Beyond ABBA: The Globalization of Swedish Popular Music

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Beyond ABBA: The Globalization of Swedish Popular Music
by

Ola Johansson

Introduction In the minds of most Americans, music from Sweden is synonymous with the 1970s mega band ABBA. Careful observers of popular music know, however, that more recently Swedish artists have achieved both artistic acclaim and commercial success around the world. During the last two decades Sweden has become a force to be reckoned with in pop and rock music. This essay will explore the reasons behind Sweden’s emerging position as a popular music center. In no small part, geographic factors1 have played a role in this process. These include themes from cultural and economic geography, including Sweden’s position in the world as a small, outward-oriented country; the spatial arrangement of the music industry, both in Sweden and globally; and the propensity for geographic egalitarianism within Sweden. Sweden had its musical moments before ABBA. A quirky, 1960s instrumental band called the Spotniks was popular both in Europe and Japan, and the band Blue Swede scored a number one hit single in the US with Hooked on a Feeling in 1974. But such forays into the world of pop paled in comparison to ABBA, who won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1974 with the song Waterloo. That emblematic song was followed by an unprecedented string of world-wide hits until their final album in 1981. (The band’s tasteful Eurovision stage appearance is available on YouTube; in fact, the reader is encouraged to check out videos from all the songs mentioned in this article on YouTube.) Subsequent Music as a spatial phenomenon has interested geographers for some time, including themes such as local music scenes, music and place identity, geographic imagery in music, economic agglomeration, and many more. See for example Kong (1995), Bell (2010), Johansson and Bell (2009) for overviews of music geography. 134 1

ABBA revivals, especially via musicals and films like Mamma Mia, Muriel’s Wedding, and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert have solidified their songs (e.g., Dancing Queen; Fernando; Money, Money, Money; The Winner Takes It All) as bedrocks of the popular music canon (Figure 1). After ABBA, a new generation of Swedish artists has made it to the global music scene. To begin, Sweden shares some of the responsibility for the hairspray-and-spandex heavy metal music that was popular in the 1980s; the band Europe scored a hit with The Final Countdown in 1986. A more sustained effort, nineteen Top-40 hit singles in the UK for example, was accomplished by Roxette from 1988 onward. The Look, Listen to Your Heart, and It Must Have Been Love are stand-outs in the group’s eminently hummable pop-rock repertoire. More blatantly using associations with ABBA (see Hartshorne 2003), the two men and two women formula of Ace of Base took The Sign to number one on Billboard in 1994. That same year Rednex capitalized on a concoction of Euro disco and American folk tradition and inflicted Cotton Eye Joe on the world. And in 1996, the indie band The Cardigans engaged in what had become a Swedish national sport – occupying the top spot on the US singles chart – with the charming hit Lovefool. Moving into 2000, international stars headed to Sweden to take advantage of the prowess of Swedish producers and songwriters. Sweden acquired a reputation as a cutting-edge location where the latest musical trends could be harnessed. Celine Dion, Christina Aguilera, Ricky Martin, N’Sync, Kelly Clarkson, and Bon Jovi are but some of the famous artists who wanted their share of Swedish pixie pop dust. Especially the producer ⁄ songwriter team of Max Martin and Denniz Pop at Cheiron Studio in Stockholm attracted much international attention (similar to ABBA’s Polar Studio before that). The duo launched, for example, the careers of the

Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears (and can claim the songwriting credits for Baby One More Time and Oops I Did it Again). Data from various economic...
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