Unless you’ve had your head buried deep in a copy of Kerrang for the past forever-and-ever, you’ll be pleasantly aware that the Swedes have earned themselves a reputation for being amongst the world’s leading exporters of pop music.
With the recent Grammy awards dominated by Swedish-penned Swift songs and last year’s pop scene flooded with Scandinavian artists, it’s worth considering just how popular their music has grown to be.
Sweden may be small, but the country has proven for decades that it can maintain it’s high-level of pretty damn good pop music, with a musical history that delves well beyond the production-wunderkinds, the kooky-pop princesses and EDM forefronts that have given the country its musical seal-of-approval. After all, we have the Scandinavian homeland to be thankful for Britney’s …Baby One More Time and Backstreet Boys’ I Want It That Way amongst MANY other 00s chart superiors, so we know that they must be doing something right. But can the reason for just why their pop is so good be pinpointed?
Whether it’s Sweden’s vast music heritage, the government’s involvement or even just the acknowledgement of ABBA’s existence, their artist’s emphasis on euphoric, sing-a-long choruses and ice-cold melodies in a way that no other country as yet managed to achieve. Here, we take it upon ourselves to answer that seemingly age-old question; just what makes Swedish pop so good?
Sweden Has Quite the Musical Heritage
Mention Sweden and it’s guaranteed you’ll picture an IKEA, Alexander Skarsgård or a colourful Eurovision four-piece. Rightly so for the latter, since the impact that ABBA had in the 70s made it almost impossible for the world to not turn its attention to Sweden. The quartet whacked up the volume for the country to the rest of the world, backed with the help of MTV Europe whose popularity saw a high number of Swedish artist’s being programmed on music-video channels.
From Robyn to Roxette, from Europe to The Knife, the country wields an extensive list of pop acts that have paved the way for the artists we cherish today. Heck, Ace of Base even got 20th anniversary celebrations for All That She Wants, effectively a one-hit wonder albeit how great the track actually is. This is where Sweden’s music industry could be declared unique, given that it’s almost always in a constant state of revival, so Swedish artists take inspiration from their predecessors to create a collectively timeless sound. It’s even been claimed that ABBA’s simple, almost child-like melodies, compared to the rest of Europe’s much heavier bass sound is the reason they have been so influential. Essentially, 80s as a trend will always be the one, with Sweden’s pop music almost acting as its own genre and triumphing so well.
But what about pre-ABBA? As hard as it is to believe, there was a time that predated Super Trouper. Sweden’s 60s were filled with progg, a hippie-ideal lead scene of political ideology and folklore. Swedish academic Ola Johansson has cited that the progg scene’s simplistic blend of rock and pop helped inspire ABBA’s all-Swedish writing and production team and missile-launch them to the level of success they received. The rest is history, as they say.
The Not-So-Crap Government and Politics
First years of school in Sweden must take compulsory recorder lessons, which probably makes everyone eager to play actual instruments. Music tuition is also free to a certain age in Sweden, so they’re all clearly a musical bunch from the get-go. Cited in 2010’s “What’s The Matter with Sweden” article for Pitchfork, the government’s Swedish Arts Council reportedly cashed out in-excess of 40 million to music projects, concerts and artist promotion. Electro-pop pioneers The Knife received two lots of multi-thousand krona grants, without which would have drastically limited their success. The same goes for pop-darling Tove Lo, arguably Sweden’s 2015 breakthrough act who wouldn’t be where she was without government backing. It appears that musical talent and money isn’t far and few, a strong indication that the Swede’s ability to create such striking pop isn’t just a lucky strike.
Sweden is also an extremely liberal and forward-thinking country, constantly pushing boundaries in terms of green living (they import 800,000 tonnes of the UK’s trash because they can recycle properly and we can’t) as well as education. So maybe there’s a simple answer to the question; perhaps the cleaner air allows for better brain function?
The Country Itself
Stockholm-based act Kate Boy believe the reason for the well-regarded pop is more of a subconscious reason, where the countries geology and weather is the answer. Formed of Aussie Kate Akhurst and Stockholm-native Markus Dextegen, they believe “the landscape, environment and mood that comes from the darkness of Sweden definitely changes the sound.” Akhurst explains that “we didn’t realise how much Sweden effected our sound until we wrote in Australia, and they just turned out so different.” Given Sweden is treated to a mere 3-4 hours of daylight during their long winters, it’s feasible that the dark, icy edge that often gives Swedish pop it’s recognition stems from the dark. Dextegen agrees. “Our album, even the lyrics, wouldn’t have been the same if it was written anywhere else.” (Our full interview with Kate Boy can be read here.)
They’re All Very Tight-Knit
From his 1990 book, “The Competitive Advantage of Nations”, economist Michael Porter suggests that the music business in Sweden thrives due to the country’s size, and that Scandinavia as a whole should be considered a “business cluster” of which Sweden contributes and benefits from. Simplified, the musician networks in Sweden are extremely intertwined, effectively bouncing off each other. Given that the Swedes are also highly regarded for their work ethic, it becomes hard not to imagine this factor feeding into the music.
Maybe Too Tight-Knit…
Considering Stockholm is home to just under one million residents, it’s almost incomparable to that of other musical hotspots, the 18.5 million and 8.5 million of Los Angeles Metropolitan area and New York City respectively. It’s a lot of artists touring in a small area, hoping that ticket sales don’t diminish over time. It’s then possible to suggest that we Brits warmly accept Swedish pop because of the sheer abundance of it. Sweden is also a predominant exporter of death metal and hip-hop, two rather niche genres that wouldn’t support themselves on the back of Swedish audiences alone.
All Down To the Producers
If 2015’s pop scene will be remembered for anything, it will be Taylor Swift’s squad and that Carly Rae Jepsen somehow managed to create the pop album of the year. What SHOULD be remembered is that Swedes form the backbone of both these successes, taking production roles for both these ladies’ recent LPs amongst half the other high charters of 2015.
When artists go to break America, most of the time they just end up working with Swedish producers. These producers focus on melody, which when combined with some simple-and-not-too-dumb lyrics, you have yourself a Swedish-produced hit. Max Martin is the leader of this Swede-production pack, back with teams formed of Mattman & Robin, Shellback and multiple others, all of whom have had some involvement with 2015’s biggest tracks. Lovato, Goulding, The Weeknd, the list is enormous. So it could be arguable that the production work is what really makes the pop as loud and proud as it is.
Of course there is the downside of this. If the same Swedish producers are making music with pop artists then does it run the risk of losing individuality and the threat of being influenced subconsciously? It’s a point worth applying a “how many year’s until people get bored” frame of mind to, but considering two of the past few year’s highest Metacritic ratings, Jepsen’s EMOTION and Swift’s 1989, were prominently hand-crafted by Swedes, it’s evident that people are still acknowledging the power of Swedish pop.
And Thus, We Can Conclude That…
Sweden’s knack for churning out high quality, well received pop is sadly not a genetics issue and more of a statement of the countries’ tight-knit industry, supportive government and musical heritage that has turned Sweden’s music industry into the pop-exporting phenomenon that it is today. Perhaps there is no set answer and it’s all just down to combination of factors. A mere celebration of the bloody good music they manage to create.
So the next time you find yourself failing to stop humming along to an ABBA classic, grooving to Jepsen’s Run Away with Me or sobbing in a club because someone had the excellent idea of playing Robyn’s Dancing on My Own, stop and think to yourself about what this track really, truly is.
A complex, tightly knit, geo-political pop banger.
Words by Bill Baker