By Manuel Gemperli
As a society, we have decided to agree on very few things. One of these few things is that The Beatles are the best songwriters in pop and rock history. But who comes after the Fab Four? It might just be Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Anderson, the two B’s in ABBA. I’m not a big fan of musicals or movies who are basically musicals. With a few exceptions. There are always exceptions. One of them is “Mamma Mia”. I absolutely don’t care how many people Meryl Streep’s character had unprotected sex with. All I can think about watching this movie is what an insane amount of brilliant pop songs these two Swedes wrote. No wonder Agnetha and Anni-Frid didn’t just join their band but also married them. These must be some special guys.
The fact that a small country like Sweden – today’s population is roughly 10.3 million – spawned a commercial juggernaut like ABBA is impressive enough, but what’s really interesting is that ABBA is just the biggest example of many Swedish artists, bands, songwriters who found success all over the world. Think of Roxette. Me just typing “Listen To Your Heart” will get that song stuck in my head for the rest of the day. You reading it will probably cause the same. You’re welcome. Think of Ace of Base. Europe (you know the “Final Countdown” guys). Cardigans. What all these examples have in common is a hyper focus on melody. Catchiness is what matters. The lyrics are mainly placeholders for the melodies. This makes complete sense to me. I grew up listening to English language music almost exclusively, but not being a native speaker, I had absolutely no clue what anybody was singing about. It made music a completely sonic experience to me. All that matters were the melodies, the riffs, the beats. All the emotions were transported to me unfiltered. I remember an assignment in fifth grade. We had to pick our favorite song and present it to the class – including the lyrics. This was the height of my Bon Jovi worship. Yes, I was absolutely obsessed with Bon Jovi at the time and I’m not ashamed to admit it. My wife and I have a theory. Anybody who doesn’t sing along when “Livin on a Prayer” comes on the radio probably doesn’t have a soul. Anyway. As much as I loved Bon Jovi, I had no clue what they were singing about. When I asked my teacher to translate the song I chose – I believe it was “Midnight in Chelsea” off Jon’s 1997 solo album - I was a bit nervous. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to know. Over the years, lyrics ended up playing a big part in accumulating my English vocabulary, but to this day, I can listen to music and completely ignore the lyrics. The sonic experience has always stayed number one for me. English not being their native language might have actually had a positive side effect for Swedish songwriters, commercially speaking. They often opt for very simple, easy to understand lyrics. By the second chorus you can’t help but singing along.
ABBA became superstars without being tabloid heroes. Especially, Björn and Benny stayed in the background and could probably walk around anywhere in the world without being recognized even though virtually everybody knows their songs. Max Martin took this to another level. You might have never heard of Max Martin, but I know you know countless of his songs. In fact, only John Lennon and Paul McCartney have songwriting credits on more No. 1 Billboard hits than him. He wrote songs for the Backstreet Boys, N’Sync, Britney Spears, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, the Weeknd – the list goes on. You see the same pattern when you listen to his songs. Melody first. Every song is built towards and around hooks and extremely effective. Only very few people have heard his singing voice and most claim it’s excellent, but he chose to write for other artists and stayed in the background. Essentially, the billboard charts have been dominated for two decades by cover versions of a Swedish guy barely known by anybody outside the music industry. He claims that he has to thank Sweden’s public music education programs for his success. Music – or art and culture in general – are often treated like the ugly step sisters in our education system. The cognitive and behavioral benefits attributed to music are often underrated if not overlooked completely. Sweden deems it important and not in an egalitarian way. They don’t try to bread hit makers, but actually believe that music can do good for children. The fact that Sweden has become a leading music export nation is only a nice side effect of the strong focus on music education early on.
The Swedish knack for melodies is so deeply rooted that even the really angry guys can’t help themselves. The country is one of death metal’s meccas. While early purveyors of the style pretty much abandoned melody altogether in pursuit of the heaviest sound possible, pretty soon certain bands allowed their classic heavy metal influences to shine through and they started combining the heaviness of death metal with melody. Often credited for popularizing that style are the “Gothenburg 3” – At the Gates, In Flames and Dark Tranquillity. In many ways these bands influenced what was tagged the New Wave of American Heavy Metal that saw bands like Killswitch Engage or Shadow’s Fall rise to fame in the 2000’s. Even black metal – initially a vessel for even more extreme music – got its melody treatment by Swedes first. Dissection will forever be the benchmark for melodic black metal. They were the first that combined icy tremolo riffs with maiden-esque melodies and influenced countless of bands. I can’t help picturing little Jon Nödtveidt in his childhood bedroom dancing to ABBA. What went wrong there? It seems like it can’t be a coincidence that it was Sweden that added melody to extreme metal.
There seems to be no end in sight for the Swedish music export phenomenon. ABBA’s ascent to the top of the pop world started almost 50 years ago and their countrymates are still churning out hit after hit. So much so that they finally decided to get back into the game again. After being offered ridiculous sums of money to reunite for decades they finally did it and recorded a new album in 2021. 40 years after the last one. It sold well, but what will always remain in the public consciousness are the many earworms they wrote and recorded during their heyday and they’re still gaining new fans, kids who were born long after they started their stream of unforgettable songs.