Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Fembots, dancing queens, and love fools: 60 minutes of Swedish pop

Fembots, dancing queens, and love fools: 60 minutes of Swedish pop

Photo: Neneh Cherry (Gie Knaeps/Getty Images), ABBA (David Redfern/Redferns/Getty Images), Robyn (Honey album cover), The Cardigans (Mick Hutson/Redferns/Getty Images), Lykke Li (Xavi Torrent/WireImage/Getty Images), Graphic: Natalie Peeples
Power HourPower HourPower Hour creates one tight 60-minute set from a musician’s discography or a genre, picking both big hits and deeper cuts.

A 2013 article in The Atlantic asked a very good, non-rhetorical question: “Why is Sweden so good at pop music?” The fascinating article outlined some potential answers—prioritization of melodies, government support of artistic endeavors, a supportive community, embrace of cutting-edge technology and sounds—but missed one intriguing point: Swedish pop is far less beholden to rigid stereotypes than other types of pop music. Certainly there are some no-brainer artists that fit the Swedish pop bill, like Robyn, ABBA, Ace Of Base, and Roxette. But in general, trying to define who or what exactly embodies “Swedish pop” is an impossible task.

That’s largely because the genre’s practitioners relish blurring traditional genre boundaries. Rock ’n’ roll bands incorporate keyboards as enthusiastically as they do guitars. Indie acts dabble with electro beats or R&B-inspired harmonies. Folk acts apply lush production techniques to sparse songs. And pop bands draw from sleek, futuristic sounds as often as they do retro flourishes.

Why is there so much subtle diversity? For a few clues, consider Max Martin, the producer and songwriter who orchestrated the sound of the teen-pop boom with Britney Spears and ’N Sync, and then kept on churning out hits in the ’00s alongside Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, and Pink. Martin honed his production craft at the legendary Cheiron Studios with the late Denniz PoP—who himself molded Ace Of Base—but cut his musical teeth in a far different place: the glammy funk-rock band It’s Alive. Frequent Martin sidekick Shellback, meanwhile, started out in the country’s thriving melodic death metal scene, and co-produced two songs on Refused’s comeback album, Freedom. Of course, Martin’s impressive track record has also led to hand-wringing that his descendants are making pop radio sound formulaic, even if he himself keeps up with changing trends.

But from the top on down, Swedish pop doesn’t necessarily have a severe pop-vs.-rock divide—or at least the kind of contentious divide that tends to dominate American critical discourse. This freedom is evident in the eclectic indie-pop, shimmering disco, and subversive synth pop found in the 60-minute playlist below, across which you’re likely to be moved to dance-floor breakdowns, romantic swoons, and rushes of sugar-coated nostalgia.

Blue Swede, “Hooked On A Feeling” (1974)

For Ally McBeal, Blue Swede’s “Hooked On A Feeling”—the first No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 by a Swedish artist—was the stuff of nightmares. The song’s primal, ooga-chaka-ooga-chaka opening would play every time the 3D hologram of a gyrating baby appeared, a reminder of the character’s childless state. However, “Hooked On A Feeling,” which was written by the same songwriter that penned the Elvis Presley classic “Suspicious Minds,” is really an exuberant love song with full-bloom tropical horns, a robust lead vocal, and irresistible appeal. Chris Pratt even took a laser-tase in Guardians Of The Galaxy while defending the song to a captor.

ABBA, “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)(1979) 

ABBA—Swedish musical royalty who established the country’s pop bona fides on a global scale with the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest winner “Waterloo”—are notoriously reluctant to approve sampling requests, although the trilling synth hook of the desire-filled “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)” serves as the source material for Madonna’s space-age pop stomp “Hung Up.” It was a genius move: This glittery disco song wasn’t the quartet’s biggest hit, but its individual moments—pulsating rhythms, twirling strings, a nasty funk bass—create dance-floor ecstasy.

Frida, “I Know There’s Something Going On” (1982)

As ABBA was winding down, Anni-Frid Lyngstad (a.k.a. Frida) stepped out solo with a song exhibiting a completely different sound: “I Know There’s Something Going On,” a paranoid, funereal synth-pop march. Produced by Phil Collins—who also adds his usual monstrous drums and hollowed-out backing harmonies—the song accordingly features a narrator who wants their dishonest, distant significant other to stop toying with their emotions and leave already.

Roxette, “The Look” (1988)

Until Ace Of Base came around, Roxette was the most successful Swedish top 40 pop act in America. The duo—vocalist-keyboardist Marie Fredriksson and vocalist-guitarist Per Gessle—racked up four No. 1 hits by 1991, starting with “The Look,” a slick composition inspired by ZZ Top’s ’80s approach that indeed splits the difference between sugary pop-metal and funky blues-rock.

Neneh Cherry, “Buffalo Stance” (1988)

Neneh Cherry topped the Swedish pop charts and Billboard dance charts with her debut single, the unstoppable, electro-hip-hop hybrid “Buffalo Stance.” With smart samples (Malcolm McLaren’s “Buffalo Gals,” Rock Steady Crew’s “Hey You”) and swaggering production from Bomb The Bass—not to mention fiercely feminist lyrics that demand respect and assert independence—“Buffalo Stance” remains one of the best singles of the ’80s. Cherry has been a major influence on Robyn and countless other genre-blurring pop singers, and she continues to create innovative music, in recent years working with artists like The Thing, Four Tet, and Dev Hynes.

Ace Of Base, “The Sign” (1993)

The title track of the group’s blockbuster American album is full of cheerful shade—“Life is demanding without understanding,” is sung in the direction of an ex—and expressions of wonder for a glorious new life with someone new. Co-produced by Denniz PoP and Ace Of Base’s Jonas Berggren (a.k.a. Joker), “The Sign” combines a breezy reggae vibe with pristine, early ’90s Europop. Yet the song works just as well without the gloss—as evidenced by the Mountain Goats’ passionate, stripped-down version.

The Wannadies, “You & Me Song” (1994)

William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet: Music From The Motion Picture remains one of the best soundtracks of the ’90s—and although Garbage’s “#1 Crush” and the Cardigans’ “Lovefool” (rightfully) receive most of the attention, The Wannadies’ effervescent, bossa nova-flecked indie-pop mash note also deserves plenty of love.

The Cardigans, “Erase/Rewind” (1998)

Anyone who only knew the Cardigans from the giddy “Lovefool” may have been shocked by this sinewy, electronic mood piece from the band’s 1998 effort Gran Turismo. However, the song ranks among their best work: Nina Persson coolly informs someone that terms have changed (“Yes, I said it’s fine before / But I don’t think so no more”) and asserts her right for take-backs. Fun fact: Cardigans guitarist Peter Svensson is now a decorated pop songwriter who co-wrote the Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face” and Carly Rae Jepsen’s “I Really Like You.”

A*Teens, “Bouncing Off The Ceiling (Upside Down)” (2000)

As their name implies, the A*Teens started off strictly as an adolescent ABBA tribute band. Naturally, the group also found its first worldwide success with an album of ABBA covers. However, as the teen-pop trend ramped up, the group quickly diversified into originals—and emerged with the massive Swedish hit “Bouncing Off The Ceiling (Upside Down),” a Spice Girls-indebted pop confection overflowing with squeaky-clean sass.

Play, “Us Against The World” (2001)

The Swedish teen-pop group had its day in the sun in the early ’00s thanks to “Us Against The World,” a harmony-heavy, bubblegum-R&B-pop tune that presaged the empowerment-pop boom popularized by Katy Perry and Taylor Swift by well over a decade. In addition to appearing on Play’s self-titled U.S. EP, the song also featured on the Lizzie McGuire soundtrack and in the Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen flick Holiday In The Sun. Play itself, meanwhile, opened for Destiny’s Child and Aaron Carter.

The Knife, “Heartbeats” (2002)

During their decade-plus collaboration as The Knife, siblings Karin and Olof Dreijer self-released music via their Rabid Records imprint, which gave them unfettered freedom to create boundary-jarring electronic music. “Heartbeats” represents one of the duo’s most accessible moments, famously made even more immediate by Gothenburg native José González’s trembling acoustic version. But the original composition has its own askew allure: Karin Dreijer drawls lyrics that convey vivid images of love’s first blush (“Ten days of perfect tunes / The colors red and blue”) over slow-motion synth melodies and sophisticated, blocky rhythms. The song distills decades of electronic experimentation into a wildly inventive pop package, an irreverent approach that lives on in Karin Dreijer’s solo work as Fever Ray.

The Concretes, “You Can’t Hurry Love” (2003)

Few bands embodied the ’00s indie-pop boom better than the Concretes, who ticked all of the genre’s whimsy boxes: retro-sounding organ, ’60s garage-pop guitars, triumphant horns, and twee harmonies. Throw in generous, antique-sounding vocals from Victoria Bergsman, who implores the titular phrase with slight resignation, and the result is perfect pop.

Robyn, “Who’s That Girl?” (2005)

Robyn spent much of the early ’00s fighting with her then-label over musical direction. When she re-emerged in 2005 with a self-titled album on her own imprint, it was clear her career was now unfolding on her own terms. Produced by (and co-written with) The Knife, the rubber-ball-lithe electro-pop anthem “Who’s That Girl?” challenges gender expectations—Robyn asks a boyfriend to switch places with her and then asks, “Would you love me any different?”—and expresses frustration about unrealistic pressures on women. In the end, however, she asserts her agency: “Good girls are sexy, like every day / I’m only sexy when I say it’s okay.”

Lykke Li, “I Follow Rivers” (2011)

Although Lykke Li’s recent work, like this year’s So Sad So Sexy, has hewed more to the mainstream pop side, her work in the early-2010s shared DNA with the darker side of Swedish production. Produced by Peter Bjorn And John’s Björn Yttling, the dusky “I Follow Rivers” feels like the soundtrack to a Brothers Grimm fairy tale, with gothic-electro beats and a Depeche Mode-caliber vibe boosting Lykke Li’s soul-seared vocals.

Icona Pop featuring Charli XCX, “I Love It” (2012)

Stockholm duo Icona Pop never quite figured out a way to follow up the smash “I Love It,” though they have had two additional Billboard dance chart No. 1’s since. However, that doesn’t take anything away from this throbbing techno-pop steamroller—an anthem to both burning literal bridges over an ex and telling off a significant other who wants to change you: “You’re from the ’70s, but I’m a ’90s bitch.”

Swedish House Mafia, “Don’t You Worry Child” (2012)

A bevy of Swedish DJs and producers—including Eric Prydz, Axwell & Ingrosso, Alesso, and the late Avicii—all played a huge part in the global rise of EDM. Perhaps the biggest electro export of them all was (appropriately) the formidable trio Swedish House Mafia. The group crossed over into the pop realm with the Grammy-nominated, No. 1 dance chart hit “Don’t You Worry Child,” a house anthem matching weary vocals from Swedish singer John Martin with introspective synthwork.

Little Dragon, “Paris” (2014)

Gothenburg’s Little Dragon somehow remains one of the most underrated Swedish bands, even though the Yukimi Nagano-led group has spent the last decade releasing album after album of emotionally probing electronic music. “Paris” is an insistent, Prince-style electro-R&B song featuring a lithe, expressive performance from Nagano. Lyrically, however, the song captures the complexity of getting over an ex. One minute the narrator is ready to “look ahead”; the next, they’re ready to book a flight to the titular city, perhaps to try to get some closure: “Remember it was Paris you said we were gonna meet / Why your answering machine still on?”

Cleveland-based writer seen in many places. Fond of dusty record stores, good sushi and R.E.M.