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Music

Why Sweden is top when it comes to pop

No one makes pop music quite like the Swedes. Ever since ABBA won Eurovision in 1974, the country has been synonymous with perfectly polished smash hits – and it's all down to their TV viewing habits.

Abba winning Eurovision

ABBA after their 1974 Eurovision win Photo: Roger Tillberg / Alamy Stock Photo

From ABBA to Robyn, Avicii, and super-producer Max Martin – a songwriter only topped by Lennon and McCartney when it comes to scoring US No 1 singles – why is Sweden so extraordinarily good at making pop music? It’s a question I’ve pondered a great deal over the years. I’m married to a Swede and spend a lot of time in the country, so my Scandiphilia runs deep.

The answer is an unknowable blend of different things – all from good access to free music schooling for kids (“I have public music education to thank for everything,” said Martin in 2001), to a grounding in the age-old folk, schlager and communal singing traditions which helped produce ABBA. Speaking of whom, undoubtedly a healthy dose of confidence and pride still flows from Sweden being home to arguably the greatest pop band that ever was.

Some even point to Sweden’s long, dark winter nights as an influence on its melancholically majestic music. For my part I’ll add the following, less romantic observation: Swedes watch a lot of music television. Something which I think has a peculiar and pervasive influence, sufficient to help make them about the most pan-generationally engaged, informed and aspirational music nation on Earth.

From music competitions to music quiz shows and frequent broadcasts of rock, folk, classical and opera concerts, Swedes not only watch far more music-based mainstream programming than we do, but also a broader range.

A cultural comparator from British television might be the centrality of comedy to our viewing habits. Where we watch countless panel quizzes or primetime stand-up revues packed with household-name comics, Swedes spend evenings glued to programmes such as Allsång på Skansen – a summertime staple in which a disgustingly tanned and healthy-looking live audience in Stockholm sing along en masse to well-known Swedish songs with domestic musical guest stars.

Or Så mycket bättre, a reality show which sees a random clutch of famous Swedish musicians live together in a lush country hotel, covering each other’s tunes, getting drunk, pouring their hearts out and invariably sharing a nice cathartic cry.

Swedes’ music viewing habits are about to peak with the TV event of their every year: the final of Melodifestivalen, or Mello as it’s known – Sweden’s annual, six-week long televised Saturday evening competition to select an entrant to the Eurovision Song Contest by public vote.

Around four million people tune in every year – close to half the population. If you can handle only understanding so much of what anyone’s talking about, you can tune in too. Conscious of growing fascination around the world with Eurovision and Sweden’s growing dominance of it (four of the last 10 winning Eurovision songs were sung or written by Swedes), Sweden’s national broadcaster SVT has, for a second successive year, made it possible for international audiences to watch Melodifestivalen live online (though you can’t vote).

This year’s 28 entrants have ranged from 65-year-old swing veteran Danne Stråhed to 16-year-old pop heartthrob Theoz; from a returning former winner and fifth-place Eurovision finalist (John Lundvik) to an eight-times doggedly returning never-winner (Linda Bengtzing), and from an all-female metal band to the show’s first transgender competitor, Tone Sekelius, singing a rousing song about her mum. Not necessarily all world beaters, granted, but each entertaining in their own way.

Just as few Eurovision hits ever break the international mainstream, so too do few Mello songs (though many become big hits in Sweden). But you can nonetheless connect the competition, on screens since the 1960s, with many of Sweden’s big international pop success stories. ABBA entered it twice, in 1973 (with Ring Ring) and winning in 1974 (going on to win Eurovision with Waterloo). A teenage Robyn co-wrote and produced an entry in 1997.

Many of Sweden’s most prolific and successful behind-the-scenes songwriters have written Mello songs, from Jimmy ‘Joker’ Thörnfeldt to RedOne and Jörgen Elofsson – responsible between them for hits by all from Britney Spears to Lady Gaga, U2 and One Direction.

Among this year’s competitors is Moa Carlebecker AKA Cazzi Opeia, one of several Swedish songwriters and producers increasingly finding a living writing K-pop (one of Carlebecker’s co-writes, Peek-a-Boo by Red Velvet, has been streamed nearly 220 million times). Even Greta Thunberg’s mum, opera singer Malena Ernman, has competed – winning Mello in 2009 then finishing a respectable 21st in Eurovision.

Greta Thunberg’s mum, Malena Ernman, had a shot at Eurovision in 2009

As well as being culturally illuminating viewing, I find it to be daft fun. A feast of cheesy light entertainment for the dark winter nights, whether you’re old or young (my kids and parents-in-law alike all love it). Importantly, Mello isn’t just an X Factor style superficial contest of voice and image, but a celebration of original songcraft, in which writers are feted alongside performers.

Think of it sort of like an annual symposium for Swedish pop smarts, where the nation gets together and decides what’s pushing its buttons, before taking it to the world. Little wonder Swedes know a hit when they hear one. 

The final of Melodifestivalen can be watched live on March 12 from 7pm GMT; with live tweets in English

@MBJack

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach local your vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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