Why Is Sweden So Good at Pop Music?

Reading the scholarly literature in honor of an Ace of Base anniversary

Exactly 20 years ago, a co-ed quartet from Sweden called Ace of Base released “The Sign,” the fourth single off their multiplatinum debut album. It took Americans a few months to open up their eyes and see the sign themselves—the track didn’t top the Billboard charts until the following year, when it was released in the U.S.—but the song has become the band’s most enduring legacy, and it remains compelling evidence that Swedish people are great at writing catchy pop songs. 

From Abba to Icona Pop, from Roxette to Robyn, Sweden’s reputation for pop superiority has spanned decades, and it continues today. But the arrival of Ace of Base helped usher in the “Swedish Music Miracle,” a period of time from about 1990 to 2003 when Sweden’s musical exports were at their economic peak. A 1999 report from Sweden’s Ministry of Finance found that royalty payments to Sweden from foreign markets were twice the U.S. per capita figure. Today, according to other reports, Sweden is the third-largest music exporter in the world behind the U.S. and the UK. In 2003, Swedish music exports began to decline, but behind the scenes, the country’s pop talent has remained active: In May of 2012, half of the top 10 songs on the Billboard Hot 100 were written or produced by Swedes.

What accounts for this miracle? According to Swedish academic Ola Johansson, it’s not biology, and it’s not the country’s cold climate, either—claiming Swedes make great music because they’re indoors all the time is like saying Seattle in the 1990s was only an alternative rock hotspot because of the rain.

For a 2010 article in the peer-reviewed journal FOCUS on Geography, Johansson examined the scholarly literature about Sweden’s economy, politics, and geography to develop eight theories behind his country’s hits.

Sweden Loves Its Role Models
In the 1970s, tennis player Björn Borg and alpine skier Ingemar Stenmark rose to international prominence as Swedish athletes, inspiring unprecedented numbers of Swedes to take up those sports themselves. Johansson suggests the same could have very well been true for music: After Abba’s early breakthroughs, more Swedes made plays for global pop success.

One critique of this theory identifies the lag time between Abba’s initial popularity and the next Swedish mega-hit, Europe’s “The Final Countdown,” which topped charts in a dozen countries more than a decade after Abba first got big. But Johansson argues that developing a country’s music industry takes time, and there’s evidence that the Abba operation played a key role in maturing Sweden’s pop-music community. He cites a Swedish-language paper from 2004 that credits Abba’s manager, Stikkan Anderson—who hired mostly Swedish staffers to help produce the band’s music, videos, and tours—with incubating Sweden’s music industry personnel. Other studies claim Abba’s simple, almost nursery-rhyme-like melodies and lighter, vocal-heavy production—in contrast to English and American pop music’s bass- and drum-heavy styles—pioneered an influential, region-less sound easily appreciated by foreign countries.

They Speak English Well
A European Union report from 2008 noted that 89 percent of Sweden can speak English, the highest proficiency rate among European countries where English is not a native language. Linguistically, English, like Swedish, is a Germanic language, which makes it relatively easy to pick up. Culturally, Sweden is quite cosmopolitan and welcoming to foreign cultures, lacking the kind of language purism countries such as France have become known for. The result, Johansson suggests, is a mastery of the nuances and emotional subtleties of English among Swedish artists—which makes sense if you’ve ever heard Robyn’s many evocative tales of heartbreak.

The language proficiency theory has plenty of exceptions, though. Roxette, Jens Lekman, and the Cardigans have all written lyrics that seem like they couldn’t have come from a native English speaker, and if you’re familiar with Ace of Base deep cuts, you know that some of their lyrics can actually read like @Horse_ebooks tweets. Even founding Ace of Base band member Ulf Ekberg dismissed the role of lyrics in explaining Sweden’s success. As he told newspaper The National in 2011:

“For Sweden [melody is] number one and has always been,” he says. “While the Americans, it’s the lyrics first, production second and melody last. I am not saying the lyrics are not important, but for us Swedes, for whom English is our second language, we just try to make it understood by a world audience. Because of this focus on lyrics, some of the American songs are complicated and can sometimes be not much fun. While for us, we always try to reach to as many people as we can, so we have feel-good melodies and simple lyrics so everyone can have fun.”

Sweden Keeps With the Latest Trends
Economic geographers have long identified Sweden as an early and successful adopter of new technology and business models. In the case of H&M and Ikea, fashionably affordable clothing and cheap, modern furniture aren’t exactly Swedish innovations, but those two companies have become some of Sweden’s most famous brands. Pandora Internet radio got its start in the Bay Area, but that didn’t stop Spotify, founded by Daniel Ek in Stockholm in 2006, from joining the forefront of streaming services.

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Nolan Feeney is a former producer for TheAtlantic.com.

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