Sweden can seem to liberal Americans like a social-democratic paradise. Were it not for work and family obligations, the land of universal health care, free college tuition, and 480 days paid parental leave might make a decent place to recline on a Söderhamn and ride out a hypothetical Trump presidency. And Swedish pop, from Abba to Ace of Bass to everything Max Martin touches, can sound like an outpouring of pure sonic joy from Nordic utopia.
What Swedish pop is not necessarily known for is protest songs. All that wealth, all those services, all those fjords: What’s a Swede got to complain about? A new album by Swedish indie pop duo The Radio Dept., Running Out of Love, has some suggestions, including xenophobia, police brutality, and shady arms dealings. The work is a collection of dreamy dance tunes that confronts what its creators see as the darker side of the Scandinavian nation.
If the medium is incongruous with the subject matter, the political conditions that produced both are also unusual. “We’re not close to an election at all,” said Radio Dept. frontman and primary songwriter Johan Duncanson on a recent afternoon in New York City, where he and his bandmate Martin Carlberg were doing a day of press. “But I can’t remember a time when there’s been so much talk about politics.”
This is largely due to immigration. In 2015, as refugees from Syria and Iraq poured into Europe, Sweden took in 163,000 asylum-seekers—more per capita than any other country in the EU. The policy is expected to cost the national government some $7 billion this year, according to the Swedish Migration Agency. And the circumstances have helped fuel the rise of the Sweden Democrats, a right-wing party that’s transcended its neo-fascist roots to become an influential player in national affairs. Party members have said the surge in migration has stressed the economy and led to an erosion of national identity. The party’s website describes “multiculturalism” as a misguided ideology that creates “division and segregation where culture clashes occur.”
Following a string of highly publicized sexual assault cases—including one involving dozens of women at a pair of music festivals in July—some have blamed Middle Eastern newcomers for a supposed increase such crimes. The Stockholm University professor of criminology Jerzy Sarnecki has called that characterization “a very, very extreme exaggeration based on a few isolated events, and the claim that it’s related to immigration is more or less not true at all.” Official statistics don’t give the ethnicity of criminal suspects, but the Swedish Crime Survey has reported that the number of sexual offenses reported to police actually decreased in 2015—the same year the country saw a record-breaking influx of asylum-seekers—compared to the previous year.
Earlier this year, Sweden implemented tougher border controls, such as requiring travelers from Denmark to show photo ID, but the Sweden Democrats advocate going further. The party has proposed cutting the number of refugees accepted annually to zero—a proposal that party leader Jimmie Åkesson believes will earn his party 20 to 25 percent of the vote when Swedes next go to the polls in 2018, up from nearly 14 percent in 2014. It could well happen. A 2015 survey suggests that more than half of Swedes want the country to take in fewer refugees, and recent polling gave Sweden Democrats 17 percent of the vote. “We are still the party which has most credibility in immigration policy,” Åkesson has said. “The other parties have confirmed our views. We were right and the voters see that.”
With its new album, The Radio Dept. is in a sense responding to sentiments like this. “It’s a big country—we’ve got room, and it’s not like we’d have less to share,” said Duncanson, a soft-spoken singer, multi-instrumentalist, and producer who founded the band with Carlberg back in 2001. Over the years, Duncanson’s songwriting has become increasingly political, and Running Out of Love shows it. He doesn’t think Sweden should put limits on the number of asylum-seekers it accepts, for reasons he describes as “simple math.” “If there’s a lot of people, there will be reasons to open more shops, and that’s jobs for people,” he said. “These aren’t unsolvable problems.”
Duncanson admitted, though, that there are costs. James Traub of Foreign Policy has reported that next year, Sweden is expected to spend 7 percent of its $100 billion annual budget paying for refugees. After eight years of tax cuts under the conservative government of prime minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, who served from 2006 to 2014 and incurred the wrath of The Radio Dept. on their 2009 track “Freddie and the Trojan Horse,” Duncanson and Carlberg believe the country could easily pay for the influx by raising taxes. Sweden’s tax-to-GDP ratio, the amount of revenue it collects from citizens relative to the country’s overall economic activity, is already well above the OECD average. But a recent Ipsos poll of 25 countries found Sweden “the second least tax-anxious country of all the nations polled,” in the words of The Local news site, with only 9 percent of Swedes listing taxes among their top three most worrying national issues. (Immigration control was among the top concerns, however.)
“We have this mental image that we pay a lot of taxes, and we don’t,” Carlberg said. “It’s not weird the schools aren’t working and the hospitals aren’t what they should be. It becomes the immigrants’ fault. It’s so easy it’s insulting.” Duncanson tried to shift the conversation from short-term finances. “People are fleeing for their lives,” he said. “The fact is that in the long term, countries that accept immigrants benefit from it. It takes time, but it pays off.”
Time—and the lack thereof—is a key theme on Running Out of Love, the follow-up to the band’s critically loved 2010 album Clinging to a Scheme. “When ‘out of patience’ is your constant state of mind / crashing down/ like rain on steel,” Duncanson sings on the new album’s leadoff track, “Slobada Narodu.” The song is a bongo-laced groover whose title references the famous last words of Yugoslav partisan hero Stjepan Filipović, right before he was executed by Nazis in 1942: “Death to fascism, freedom to the people.” The reference to “fascists” is a loaded one, but it’s not beyond the pale of Sweden’s current political discourse. The prime minister, Stefan Lofven of the center-left Social Democrats, has called the Sweden Democrats “neo-fascist,” prompting demands for an apology from the party.
“There was a lot of stigma around being right wing, or ultra right wing, in Sweden for a long time,” Duncanson said. “But it’s been pushed away in the last six or seven years. It’s gone very fast.” Carlberg said it was “very weird” to hear the kind of language now being used by the Sweden Democrats and their supporters. Last September, as refugees crossed over the Öresund Bridge from Denmark, a local Sweden Democrat councilwoman tweeted, “Can’t someone go stand on the bridge with a machine gun?” She lost her job. “Every time they do something really outrageous, we say, ‘OK, now things are going to change,’” Duncanson said. He compared the vicious rhetoric to the American presidential candidate Donald Trump’s assertion that he could shoot someone and not lose any votes.
The subject of violence against civilians comes up on “We Got Game,” a lively house jam with some chilling lyrics: “Jumpcut / Horses / Riots / Is it true? / Laser beam / Swat team / Not a dream.” Duncanson said the lyrics were inspired by several incidents, including one in the Stockholm suburb of Husby in 2013, when police shot and killed a foreign-born elderly man who was brandishing a machete. Residents of the largely immigrant community started torching cars, touching off similar discord in other cities. Another source of inspiration was a clash between horse-mounted police and protesters at a neo-Nazi rally in Malmo in 2014. Ten people were injured after police rode into the crowd.
The song is also referring to the ugliness of the early 1990s, when the war in Bosnia brought waves of refugees to Sweden and sparked debates over immigration similar to today’s. Back then, a right-wing populist party called New Democracy was gaining strength, and that sent counter-demonstrators into the streets, sometimes at their own peril. As a kid, Duncanson watched the riots on TV, and they had a profound effect on his politics. “I remember the police cutting down protesters,” he said. “It didn’t make any sense to me. I think the police force in every country across the world has this problem.”
The Radio Dept. also worries about how Sweden might indirectly be exporting violence to other countries. In 2014, Sweden was the third-largest weapons exporter per capita in the world, after Russia and Israel. Hence the song “Swedish Guns,” a strident reggae-tinged banger that’s about as subtle as an uzi: “If you want something done / Get Swedish guns / Take care of someone / Get Swedish guns.”
One nation that tried to get its hands on Swedish guns—anti-tank weapons, actually—was Saudi Arabia. When news broke in 2012 that Sweden was going to help the decidedly undemocratic nation build a weapons plant, Defense Minister Sten Tolgfors was forced to step down. “There were a lot of people defending it,” Duncanson said of the plan. “A lot of people think we might as well sell guns and weapons and planes to other countries, as long as we’re benefiting from it. That’s a pretty common way of looking at it.”
Last year, a cross-party Swedish government commission proposed implementing a “democracy criterion” for Swedish weapons sales. The move would be the first of its kind in the world and prevent corporations like Saab—which sold Saudi Arabia its Erieye airborne surveillance system—from doing business with human-rights violators. The kingdom could qualify: A report last year by the Human Rights Watch charged Saudi Arabia with discriminating against women and religious minorities and jailing activists and political dissidents “solely on account of their peaceful activities,” among other infractions. But Duncanson isn’t hopeful. “As long as the media only talks about the Sweden Democrats, which they do, it’s unlikely,” he said. He blames news outlets for focusing on the immigration debate at the expense of other issues.
Running Out of Love ends on a note that could sound either hopeful or ominous. “Committed to the Cause” is a tropical-flavored ‘90s house throwback whose lyrics about political true believers (“no they’re never gonna give it up”) could apply to both Sweden Democrats and the more multiculturally minded liberals aligning against them. With elections two years off, the battle between those sides could shape the nation’s future—especially with Sweden Democrats leaders praising Britain’s decision to leave the EU and threatening to bring the term “Swexit” into the popular lexicon.
“I used to think, naively, it couldn’t happen here,” Duncanson says. “I’m starting to realize really anything can happen. That’s a scary thought.”