Flat Pack Pop: Sweden’s Music Miracle (BBC4 2019) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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This week I learnt a new expression – “Jante Law”. It is a Swedish term for something which is deep within their psyche and may be something of an eye-opener to us more selfish nations. Jante Law is the putting ahead of society before the individual, which means that any boasting of achievements or jealousy of those of others risk social disapprobation. This actually explained a lot to me about Sweden’s role in popular culture- why some members of Abba at the height of their fame became reclusive, and why some still are decades later, why even the choosing of a Eurovision entrant is done so widely and methodically (rather than our pick any three songs and get the public to vote on them approach) and with reference to this documentary why we know so little of the huge role that Sweden has played in popular music history over the last 30 years, with one producer and songwriter, Max Martin, now only behind Lennon and McCartney as the most successful songwriter of all time.

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Max Martin

The suitably reticent Mr Martin did not want to be interviewed for this, he wanted just his music to tell a story for him but presenter and music journalist James Ballardie found others prepared to do so to put together this story of a musical phenomenon in a fascinating one hour documentary. It is the story of how Sweden became the biggest exporter of pop music per capita of anywhere in the world.

The history does not begin with Martin but with another even more significant figure who was equally happy to be seen as just a backroom boy. This was Dag Volle, a club DJ from 1980’s Swedish clubland mecca “The Ritz” who began remixing US club hits to appeal more to Scandinavian tastes. Volle’s love for this type of music led to the name change of Denniz PoP, who after successful remixing of tracks by others sought to achieve the perfect pop record himself.

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Denniz PoP

We learnt how serendipity played its part when a tape sent to him by an aspiring Swedish foursome, along the lines of Abba, got stuck in his car cassette player blasting out the same song every time he used the car. This group was Ace Of Base and the track was reworked eventually to become “All That She Wants” – a global hit which topped the UK charts and got to number 2 Stateside. Just before that PoP’s name was established on European and worldwide charts through his work with a Nigerian dentist and wannabe rapper living in Sweden, Dr Alban and his “It’s My Life” track which topped charts all over Europe and got to number 2 in the UK in 1992.

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From then on things moved quickly. PoP developed a clear musical doctrine, opened Cheiron studios and enlisted a group of writers “moulded in his image” to produce the perfect pop sound. I’d found myself researching these just a couple of posts ago when I was reviewing Will Young’s debut as part of my Essential CD Collection and they were fresh in my mind when I watched this. If there was one special protégé that was Max Martin, lifted from heavy metal group “It’s Alive” whose love for more melodic sounds than he was making led to PoP seeing him as a kindred spirit.

We met other member of the team who also produced hits by the bucket-load for the company- Andres Carlsson, Stonebridge, Herbie Crichelow and jingle writer Jorgen Elofsson amongst them who shared how this magical formula worked. The fascinating thing was that the blueprint was always Abba, showing the integral part the foursome of a generation before played in all subsequent developments in Swedish pop. At the root of all of it (and also of Abba) was Swedish folk music which was simplistic and melodic.

Like Motown three decades before one of the main Cheiron principles was that it should sound good on the radio. “Production control” at the Detroit studio is now famous for its weekly meetings, tracks recorded by different artists and competitiveness between artists and producers to get their songs released but here it was taken to another level with sometimes up to a hundred versions of the same tracks flooding the Swedish clubs,  All this work was to hear what sounded good over the DJ decks and what would sound better on the radio or in an open-topped American car (rather than in a Swedish Volvo in the depths of winter). Recognising the US teen as the biggest purchaser of music PoP’s team looked to reflect American lives from a Swedish perspective. We learnt that this repackaging of ideas to produce a more effective version of the best of what is out there is also part of the Swedish make-up evident in companies such as Ikea and H&M.

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The inspiration behind all Swedish Pop

But behind this global success “Jante Law” forced these writers and producers to remain as far under the radar as they could (Ace Of Base enjoyed their global success and were vilified in the Swedish press) and then tragedy intervened with another great leveller – as cancer claimed Denniz PoP at the age of 35 in 1998.

By this time globally successful artists wanted in on the act. The Backstreet Boys, N-Sync, 5ive, Westlife and Britney Spears owed much of their success to these writers. Max Martin adopted the central role and the team went from funeral to working on Backstreet Boy’s multi-million selling “Millennium” album but the central force had gone.

Eventually, the writers moved away from the studio set-up and took what they had learnt from Denniz and notched up hits, continuing to this day for the biggest artists of the world including Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, Justin Timberlake, Ariana Grande, One Direction, Madonna, in fact virtually every global pop superstar. Martin has set up MXM Studios in the US and has for the past eighteen years being working with many Swedish producers as part of his team, still observing Denniz Pop’s principles and developing them into their unique formula they term “Melodic Math”.

At the end of this excellent hour we saw Max Martin being awarded the Polar Music Prize from the Swedish King, still concerned about the ramifications of Jante Law. I found the whole thing fascinating, more for what it told us about Swedes than the music which was on generous display throughout. Managing to achieve this level of success in this media-hungry day and age without many people even being aware of their existence just really grabbed my attention and got me thinking.

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The Eurovision Song Contest Semi-Finals (BBC4 2016) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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It’s Eurovision Week!  I’m confessing to a not-so-guilty pleasure- I love Eurovision  and during the course of this week we have already have 16 countries fall by the wayside by not making it into the Song Contest Final.  This was sorted out in two shows hosted by last year’s winners, Sweden.  This is good news.  Sweden do Eurovision very well.  They are up there with Ireland with the most wins and they are happy to stage it and treat the whole thing with the appropriate amount of respect and tongue-in-cheekness which the enterprise deserves.  This year we see the return of Petra Mede as main presenter.  She is up there for the title of Queen Of Eurovision as far as I am concerned.  She has led the show before and is the perfect choice for host.  She was also excellent last year hosting the Greatest Hits Concert with Graham Norton.  She can host Eurovision every year, whatever the location as far as I am concerned.  She understands Eurovision.  Her co-host is no slouch either, Mans Zelmerlow won for Sweden last year and is certainly easy on the eye.  He has fitted in superbly in what can often be an awkward transition from performer to host.

Presenters Petra Mede and 2015 Eurovision winner Mans Zelmerlow

For the first time the semi-finals were transmitted on BBC4 and perhaps as a result the British links seemed a bit less chaotic than they have in the past when it sat nervously on the schedules of yoof-orientated BBC3.  Scott Mills was joined by Mel Giedroyc and this is another pairing which works well.  Eurovision’s  global audience seems to grow every year.  The USA and China are having it transmitted live for the first time and two years in Australia looks like they have a very good chance of taking the Eurovision crown.  Would this mean the whole she-bang would decamp to Sydney next year?  There might be quite a few voting just for that to happen.

I’d like to point out that although I love Eurovision I’m not one of those super-fans  who have watched each qualifiying show online, scrutinise the videos and watches dress rehearsals.  Apart from the UK entry, which I saw deservedly qualifying from a fairly ropey selection I was new to all the songs.  And like most Eurovisions, the vast majority of them certainly did not stick in my mind.  There’s a lot of power ballads this year sung very hard by people who can just reach the notes on a good day- quite a few of the songs blended into one.  It’s not clear yet if there is one that will stand out from the crowd.  Two years ago when Conchita Wurst won for Austria, I , like most of the viewing population was so gobsmacked by the sight of the beautiful bearded lady that couldn’t take the song that seriously in the semi-final.  It was in the final when Conchita further upped her game and turned in a blistering performance which had the whole of Europe reaching for its phones.

eurovision5Conchita rising like a phoenix  for Austria in 2014 

In the second semi-final Petra and Mans began the show by attempting to explain Eurovision to its new audiences.  This they chose to do in the medium of song and dance and once the hairs stopped sticking up on the back of my neck I really got into this lengthy extravaganza of an opening.  It was surprising, funny, well done and should become the Eurovision anthem or at the very least be given a few douze points from the national juries.  In the first show Mans had shown what a worthy winner he was by reprising his “Heroes” which benefited from imaginative staging as well as being a good song well sung- This is very much a blueprint for Eurovision, but one that a number of countries persistently choose not to follow.  One country which is following the blueprint is Russia, who seem to have thrown tons of money on their staging which is along very similar lines to Sweden’s last year.  It’s not a bad song, it’s well sung and is the hot favourite.  There might be a backlash because it seems so desperate an attempt to win (and a large number of Eastern European countries have qualified for the final which might split the voting) but it is probably the one to beat.  The countries who ignored the blueprint included San Marino (what was that all about?) and Moldova who decided to do the opposite of Russia and spend no money on their performance.  Whilst Russian entrant Sergey Lazarev was soaring to the stars, the Moldovan entry had a man come on in a tin foil space suit.  They did not qualify.  Greece, usually competitive, also decided to do something very odd with a rap meets folk blend which was fairly horrible and saw them bid an early exit.

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Would a win for Russia alienate Eurovision’s core audience?

After sitting through the eighteen entries of the first semi-final I made a little list of what I thought should go through and I got nine out of the ten right.  The surprising omission of the whole thing was Iceland, who had seen the Zelmerlow blueprint although had chosen a woman singer to perform a good enough song with dramatic bat and bird like effects.  It looked like it might be one of the front runners but failed to qualify.  I was surprised by the selection of Croatia.  The song was not as strong and it was one of those performances which seemed to hinge around the changing of a dress (It looked like she was standing behind the first dress anyway).

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Iceland’s surprisingly unsuccessful entrant

By the time the second semi-final came along I’d lost my touch a bit.  In this selection of songs the Scandanavian countries seemed hard done by in favour of the Eastern Europeans.  Georgia’s entry was largely unwatchable because of the overdose of flashing lights and was a rock performance so out of kilter with Eurovision that only those who wanted to sabotage the sheer poppiness of the show would have voted for it- but it went through.  It managed to take out successful Eurovision nations as Denmark, Norway and Ireland who despite having Nicky Byrne from Westlife singing quite a light song after the heavy ballads failed to qualify.

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What happened, Nicky?

And so on Saturday, the final.  This is where factors such as geographical bias and running order have a significant part to play.  Also the Big Five join in.  They do not go through the semi-final process and suffer by ending up at the bottom of the leaderboard because by the final allegiances to songs have been formed join in.  Of these France stands the fairest chance of ending up mid-board.  The UK have their best entry for some time with the peppy Joe and Jake.   Much will depend on their performance but if that comes up trumps we should expect to place in the Top 15, more than that might be a little too much to hope for.  Last year’s winners Sweden also join the Final selection without having to qualify.  This could be the dark horse entry.  It’s topped the charts in Eurovision mad Sweden and sounds contemporary and relevant.  Once again, much will depend on the performance.  I don’t hold out much hope for Germany and Italy’s chances of standing out from the crowd on the night.

UK entrants Joe and Jake.  France’s entry by Amir

So who might win?  Well, it is Eurovision and your guess is as good as mine.  Russia and Australia might have it sewn up between them (but watch out for Sweden).  No country wants to win more than Malta and they have a better than average chance.  If Bulgaria and Israel perform well they could also be in the running.  Ukraine has a political song, which is always a bit of a wildcard.  Some nations may love it –some may hate it – and like a lot of political songs it is not particularly listenable.  Running order is important.  I don’t think a country has ever won performing in second place on the night (and this is a position where the UK seem to have been quite a number of times).  The short straw this year goes to the Czech Republic   Because most of us Eurovision watchers have a short memory span it’s better to perform near to the end.  The last three to perform will be Austria, UK and Armenia but there are too many other factors involved to get that excited!

Could Dami Im or Frans win for Australia or Sweden? 

Anyway, in a moment I’m going to print off my Eurovision Scorecard from the BBC Site  This is I will fill in dutifully and after the event it will be inserted into my now bulging copy of the definitive guide to the first forty years of the contest – “The Complete Eurovision Song Contest Companion” by Paul Gambacini, Tim & Jonathan Rice and Tony Brown (Pavilion 1998) with a foreword by a man who will be remembered during this year’s proceedings, Sir Terry Wogan.  This appeals to the budding Eurovision nerd in me because I can track back years to see how my favourites fared against the national juries and viewing public- 2015-Sweden (1st)  2014- Austria (1st) 2013- Azerbaijan (2nd) 2012- Ukraine (15th) 2011- Denmark (5th) 2010- Romania (3rd).  I can go much further back but I can tell it’s making your nervous.  I’m actually not bad at liking the songs that do well (apart from 2012) and have picked the winner two years in a row.

If you are reading this before the show is transmitted then I’m sure you will be as unclear as I am as to who the winner will be.  If afterwards then you will have the satisfaction of knowing how much barking I was doing up the wrong tree.  No doubt the unsuccessful countries will be threatening not to participate next year (all in the spirit of togetherness) but maybe USA and China will feel the need to participate to further broaden the Eurovision horizon.  We are promised a new voting system so it will be interesting to see how that copes with bias and prejudice which some say blights this contest.  How can you not love Eurovision?

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Don’t want to get too excited before the final – so four stars only

If you like Eurovision the following clip sums it up wonderfully.  If you don’t then this is probably why!

The Eurovison Contest Semi-Finals were broadcast on BBC4 on Tuesday 10th and Thursday 12th May with the final taking place at 8.00 pm on BBC1 on Saturday 14th.  Both Semi-Finals are currently available on catch-up online at the Eurovision site and on BBC I-Player.

Post -Final Update: After the performances it looked like it was going to be a straight battle between between Australia and Russia.  On our scorecard we had placed Russia 1st, Australia 2nd and opener Belgium 3rd.  After the national juries gave their votes it looked like Australia had an unassailable lead but we hadn’t counted on the new voting system which caused the UK to drop down towards the bottom of the leaderboard, Poland to come soaring up and for Ukraine (which we had rated as 25th out of the 26 songs) to grasp victory.  This is the reason I love Eurovision – you just cannot tell what it is going to happen.  The presentation of the final by Petra Mede and Mans Zelmerlow was excellent- keep them on for next year I say…………………………..