The winners take it all: How Scandipop took over the world

According to a recent report, Sweden is now the second biggest exporter of music after the US. Roisin O’Connor and Patrick Smith speak to producers and songwriters, from Sigrid and Dagny to Ryan Tedder, about the Abba effect and how the pop charts have gone full-on Scandimania

Wednesday 10 November 2021 14:47
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<p>Clockwise from left: Scandi stars Sigrid, Abba, Dagny and Robyn</p>

Clockwise from left: Scandi stars Sigrid, Abba, Dagny and Robyn

Every now and again, Scandipop has super-troopered its way into the global pop charts and stolen hearts with its sublime catchiness. There’s Abba, of course, but in recent years, the march on world domination has intensified. Cast your mind back to the heady days of 2017 and you couldn’t move for new Scandipop stars jostling for space: Sweden’s Zara Larsson and Tove Lo, Norway’s Sigrid, Denmark’s MØ among them. A year later, the high priestess of them all, Robyn, returned to claim her throne with her first album in almost a decade, Honey.

And that’s not counting the vast number of pop architects behind the scenes, in the studio. Fast forward to 2021 and a recent report by Export Music Sweden found that Sweden especially is now the second-highest exporter of music in the world, after the US and ahead of the UK. Songs that are written by Swedish songwriters and producers are considered Swedish in origin, and the report found that they are mostly played (27 per cent) in North America, suggesting that the pop charts are firmly in their glacial grip.

It’s no surprise, says Dagny, whose track “Love You Like That” was interpolated for Katy Perry’s comeback single “Never Really Over” in 2019. “We all love good choruses and catchy melodies, and that’s what Scandinavian songwriters and producers are known for and do really well.”

You only need to look to TikTok to see the evidence: among the biggest songs this year on the platform are “Mama Said” by Danish act Lukas Graham and “Stay” by Justin Bieber and The Kid Laroi (produced by Norway’s Cashmere Cat), while the high priest of contemporary Scandipop, Max Martin, has put his Midas touch on songs by Katy Perry (“Hot’n’Cold”) and the Weeknd (“Blinding Lights”), the latter being one of the earliest examples of a mainstream pop artist going TikTok viral. “Blinding Lights” was co-written with another Swede, Oscar Holter, who also has a credit on Charli XCX’s two-minute bop “Good Ones”. And that’s just the tip of the Scandipop iceberg over the past 12 months.

So adept are Scandis at crafting chart gold that even novelty or joke songs can turn into smashes, from Aqua’s “Barbie Girl” (1997) to Norwegian comedy duo Ylvis’s “What Does the Fox Say?” (produced by Stargate), which in 2013 became the highest-charting song by a Norwegian artist in the US since A-ha’s “Take On Me”. They also churn out more international DJ superstars than anywhere else: Swedish House Mafia, Todd Terje, Alan Walker, Kygo and the late Avicii. “The Swedes over-index on hits more than any country – they have the single most hits per capita of any country on earth by a landslide,” says One Republic frontman Ryan Tedder, a prolific pop songwriter himself for artists such as Adele, Beyoncé, Ed Sheeran, Camila Cabello and Swift. “It’s like Japan, which has more Michelin Star restaurants than any country on earth. I think the Swedes have done that with music.”

Trust Abba, then, to choose this fertile time to release their first new material in 40 years and remind everyone of the originators. At Eurovision 1974, the satin-clad foursome dazzled the world with their high-octane performance of “Waterloo”, setting Scandimania in motion. Their album Gold is the UK’s second best selling album of all time after Queen’s Greatest Hits, and recently became the first and only album to spend 1,000 weeks in the UK charts. “It starts there with ‘Waterloo’,” said Carl Magnus Palm, Swedish author of Abba biography Bright Lights, Dark Shadows, earlier this year. “We had talent here, but I don’t think anyone else had the same level of ambition.”

Such is their vast legacy, the group has continued to inform the structure and style of Scandi pop music ever since. “I think a lot of Scandipop writing techniques originate from picking apart Abba songs,” says Dagny. And sometimes that’s subconscious, sometimes not, says Oslo-based singer Anna of the North: “I must’ve heard all their songs a million times, so it’s impossible for me not to be inspired by them. Somewhere in my head there’s a bank of all the melodies I’ve heard in my life. They are all a tiny little part of the music I make today.”

Sigrid is one of Norway’s biggest breakout successes, having won the BBC Sound of 2018 poll and gone on to score a top four album in the UK. She says that part of Abba’s alchemy is down to their music’s element of surprise. “Their hooks, their prog way of songwriting… you never know what’s lurking behind the next corner, you don’t expect the next chord progression,” she explains to The Independent at Norway’s by:Larm music festival. “And they can make a complicated theoretical concept sound easy – that’s pop magic!”

A lot of that pop magic has since come to be underscored by Max Martin, one of the world’s leading music producers. He helped to define Y2K pop, working on hits such as Britney’s “…Baby One More Time” and Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way”, then some of the biggest pop singles the next decade, from Katy Perry’s “I Kissed A Girl” to Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off”. His reign continues to this day: he has the third-most No 1 singles in the US, behind only Paul McCartney and John Lennon. But his sound is also inextricable from Scandipop’s history. The New Yorker journalist and author John Seabrook defined “the Max Martin sound” as “Abba’s pop chords and textures, Denniz Pop’s song structure and dynamics, Eighties arena rock’s big choruses, and Nineties American R&B grooves”.

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Max Martin (left) with Justin Timberlake and producer Shellback at the Grammy Awards

The late Denniz Pop was a key architect of the Scandipop sound but is, perhaps, lesser known than those he mentored. He founded Cheiron Studios with Tom Talomaa in Stockholm in 1992 and employed a young Martin to work there a year later. In a remarkably short space of time (he died aged 35 from stomach cancer in 1998), Pop had engineered the sound of Nineties pop, working with artists like N Sync, Robyn, Ace of Base and 5ive. “I started paying attention to who wrote the hits I was listening to around 1994-5,” says Tedder. “I became obsessed with that [songwriting] and thinking that’s the greatest job on earth. That led me some years later to Denniz Pop, who discovered and trained Max Martin, Rami Yacoub and that whole squad. He’s the father of that whole Swedish sound.”

Indeed, it’s hard to think of a music A-lister whose work, at one point or another, hasn’t been sprinkled by some Scandi magic dust. Move into R&B and hip-hop territory too and some of the big players are LA-based Norwegian duo Stargate, aka Tor E Hermansen and Mikkel S Eriksen. Coincidentally, they were born the same year Abba formed in 1972. Stargate broke into the UK music industry via their work with British Nineties pop acts such as S Club 7, Blue and Atomic Kitten, but they also helped launch London R&B group Mis-Teeq, who achieved a US Top 10 with “Scandalous”. The Nords now have a formidable list of collaborations to their name, including Mariah Carey, Beyoncé, Rihanna, Jennifer Lopez, Janet Jackson, Sam Smith and Whitney Houston. They’re as focused on creating ear-worms as their pop peers: “We make sure there’s a lot of melody in the track, so it can inspire the writer,” they said in 2019. “We often tweak and simplify the song, and never quit before we feel we’ve got a killer hook.”

That approach has certainly helped in the streaming era. Critics have bemoaned how the supposed dwindling attention spans of younger generations has led to a demand for multiple hooks littered through shorter songs. “You need a new high every seven seconds – the average length of time a listener will give a radio station before changing the channel,” a 2015 article in The Atlantic grumbled. But clearly it’s been working in Scandi producers and songwriters’ favour, considering their collectively huge success on platforms like TikTok, where short snippets can make a song massive. Dagny agrees that Scandipop has got the right ingredients for a streaming success, and that catchiness is everything. “I think how the words scan to the melody is almost more important than the actual meaning,” she explains. “We also naturally have a more ‘straight to the point, no bulls***’ kind of attitude in general, which helps when writing three-minute pop songs! No wait, are we down to two minutes 30 seconds now...?”

That “no bulls***” ability could also have something to do with the fact that Scandi songwriters are working in their second or even third language, not their first. “English is my second language, so I tend to think of melody before lyrics,” Sigrid agrees. “That just comes more naturally to me, and that’s how I found my way into writing when I was about 16. I didn’t know how to express myself properly in English yet, and I didn’t like singing in Norwegian, so I’d print out the lyrics of my favourite Coldplay song and make a new melody [for them]. Then I’d slowly transition into writing lyrics myself.” Listen to songs by Abba or Robyn and it’s clear that lyrical simplicity plays a huge role in the way they manage to encapsulate universal feelings of love, heartbreak or loneliness, juxtaposed against a pulsating beat and uplifting melody. The words tend to evoke fragmented images, as heard in Robyn’s 2010 classic “Dancing on My Own”: “I’m in the corner, watching you kiss her, ooh/ I’m right over here, why can’t you see me? Ooh.”

Queen of Scandipop: Robyn performing in Indio, California, 2011

“Dancing on my Own” has since become a crucial touchstone for Scandinavian songwriting and the archetype of what’s been dubbed the “sad banger”. “Scandipop is perfectly captured by Robyn – that picture of someone sobbing on the dance floor while dancing their heart out,” says Dagny. “It feels sparkly, raw, cold, inclusive, lonely and eternally hopeful all at the same time.” While Dagny herself doesn’t feel beholden to the style when she’s writing new material, she maintains that Scandipop’s trademark characteristic is of “hopeful melancholy”, a perfect tension between happy and sad.

But there are other factors at play in shaping the Scandi sound. Sigrid is convinced that the dramatic, beautiful landscapes of her country are one reason for her music’s intensity. “It puts you in the mood when it’s pouring down outside, the wind is howling through the trees and you have these mountains rising up to the sky from the deep fjords,” she says. “It’s like a very dramatic pop chorus.” Like Dagny, Sigrid seeks to create a contrast in her writing, influenced by her hometown of Ålesund, which can experience sunshine, snow and torrential downpours in a single day. “I don’t want it to be happy the whole way through,” she says. “There needs to be some resistance in there, somewhere.”

How do Scandinavian songwriters get this good, on a global scale? “We Scandinavians might have a bit of what I call ‘the small country mentality’, the underdogs who want to go out in the world and conquer a bigger territory,” says Kate Havnevik, a Norwegian film composer and singer-songwriter whose work has been featured in soundtracks for Grey’s Anatomy, The OC and The West Wing. “Go to the UK, go to the US, have a No 1 song and come home a success.” While the UK and US music industries might have bigger resources, she believes the Scandi approach is more authentic. “If you look at artists like Aurora, Sigrid, Robyn… they are very true to themselves, very involved in their own songwriting and quite natural,” she says. “That translates well to international markets.”

Sigrid: ‘It puts you in the mood [for songwriting] when it’s pouring down outside, the wind is howling through the trees and you have these mountains rising up to the sky from the deep fjords’

Havnevik and Tedder also agree that it’s also the lasting influence of old Scandinavian folk music traditions, which have trickled down into Scandipop writing, that help to bring something unique when Scandinavians are working in American pop studios. “We come from a culture of strong clear melodies – even our folk music and dance with the Hardanger fiddle,” Havnevik says. Tedder points out that the scales favoured by Scandi songwriters and artists are “inherent to their history and often more interesting than American-based scales,” leading to “a perfect storm of unique, innovative music”.

Tedder also wonders whether their socialist way of songwriting has something to do with Scandi success. “Layered in is the idea of collaboration and a lack of ego,” he says about the way it works in the studio. “The American way of approaching songwriting is, ‘Nope, just me! I’m gonna do it, watch me do it!’ Even a lot of my first hits were 100 per cent me, because I came up under the school of [Grammy-winning ballad writer] Diane Warren. The Swedes are like, ‘Let’s put four or five writers in the same room, chipping away at the same song, until it’s perfect. There’s strength in numbers, which is why I think they’ve dominated the charts for so long.”

But another clear reason for this influx of talent is how arts are championed and funded, particularly in Sweden and Norway. Last year, the Norwegian government proposed to increase the budget set aside for state artists’ grants by NOK 100 million (£8.7m). In September, Sweden laid out plans for a SEK 200 million (£17.2m) annual increase in funding for music and arts schools from 2023 onwards. It’s in stark contrast to the UK, where many schools have dropped arts subjects completely due to a lack of funding. “Education is hyper-focused on music in Swedish secondary education,” Tedder observes. “Everyone goes through a much more exhaustive immersion in music than they do in the States or the UK, or anywhere else.”

Dagny’s song ‘Love You Like That’ was interpolated for Katy Perry’s comeback hit, ‘Never Really Over’

Erlend Buflaten, CEO and co-founder of the Oslo/London-based Propeller Management, explains that many of those Scandi artists, writers and producers present on the UK charts were taught how to play instruments from a young age, either at after-school clubs or their local Kulturskole (literally “culture school”), a scheme offered by most Swedish and Norwegian municipalities. Buflaten, who manages Grammy-nominated, multibillion-streaming artists including Seeb, Thomas Kongshavn and SIVV, says this, together with the government’s generous support of arts, makes it possible to pursue a career in music despite Norway’s relatively small industry.

Abba may have returned in time for the festive season, but it’s this hugely supportive framework that means the charts will continue to be ruled by Scandis long after Christmas. Adele, known for her blue-eyed soul and magnificent torch songs, has collaborated with Max Martin and Shellback on songs from her forthcoming album 30. The latter pair are also credited on Taylor Swift’s re-recording of Red on 19 November, while Norwegian duo Electric feature on Little Mix’s greatest hits album, Between Us, that same week. Scandipop’s hometown glory has spread far and wide – and perhaps it won’t be long till Sweden knocks the US off the top music-exporting spot. “I think it’s amazing that so many Scandinavians are able to succeed,” says Dagny. “Long may it continue.”

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