Dancing Queens: The Rise of Swedish Pop Culture

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Jack Sadler

English student, who lives on films, music, literature and coffee. Lover of bad jokes, the German language and Doctor Who. Aspiring critic. Can be found in Derbyshire and Leicester, but not at the same time. @JackSadler9

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A couple of years ago, I was asked by a Swedish man what I thought of when he mentioned his home country. I instinctively replied: “music”. Turns out, he thought I was going to say IKEA. Why he asked me this, I’m still not sure. In retrospect, it seems a bit strange considering this was the first time I had ever met him. However, with the recent success of Icona Pop’s ‘I Love It’, it got me thinking about the reasoning behind my answer, as well as the role Swedish culture has played on an international scale, especially in the last decade.

The 2000s saw Sweden being placed firmly in the consciousness of many people. For some, it was likely their first real interaction with the country. The man responsible for this was Stieg Larsson, whose Millennium series of novels quickly went on to sell millions. In 2008, Larsson was the second bestselling author in the world, behind Khaled Hosseini of The Kite Runner fame. Whatever your opinion on the books is, there’s no denying their popularity.

The subsequent film adaptations were mostly well-received, expertly flaunting Sweden’s cold beauty, and Noomi Rapace’s mesmerising performance as hacker and social outcast, Lisbeth Salander (aka The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), provided her with a much-deserved boost into the realms of Hollywood. As with any foreign film that that manages to stand out, it’s inevitable that it would eventually receive a subsequent English-language treatment. David Fincher, the American directing icon behind such modern classics as Seven, Fight Club and The Social Network, was the man chosen for the job. Whilst the Hollywood version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, also set in Sweden, doesn’t bring anything new to the table, it is still a fine adaptation. It also exhibited Swedish culture to an even wider audience.

The Swedish arts have enjoyed several similar successes since the start of the 21st century – 2008’s Let the Right One In remains one of the greatest horror films of all time – not to mention the 20th: Ingmar Bergman’s contribution to cinema goes without saying. Nevertheless, the music of Sweden is one area that deserves to have its triumphs recognised.

Sweden has a long history of unabashedly shameless pop, beginning with ABBA winning the Eurovision Song Contest in 1974 and finishing up with Icona Pop’s ubiquitous smash hit of the summer. Co-written by British artist, Charli XCX (whose debut album, True Romance, is one the best pop records of the year), ‘I Love It’ was a major critical and commercial darling of 2012, although it took over a year for the UK to wake up to its inescapable charm.

Where Sweden really comes out on top is in its trend of creating progressive electronic and indie music that keeps the critics happy, whilst also incorporating the best elements of pop to make something that is a delight to listen to. Ace of Base, The Cardigans, Neneh Cherry and Roxette were key players in the 1990s and the 21st century saw a wave of acclaimed works from First Aid Kit, José González, The Hives, The Knife, Little Dragon, Lykke Li, Niki & the Dove, Peter Bjorn and John, and, to an extent, Avicii and Swedish House Mafia. Then there was Basshunter, but, as they say, every rule has an exception.

One of the biggest breakthrough acts of recent years though has to be Robyn, whose universally loved eponymous comeback album was certified gold in the UK and produced a number one single in 2007, in the form of the brilliant ‘With Every Heartbeat’. In his review of the album, Pitchfork Media’s Jess Harvell confidently states: “Trust the Swedes. They know what they’re doing with this [pop] thing.” He’s not wrong. Robyn proved it so when she came back strong in 2010, releasing the ambitious Body Talk series of three albums to further praise, which included the Grammy Award-nominated single, ‘Dancing on My Own’, and featured collaborations with the likes of Diplo, Röyksopp and Snoop Dogg.

All this goes to show that the Swedish clearly know how to make hits. Most people won’t be surprised to hear that ABBA are the most successful group ever to take part in the Eurovision Song Contest. Their reputation cannot be understated in the United Kingdom especially, where, inexplicably, Mamma Mia! is the sixth highest-grossing  film of all time and maintains the record for the total number of DVDs sold. It is also the highest-grossing musical of all time worldwide, although last year’s Les Misérables is hot on its heels. It’s important to remember the crucial position Eurovision played in all of this, in that it kickstarted the band on the road to international success. And with the topic of Eurovision, we come full circle to 2012, when Swedish singer Loreen won the Contest with the actually rather excellent ‘Euphoria’ (by Eurovision standards, at least) and notched up the record number of 12 points in the process.

‘I Love It’, therefore, is simply the latest in a run of musical treasures to hail from the Scandinavian Kingdom over the past four decades – and here’s hoping that it’s far from being the last.

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