The Swedish music miracle
How come Swedish music is such a chart-topper? Music journalist Jan Gradvall lists 4 main reasons and 20 milestones.
Swedish songwriters and producers are immensely popular. The Weeknd, Ariana Grande, Coldplay, Adele, Ed Sheeran, Justin Timberlake, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, Selena Gomez, One Direction, Maroon 5, Pink, Britney Spears, Madonna, Ellie Goulding, Jonas Brothers – these are just some of the international pop acts who have collaborated with Swedes.
Since the mid-1990s, Swedish songwriters and producers have at times been behind up to half of all top tens on the US Billboard chart.
Stockholm and Los Angeles are two of the capitals in international pop today. Lots of hits are written and produced there. Check out the global pop songwriter elite and you’ll find that around 50 or so are Swedes. Sweden is the world’s third largest music exporter.*
It’s an incredible success story. How on earth could a small country of 10 million people partly located inside the Arctic Circle, and with a language unintelligible to non-Scandinavians, become a world leader in pop?
1. Music schools
Part of the answer is education. Songwriters Max Martin and Shellback cite the importance of municipal music and arts schools to their development and the free availability of technical equipment at adult education colleges.
2. Digital technology
Another reason is Sweden’s early advances in digital technology, something that has fostered many ground-breaking musical innovations. Spotify is headquartered in Stockholm. Berlin-based Soundcloud was created by Swedes, who still run it today. Swedish programmers helped build Apple Music. (The notorious PirateBay hailed from Stockholm too.)
Top 5 biggest selling Swedish acts
(albums and singles combined)
- ABBA – 500 million+
- Roxette – 75 million+
- Ace of Base – 50 million+
- Zara Larsson – 35 million+
- Avicii – 30 million+
3. International outlook
Yet another factor is the small size of the Swedish market, which drives internationalisation. Being able to speak at least one foreign language is almost a prerequisite. Unlike many European countries, Sweden doesn’t dub English-language TV series and movies. This means Swedes hear English spoken on a daily basis. Swedes are also among the most avid travellers on the planet.
4. Melancholic melodies
Some things that shape Swedish culture are the long, dark winters and the contrast between city and country. The music is often characterised by strong, inspiring melodies with a melancholic undertone – a tradition began by ABBA, who took their cue from Swedish folk music. Tunes once whistled in the depths of a pine forest now echo worldwide.
*According to a 2020 report from industry organisation Export Music Sweden, there are only three countries in the world that export more music than they import: the US, the UK and Sweden.
20 MILESTONES OF SWEDISH MUSIC
1964: A jazz icon waltzes to immortality
It takes just four hours for singer Monica Zetterlund and the Bill Evans Trio to record one of the most critically acclaimed Swedish albums of all time. The jazz masterpiece Waltz for Debby launches a stellar career for Zetterlund. Today, more than 15 years after her death, Zetterlund has admirers across generations – ABBA’s Agnetha Fältskog, Nina Persson of The Cardigans and Zara Larsson are just three of them.
1974: Swedish pop makes its big splash
Björn Skifs and his Blue Swede band hit number one in the US Billboard charts with ‘Hooked on a feeling’. Who can resist a song with an opening line of ‘Ooga chaka, ooga ooga ooga chaka’? Swedish pop comes of age, internationally.
1984: The first black metal album sees the light
Bathory’s self-titled debut is released. It is credited as an album that defined the black metal genre. With shrieking tempos, the Stockholm band takes darkness to a whole new depth. This, you could say, is Nordic noir before it became a crime fiction genre.
1986: ‘The Final Countdown’ begins its eternal journey
The glorious anthem of Swedish glam metal band Europe is released. It will roar to number one in 25 countries, and like a comet, it’s blazed a trail ever since. Attend any major sports event and there’s a good chance you’ll hear its rousing beat pumping from the stadium speakers.
1988: Cherry inspires girls to find their voice
A pregnant Neneh Cherry raps and sings her hit ‘Buffalo Stance’ on BBC’s Top of the Pops, which inspires countless young female fans to make their own music. Cherry’s blend of hip-hop, house and feminism has influenced many, not least Swedish acts such as Leila K and Robyn. In 2022, Robyn and rapper Mapei pay homage to Cherry with a re-imagined, swaggering version of the groundbreaking hit.
1990: Power ballad duo show their muscles
Roxette’s anthemic ‘It Must Have Been Love’ becomes the third of the Swedish duo’s four US number ones. Featured on the soundtrack to blockbuster comedy Pretty Woman, the song remains the band’s biggest hit and perhaps their best known tune.
1993: The Sign of things to come
Gothenburg band Ace of Base officially make it big in America as their debut album The Sign tops the US album charts. The album – a meld of reggae and Euro techno – spends six months in the top three and eventually sells 21 million copies worldwide. To date, it’s the second best-selling album from a Swedish act, surpassed only by the ABBA Gold hits collection.
1996: Singing together unearths new talents
Tensta Gospel Choir in Stockholm is founded as a cultural integration project, and quickly becomes a nursery for gifted singers. Artists such as Lykke Li, Mapei and Sabina Ddumba are among the Swedish stars that have taken their fledgling vocal steps in the choir. An estimated 600,000 of Sweden’s 10 million inhabitants sing in choirs. No wonder Swedish pop is known for its sing-along refrains!
1998: Video directing enters the spotlight
Madonna releases her single ‘Ray of Light’, with a video showing scenes from different cities around the world. Swedish music video director Jonas Åkerlund wins a Grammy for it, and the video also wins five MTV Video Music Awards. Swedish music producers, songwriters and video directors like Åkerlund have played a towering role in the last 30 years of popular culture.
1998: Foretelling the future of hardcore
As the straight edge subculture and lifestyle spread in the 1990s, hardcore band Refused helps put the northern Swedish city of Umeå on the world map. The band dissolves shortly after the prophetically titled album The Shape of Punk to Come is released, but many bands across the world are inspired by their music.
2000: Oops, he did it again – and again
Britney Spears reaches the top of the US Billboard charts again thanks to the extraordinary talents of Max Martin. To date, this Swede has 23 Billboard number ones to his name, a haul that is matched only by Beatles producer George Martin. As a songwriter, Max Martin has penned 25 Billboard number ones, with only two writers ahead of him in the all-time standings: Paul McCartney (36) and John Lennon (26).
2008: Listening to music changes forever
The launch of Swedish streaming service Spotify transforms music listening. For years, the industry struggled with slumping record sales as consumers turned to file-sharing and illegal downloads. With Spotify, the first mass-market audio streaming platform arrives.
2011: Electronic dance music gains a new anthem
‘Levels’ by DJ/producer Avicii takes electronic dance music to a new level. The catchy synth and innovative beat drop create a new type of radio hit and turns Avicii, then only 22, into a megastar. He becomes one of the first DJs to step up from clubs to arenas, erasing the boundaries between rave and concert.
2012: Pop and classical greats shine together
Swedish band First Aid Kit performs Paul Simon’s hit ‘America’ in front of the writer himself when he receives the Polar Music Prize in Stockholm. He gives the band a standing ovation.
The Polar Music Prize was first awarded in 1992 and has been described as the musical equivalent to the Nobel Prize. Two winners – one from pop/jazz, the other from classical music – usually share this annual award, which was founded by Stikkan Anderson (publicist, manager and occasional lyricist of ABBA).
2013: Cloud rap sweeps onto the stage
Swedish rapper Yung Lean is just 16 when his cloud rap songs burst into teenage bedrooms across the globe via YouTube and Soundcloud. Lean has since collaborated with the likes of Frank Ocean and Travis Scott, and is today hailed among the world’s most creative artists.
2019: New York’s subway filled with love and joy
New York’s 34th Street station transforms into a full-on dance party after singer Robyn's sold-out concert at Madison Square Garden. Subway riders and passers-by spontaneously bop to the tones of ‘Dancing on my own’. Rolling Stone ranks the tune as the 20th best song of all time.
2019: Kids’ instrument hits the right note
Star Wars franchise The Mandalorian goes on general release and Swedes smile knowingly at the recorders playing the theme music. Countless Swedish schoolchildren – past and present – have cut their musical teeth on this little flute. As a homage to Swedish music lessons, the Oscar-winning composer Ludwig Göransson uses three recorders in his score.
2019: Cranking up the volume on climate
It’s the year of the Greta. Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg’s address to the United Nations inspires a remix by Fatboy Slim. Björk projects Thunberg’s climate-change message live on stage. And Coldplay cancel their tour following Thunberg’s criticism of air travel carbon dioxide emissions. Thunberg also features on ‘The 1975’, the tune by the English rock band of the same name. ‘Greta is the most punk person I’ve ever met in my life,’ The 1975 singer Matty Healy says.
2020: Uniting in euphoric exuberance
The Eurovision Song Contest is something of a Superbowl to Swedes. Both young and old get involved, and the country has won the competition more times than any nation, except Ireland. Fittingly enough, a couple of Swedes lend a musical hand to the parody movie Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga. Its title song ‘Husavik’ is sung by Swede Molly Sandén – under the stage name My Marianne – together with Will Ferrell. The composers of the song – Swedes Fat Max Gsus and Rickard Göransson and American Savan Kotecha – get nominated for Best Original Song at the Academy Awards in 2021.
Sweden’s Eurovision Song Contest winners
- 2015: Måns Zelmerlöv, ‘Heroes’
- 2012: Loreen, ‘Euphoria’
- 1999: Charlotte Nilsson, ‘Take Me to Your Heaven’
- 1991: Carola, ‘Fångad av en stormvind'
- 1984: Herrey’s, ‘Diggi-loo diggy-ley’
- 1974: ABBA, ‘Waterloo’
2021: Mamma Mia, here they go again!
In 1981, ABBA release what everyone – including themselves – assume is their final album. But then 40 years later, almost to the day, ABBA stun the world with a comeback record – Voyage. And to the delight of the fans, the band is performing as digital ‘Abbatars’ at a purpose-built ABBA Arena in London in 2022. Thank you for the music!