wages without government interference. 

But on Friday, the government dropped its opposition, together with country’s umbrella union, the Swedish Trade Union Confederation, arguing that a compromise proposal put forward by the European Commission would protect Sweden’s wage autonomy. 

A majority of the members of the Swedish parliament’s employment committee are backing the government’s new stance, but three opposition parties, the Moderates, the Christian Democrats, and the Sweden Democrats, are opposed to the change in position. 

“I am extremely happy that there is broad support and majority backing for us to continue with the negotiations, to stand up for what we have come to so far, and do everything we can to protect the Swedish wage-setting model,” Sweden’s employment minister Eva Nordmark (S) said after a meeting with the employment committee on Friday. 

READ ALSO: Why Sweden doesn’t have a minimum wage and how to ensure you’re fairly paid

Why did Sweden make its dramatic last-minute u-turn? 

Sweden’s government judges that, after the compromise, the directive will no longer mean that Sweden is forced to bring in a statutory minimum wage. 

“I consider, together with experts in the civil service and experts in the unions and employer organisations, that there is no requirement for Sweden to bring in a statutory minimum wage,” Nordmark told TT. 

She added that agreeing to sign up to the directive would give Sweden the ability to take a deeper part in the negotiations giving it the power to make sure that important exceptions are made for Sweden. 

Denmark, however, is still resolved to say ‘no’ to the directive. 

Surely a minimum wage is a good thing? Isn’t Sweden supposed to be a high-wage economy? 

Sweden is certainly a high-wage economy, but that is largely thanks to its model of collective bargaining, under which wages are generally set by negotiations between employees and employers for each sector. 

If the directive sets a precedent allowing governments, either at a national or EU level, to interfere in this process, or for those who disagree with the result of the collective bargaining agreement to appeal to government entities, it could undermine the Swedish system. 

Who is still worried? 

More or less everyone. While the Swedish Trade Union Confederation is supporting the government’s decision, its vice chair Therese Guovelin, described the European Commission’s compromise proposal as simply “the least bad compromise proposal” the union had seen.

She has previously described the European Parliament’s position that the directive should apply to the entire European Union as “a catastrophe”.

“That would mean that a disgruntled employee who is not part of the union, could take their case to court, and would then end up at the EU Court, and it would then be them who would decide on what should be a reasonable salary,” she explained. “In Sweden, it’s the parties [unions and employers’ organisations] that decide on that.”

Tobias Billström, group leader for the Moderate Party, said he was concerned at the role of the European Court in the directive. 

“There are big risks with this,” he told TT. “The EU court might decide to interpret this directive as applying across the board, and then we might end up with what we wanted to avoid. The Moderates have as a result been against this development, and it’s important that Sweden gets to decide itself on the Swedish labour market.”

What might happen now? 

The European Parliament might try to remove the wording and the exemptions which Sweden hopes will allow its employers and unions to retain control of wage-setting. 

Mattias Dahl, chief executive of the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise, which represents employers’ groups, said that the government needed to stand its ground in the upcoming negotiations, reiterating that he would have preferred that the European Commission had not sought to give itself such a role in the Labour Market.  

Nordmark said that Sweden did not intend to back down to the parliament. 

“These are important red lines for us. If there are demands from the European Parliament that push in a different direction, we can lean on the Swedish opinion and what we stand for,” she said. 

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