Ever since Abba: the Swedish influence on pop music is as strong as ever
There is an old Swedish proverb that says: “Those who wish to sing always find a song.” But the current version in global music circles seems to be: “Those who wish for a hit song always find a Swede.”
Not since the days of Abba have Swedish songwriters dominated world music with such ruthless efficiency. The UAE will get a taste of another Swedish sensation tomorrow night when Roxette play at Dubai World Trade Centre.
However, unlike those two groups, one in retirement, the other recently reactivated for a world tour, most of the modern Swedish hitmakers are comfortably plying their trade in the studio.
As songwriters and producers for other artists, Swedes have been responsible for worldwide hits across Europe, America, Australia and Azerbaijan – yes, that’s right: Azerbaijan. On Saturday, the not-quite-in-Europe country won the Eurovision song contest in only its fourth year in the competition.
The winning entry, the romantic synth-pop of Running Scared, might have been performed well by the native duo Ell and Nikki, but the song was written by the Swedish trio Stefan Örn, Sandra Bjurman and Iain Farguhanson and defeated heavyweight countries and acts such as Germany, France and the UK boy band Blue.
While news of the victory had some Europeans consulting atlases, the Azerbaijanis were not so surprised. Unhappy with their 2008 Eurovision entry finishing a respectable eighth, Azerbaijan called upon the Swedes the following year and has never looked back. In 2009 it finished third, last year fifth and this year the trophy has crossed the Caucasus Mountains to Baku.
In the American charts, meanwhile, it’s a case of Swedish songwriters competing against each other. Just this week, three of the top 10 singles had been written by songwriters with strong links to Sweden. Kate Perry’s ET’s, written by the Stockholm super-producer Max Martin, fell a place from its chart topping position to number two. Behind it was Jennifer Lopez’s On the Floor, co-written and produced by the Grammy-winning beat-maker RedOne, Moroccan-born but musically Swedish, having begun his career and established his reputation there, before moving to New York. Not to be outdone by the up-and-comer, the veteran Martin also has another co-writing credit on the charts in the shape of Britney Spears’s Till the World Ends at number six.
In fact, when it comes to success in the American charts, Martin is chalking up an almost legendary status as a hit-maker. Pretty much the only unsuccessful music venture he has been involved with was as the singer in his 1980s cheesy metal band It’s Alive which disbanded with a whimper in the mid-1990s.
Ditching the stage, Martin entered the studio and steadily made a name for himself as one the most prolific and successful songwriters and producers of modern pop. In January he scored his 10th top spot in the American charts with Spears’s Hold It Against Me. Martin’s Ikea-like variety of songwriting styles, which blends Eurodance, American bubble-gum pop, funk and rock, has made him the songwriter of choice for artists to herald their arrival, change an image or resuscitate a career. With his saucy Hit Me, Baby, One More Time, Spears well and truly ditched her Mickey Mouse Club image and set off down the road to pop diva-dom.
The Backstreet Boys, too, have proved themselves capable of more than just pretty chest-clutching ballads with the Martin co-written stomper Everybody (Backstreet’s Back) single dominating the airwaves in 1997.
Meanwhile, after being reduced to releasing an album of re-recordings of her old material (these days called “reinterpretations”), the 1980s star Cyndi Lauper employed Martin and two other Swedes to pen the dancefloor-burning Into the Nightlife, which topped the American dance chart in 2008.
The same pattern can be seen in the American R&B scene. RedOne has been enlisted by the likes of Enrique Iglesias, Jennifer Lopez and New Kids on the Block to give them a gritty sonic makeover.
Two decades ago, though, it was different story, with Swedish groups themselves at the top of both the European and American charts. While America was in a collective gloom after the death of 1980s disco, bands such as Roxette, Europe and Ace of Base took the opportunity to dominate the charts with a winning sound incorporating pop, rock and dance.
Ulf Ekberg, one of the chief songwriters and the keyboard-player for Ace of Base, whose debut album Happy Nation sold 10 million copies, said it had taken the Swedes to remind Americans that pop music should be simple and catchy enough to be enjoyed.
“For Sweden [melody is] number one and has always been,” he says. “While the Americans, it’s the lyrics first, production second and melody last. I am not saying the lyrics are not important, but for us Swedes, for whom English is our second language, we just try to make it understood by a world audience. Because of this focus on lyrics, some of the American songs are complicated and can sometimes be not much fun. While for us, we always try to reach to as many people as we can, so we have feelgood melodies and simple lyrics so everyone can have fun.”
Ekberg says that while it was Abba’s bubblegum pop that first showcased Swedish artists’ love for an ear-warm melody, the country’s hooky songwriting culture comes from its native Schlager music scene. More of a style than a genre, Schlager music emphasises the supremacy of melody over lyrics and sound production. Since the 1930s, Schlager music has grown from its cabaret and operetta roots to accommodate folk and rock and has now become a Swedish code word for pop music. Indeed, the Swedish Melodifestival, whose winner goes on to represent Sweden in Eurovision, is commonly known as Schlagerfestivalen.
Ekberg argues that it was the free-spirited and “happy and simple” nature of Schlager music that propelled bands such as Ace of Base and Roxette and the songwriter Martin to stardom.
“Shlager is very hooky and has strong melodies,” he says.“Also Swedish is a very melodic language and it fits well with the tune and instrumentation of Shlager music.”
For Joey Tempest, frontman and main songwriter of arguably Sweden’s most successful rock band, Europe, the band’s knack for stadium-sized hooks comes from a simple desire to please audiences and themselves.
“You know, it’s not just the audience who gets a rush from listening to a big hook but it’s the band themselves who play it,” says The Final Countdown singer. “Also, Swedish songwriters always had the goal to reach out to a bigger audience because that, I believe, is part of our culture. We are very confident and we are not scared of travelling and meeting new cultures. So as a band we always wanted to be full of great melodies because we knew that would travel to and expose us to a bigger audience.”
While the likes of Lykke Li and Robyn are still flying the Swedish flag as performers, Ekberg thinks it highly unlikely that another Swedish group will make a real dent in the American charts.
“It is very hard for European and even English bands to make it big in the States,” he says. “A lot of it has to do with timing and good luck. But now with the rise of American Idol and these five-minute pop stars, the music scene there is too crowded for European bands to enter.”
But with the year’s most eagerly awaited pop album, Lady Gaga’s Born This Way (partly produced by RedOne), to be released next week and Martin working on new material with Avril Lavigne and the cast of the television musical comedy Glee, the Swedish love of melody will continue to linger in our ears for some time to come.
Roxette plays tomorrow at the Dubai World Trade Centre. Visit www.roxetteindubai.com for information.
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