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#WYNTK: Scandinavian pop

On top of the world

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Published: 6 Mar 2020


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For those weaned on Anglo-Saxon musicians’ names, their monikers sound like those of sci-fi characters, or anti-heroines from a Stieg Larsson crime saga, bafflingly studded with capitals and tricky accents: MØ, Icona Pop, Ásgeir, GDRN, Sigrid and ALMA.

Better get used to it: We are already living in the Age of Scandinavian Pop (Scandipop for short), which dominates global airwaves, on stage and behind the scenes.

It’s even more striking when you realise how small their combined population is – only slightly above 27 million. The five nations under the Scandinavian banner—Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden—are punching above their weight, and remarkably, they are doing it matter-of-factly, with lagom (Swedish for “just the right amount”). No more, no less.

How it all started…

With ABBA, naturally. Since the 1970s, the Swedish supergroup have reigned supreme, inspiring sold-out musicals and Hollywood films. Their success opened doors. In the 1980s, we gawked at Norwegian band A-ha’s Take on Me (1984) and its revolutionary rotoscoped video. In the 1990s, no one could escape the avalanche: It Must Have Been Love (1990) by Swedish duo Roxette (penned for the Pretty Woman soundtrack); The Sign (1993) by Swedish band Ace of Base; the soporific doozies of Danish band Michael Learns to Rock; or the eye-poppin’ Barbie Girl (1997) by Danish-Norwegian dance-pop group Aqua.

In the noughties and the tennies, Sweden stamped its pre-eminence. We whistled to Young Folks (2006) by Peter Bjorn and John; chilled to Jose Gonzalez’s wistful, guitar-strummed cover of The Knife’s Heartbeats, and stood with Robyn, the queen of electro-disco dirges such as Hang With Me (2010).

One guy to rule them all

Yet one private and enigmatic guy has become the unlikely poster boy for Scandipop: Max Martin. Born Max Karl Sandberg, the Stockholm native has co-written a whopping 22 Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 hits – more than anybody, bar John Lennon and Paul McCartney.

Considered “the Yoda of pop songwriting”, he helmed many of pop’s most iconic singles and albums from the 1990s onwards, including Britney Spears’ ...Baby One More Time (1998), The Backstreet Boys’ I Want It That Way (1999), and ’N Sync’s It’s Gonna Be Me (2000), Kelly Clarkson’s Since U Been Gone (2002), Pink’s So What (2008), Katy Perry’s I Kissed A Girl (2008), Taylor Swift’s Blank Space (2014), The Weeknd’s Can’t Feel My Face (2015) and Justin Timberlake’s Can’t Stop the Feeling! (2016).

His ascent to the top is revealing of the seismic shift in the global hit-making machinery towards the Nordic model, displaying values such as a hardworking ethos, open-mindedness and a collaborative spirit.

To that end, a pan-Nordic office, Nomex, was set up in 2008 to promote artists and share best practices. It is owned by Export Music Sweden, Music Export Denmark, Music Finland, Iceland Music Export and Music Norway. Ja Ja Ja, a monthly Nordic music club-night and website, cherry-picks new talents to perform at two venues, The Lexington in London and FluxBau in Berlin.

The Nordic songs also share a trait. Swedish singer Lykke Li nails it with The Irish Times, “There’s a darkness and a shimmer to it when it’s done right. It’s very melodic. Even if you look back to Swedish lullabies and Christmas songs, they’re extremely beautiful in a really melancholic, sad way.” This is in the DNA of Scandipop, traceable from ABBA’s Dancing Queen through to the thumping beats of Dancing On My Own by Robyn.

We scan the region, zooming in on each country’s peculiar strengths and choicest musicians.

Denmark

Population: 5.79 million

You may have heard: Aqua; Lukas Graham; Michael Learns To Rock. On the more indie end, there are Mew, Agnes Obel, Iceage, Raveonettes and Efterklang.

What went right: Music Export Denmark (MXD)—a non-profit by Denmark’s Radio, The Roskilde Festival/The Venue Foundation and the Danish Rock Council, ROSA—was set up in 2005 to promote acts overseas, due to the decline in CD sales and the arrival of digital streaming. Dance specialist Anders Trentemøller also sees a mindset change, “Local bands wanted to sound like the ones from the US and DJs like someone from Berlin. But now Danish artists concentrate more on finding their own sound and doing something unique that often has this northern melancholic vibe, which you can also find in old Nordic folk music from 300 years ago.”

The next generation:

Born in Ubberud, she’s an electropop star who co-wrote and provided vocals for the 2015 Major Lazer and DJ Snake collaboration, Lean On, at one point the bestselling digital single in history. Her remixed version of her 2018 song Blur features Foster The People.

Christopher

The Copenhagen native, huge in Denmark and in China, is peddled as “the Danish Justin Bieber”. His 2019 single, My Heart, is all piano and lovesick vocals.

Hjalte Ross

This mysterious folk-pop singer is a throwback to the British troubadours of the 1960s/1970s, such as John Martyn and Nick Drake, with a Cigarettes After Sex air about him.

Finland

Population: 5.54 million

You may have heard: Aside from electronic/jazz star, Jimi Tenor, Finnish pop musicians of yore did not make a dent overseas.

What went right: Music Finland is focused on promoting Finnish artists across all genres and sectors. It’s doing something right: In 2018, the Finnish music industry was valued at 945 million euros – a 1.5 per-cent rise year-on-year with sales of recordings up 11 per cent, and significant inroads made in streaming revenue.

The next generation:

ALMA

Pop It-girls all want to work with the Kuopio native, ranging from Miley Cyrus and Dua Lipa to Ariana Grande and Charli XCX. The former Finnish Pop Idol alumnus has been Chasing Highs.

Jesse Markin

It’s a new lease of life for rapper-turned-crooner Jesse Markin. Born in Liberia, he showcases his sensitive side in his solo debut, Folk.

NEØV

From Juankoski comes a dream-pop group comprising two brothers. Their recent single called, ahem, Brothers, boasts layered vocals and airy riffs.

Iceland

Population: 341,243 people

You may have heard: There must be something in the water for a population as small as Iceland’s to produce such originals as Björk, Sigur Rós, Of Monsters and Men, Emilíana Torrini, múm…

What went right: Its geographical isolation has yielded a culture of self-reliance, and the can-do attitude means no challenge is insurmountable. Everybody helps out everybody else, with band members often appearing in each other’s gigs.

This is complemented by strong institutional support. Set up in 2006, Iceland Music (known locally as ÚTÓN) is an export office which also promotes and produces the music festival Iceland Airwaves. Its results are impressive: In 2017 alone, Icelandic artists performed more than 1,250 international gigs. In October 2019, Iceland Music launched its Record In Iceland programme, which pledges a 25 per-cent rebate to all international artists who make music in the country.

The next generation:

Ásgeir

A one-man Keane from Laugarbakki, Iceland. He became an instant star with his 2012 debut, recorded in the Icelandic language, and one of the country’s biggest-selling debuts. His latest single is Pictures.

GDRN

She is Iceland’s Sade, or Jessie Ware, delivering luscious soul pop. A former classical violinist turned soul-pop songstress, Guðrún Ýr Eyfjörð Jóhannesdóttir, known by her artist name GDRN, has been winning awards at home.

Sturla Atlas

This soft-rap, pop collective is one to watch. With fashion and graffiti art as part of their aesthetics, the interracial friends behind the Reykjavik group are primed for world conquest, as can be seen in the video for I Know.

Norway

Population: 5.4 million

You may have heard: The biggest of them has to be A-ha. Lene Marlin is the Norwegian equivalent of America’s Jewel, while cool nerds may prefer Lykke Li, Anja Garbarek, Sondre Lerche, Ane Brun, Jenny Hval, Susanne Sundfør and Kings of Convenience.

What went right: Music Norway reported that in 2015, total revenue earned from copyrights, recorded music, gigs and performances, was more than US$440 million, up 5 per cent from 2014. It has helped artists such as Astrid S and Aurora clinch slots at overseas festivals such as Coachella, and raise their profile in the United States. Pop/R&B duo Nico & Vinz and DJ Kygo, for example, work with folks like John Legend and David Guetta. At home, Oslo’s premier summer festival Øya Festival has become a magnet for discovering upcoming local acts programmed alongside foreign headliners such as Lana Del Rey and The xx.

Four Norwegian artists have achieved a Top 10 placement on the Billboard Hot 100: A-ha’s Take On Me (No. 1 in 1985), Ylvis’ The Fox (No. 6 in 2013), Nico & Vinz’s Am I Wrong (No. 4 in 2014), and Kygo’s It Ain’t Me (No. 10 in 2017).

The next generation:

Sigrid

The fresh-faced ingenue from Alesund was top in the BBC Music Sound of 2018. Strangers puts her on the map.

boy pablo

From Bergen comes boy pablo, a millennial update of 1990s slackerdom. He last performed at Esplanade in November 2019. Call it bedroom pop or D-I-Y, this son of Chilean parents delivers aww-shucks charm.

Jakob Ogawa

Born in Trondheim and based in Oslo, Jakob Ogawa trades in 1980s nostalgia topped with a sly falsetto. He made his debut in Singapore last year at Decline.

Sweden

Population: 10.1 million

You may have heard: ABBA, Ace of Base, Avicii, Roxette, Robyn, Icona Pop, Tove Lo, The Cardigans, Jens Lekman, Stina Nordenstam, Zara Larsson... The list goes on.

What went right: The period between 1990 and 2003, dubbed the “Swedish Music Miracle”, cemented the country’s musical reputation. Ushered in by Ace of Base, the decade illustrates the economic peak of Sweden’s musical exports. In 1999, Sweden’s Ministry of Finance reported that royalty payments to Sweden from foreign markets were twice the per capita figure of the US. Sweden is the largest exporter of pop music per capita in the world. Overall, Sweden is currently the third largest exporter of music in the world, behind the US and Britain.

Nolan Feeney argues in The Atlantic that Sweden excels at pop music for the following reasons: strong educational support for music; English proficiency; their receptiveness towards outside influences and trends; the tight-knit musical community; and substantial government support.

A non-profit called Export Music Sweden is instrumental in promoting and funding Swedish artists abroad. According to a Pitchfork article, the Swedish Arts Council hands out about US$1.65m to more than 100 acts, US$3.3m to concert venues and US$30.9m to regional music groups annually. Sweden’s major labels are largely headquartered in the capital, with many founded with the aim of launching the musicians overseas. Such is the case of Stockholm Records which scored a hit when The Cardigans blew up with Lovefool (1996).

The next generation:

Alice Boman

From Malmo comes this strangely alluring songstress, whose demos were so well received, the recording company decided to release them as an EP. Listen to her latest single Don’t Forget About Me.

LÉON

She’s got the gravelly lows that rival Adele’s. This Stockholm indie-pop songstress has been namechecked by Katy Perry.

Les Big Byrd

More leftfield is this Stockholm band which dishes out psychedelic, shoegazey indie pop that reminds one of Tame Impala and Animal Collective.

Contributed by:

Yeow Kai Chai

Yeow Kai Chai is a poet, fiction writer, editor and arts curator. He has been working in the media industry for more than two decades, including as entertainment editor and music reviewer, in various newspapers such as Life, The Straits Times, 8 Days and My Paper. An editor of Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, he served as Festival Director of the Singapore Writers Festival from 2015 to 2018, and helped launch the nationwide music platform, Hear65, when he was working at the National Arts Council.


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