Swedish pop music is the best in the world. Don’t believe me? Consider these facts. Sweden is the largest exporter of pop music per capita in the world. In fact, regardless of population, Sweden is currently the third largest exporter of music in the world, just behind the US and the UK. In 2010, it is estimated that Swedish pop music exports totalled more than $820 million.
Want more? So far in 2013, Swedes have been responsible, or partially responsible, for 34 US top ten hits and 32 UK top ten hits. A Swede, Tim Bergling, otherwise known as Avicii, currently has two songs in the UK top ten and one in the US top ten. His debut album, True, is in the top ten in both countries.
This is on the back of similar recent global success achieved by Swedish House Mafia and The Local-tipped Icona Pop. Swedish songwriters, meanwhile, write for everyone from Madonna to Taylor Swift. Max Martin (known to his mum as Karl Martin Sandberg) has written an incredible 16 US number ones (including Britney Spears’s Hit Me Baby… One More Time and Katy Perry’s I Kissed A Girl), while 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.
It’s an extraordinary achievement for a country of just nine million people – so how the hell do the Swedes do it?
Philip Ekström, lead singer of Swedish band The Mary Onettes, believes it is due to artistic integrity.
“I feel that it’s more about what you create in Sweden. It’s really never about becoming famous. It’s about being good at something. To sacrifice your life to something that you believe in,” he explains.
“I became aware of music very early. I started to practice early and went to different concerts and stuff. And now when I’m thinking, there was almost no one who said: ‘Let’s become famous, make a lot of money’. I heard things like ‘Do what you believe’. So this is probably also a reason why music from Sweden is so successful.”
Ekström has a point. The much-derided concept of lagom also comes into play here. Swedes are perfectionists but they’re not showboats. They like to get things done but don’t like to shout about it. They don’t make music to become famous but they like to do it well.
Also Sweden actively encourages prospective musicians through its education system; children are not sneered at for wanting to be musicians, instead their ambitions are supported and bolstered. A large part of the education in the pre school years is taken up with music and singing. By the time they start school at age seven, kids have learned a great deal about singing and rhythm. Furthermore, many Swedes join choir groups in their teens, regardless of gender or religious affiliation. Sweden boasts the highest number of choirs per capita in the world – a startling 15 percent of Swedes sing in choirs.
Upon this nurturing, encouraging framework is bolted a can-do ethic – Swedes do love a spot of DIY and this extends to music. If they can’t bear to learn the flute at school they’ll plug in a synthesiser at home and off they go.
Then there’s the Swedes’ love of melody. Ulf Ekberg, songwriter for nineties pop titans Ace of Base, is insistent that for most Swedish songwriters the tune always come first.
“Because English is our second language, we always try to reach as many people as we can, so we have feel-good melodies and simple lyrics so everyone can have fun,” he said.
This love of melody stems from Swedish schlager music which derived from traditional Swedish folk, classical, and cabaret music. Schlager generally consists of short, simple, light songs about love that feature big, instant hooks. The ultimate schlager band was the mighty Abba, who blended sixties pop’s fluid rhythms with schlager’s giant melodic hooks to not inconsiderable success.
And the ultimate celebration of schlager is the Melodifestivalen, the contest to provide Sweden’s song for the Eurovision Song Contest. The seriousness with which Swedes take Melodifestivalen surprises every newcomer. But those that deride Melodifestivalen are often those that fall for the schlocky variants of X Factor, a show that prefers to concentrate on the individual’s pursuit of fame at the expense of the song. And most Swedes are far too canny to fall for that malarkey.
But, thanks to the current government, not all is set fair for the Swedes’ continued domination of pop music. The government is in the process of dismantling policies that encouraged music and had been producing excellent results since the 1960s.
Music is no longer compulsory in schools and state funding of cultural activities has been slashed. It’s short-sighted, counter-productive and idiotic – why take funds away from a Swedish success story?
Somebody should write a song about it…
ALBUM OF THE MONTH
Lisa Miskovsky may seem to be a quintessentially Swedish pop star. After all, her albums rarely sell well in any other territory apart from her home country. But she, too, is part of the global Swedish pop success story. Miskovsky co-wrote the Backstreet Boys’ 2000 single Shape Of My Heart, and that song’s success has left her free to pursue her own solo career without worrying too much about financial considerations. Which is why it’s odd that much of her solo output has been so anodyne – like many songwriters who write for other artists, she seemed unable to inject her personality into her own songs.
Her miserable foray into 2012’s Melodifestivalen (where she finished ninth) with Why Start A Fire seemed to signal a career in terminal decline. The song was a bit of a stinker and its inclusion on this, her fifth album, was not a promising portent.
Happily, it’s the weakest song here by quite some distance, its clumsy, charmless plod outshone by a glittering array of sparkling, grown-up pop on what is undoubtedly Miskovsky’s finest album.
Miskovsky lives in Umeå now and there’s a hint of northern melancholy about album opener, Rain, Rain, Rain (shouldn’t that have been Snow, Snow, Snow? It doesn’t rain that much up here). The chorus, “You were always sunlight, I was always rain, rain, rain…”, suggests a recent brush with romantic misfortune although I’m pretty certain Miskovsky is still happily married to Norwegian snowboarder Marius Sommer. What is certain, however, is that the song is representative of what is to come – Umeå is rammed solid with chunky, well-fed tunes and memorable hooks all enhanced by Miskovsky’s lovely granulated honey voice.
Highlights? Well, other than Rain, Rain, Rain, there’s the gorgeous I Am I, which benefits from being a distant relation to Lana del Ray’s Video Games, the propulsive drive-time pop-rock of Tougher Than Most and the sprightly electronica of Coming on Strong. Just steer clear of that Melodifestivalen clunker.
Henric de la Cour
It says something for the current quality of Swedish electronica that Henric de la Cour is seen as little more than a curious oddity in Sweden. This glorious goth-pop collection should change that – but it probably won’t.
Elika Solo Rafael
(Country & Eastern / Naxos)
Folk music from Sweden, kora from Senegal and eurythmics from Mexico, with a hint of jazz? It shouldn’t work but it does.
Umeå Jazz Festival 2013
The north’s annual celebration of jazz this year boasts a terrific line-up, including Dave Holland, Bobo Stenson Trio and the magnificent Emilia Mårtensson.
Wednesday, October 23 – Sunday, October 27