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Scandinavia is home to about 20 million people. Yet this small northern European cluster of countries that includes Sweden, Denmark, and Norway ranks just behind the U.S. and U.K. as the third largest global exporter of popular music. One look at the Billboard charts and you’ll see a surprisingly high number of Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian acts top ranking this side of the pond. Tove Lo’s cruising the pop charts with her debut record, Queen of the Clouds. Little Dragon are a mainstay of the American and European electronica scenes, and Elliphant is quickly rising as a patois-inflected female rapper. No doubt that in the past five years or so, Scandinavian pop music has exploded in popularity. Yes, it’s happened before with notable if dated crossovers ABBA and Ace of Base, yet the Nordic artists stepping into the limelight today aren’t breaking through on an individual level, but rather storming American beaches in a coordinated effort to infiltrate our headphones and dancefloors.
If you’ve listened to Top 40 radio at any point between the Y2K scare and now, you’ve witnessed the final results of Scandinavian pop-craft. In fact, a handful of Scandinavian producers have been among the most sought after individuals in pop music for over fifteen years, largely thanks to prolific pop mastermind Max Martin (Sweden) and the equally prodigious production duo Stargate (Norway). These three, along with Martin’s protégé, Shellback, wrote or produced a good deal of the world’s biggest singles for Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, Maroon 5, Beyoncé, and Rihanna (click a few of those links if you need convincing).
Some attribute Sweden, Norway, and Denmark’s influence on popular music to their geography— that they’re just far enough away to employ a refreshing outsider’s perspective. That’s definitely part of it. Another part is the region’s extremely high fluency in English, pop’s lingua franca. And though Scandinavia sits at the far reaches of Northern Europe, there’s an enduring and high level of American pop cultural influence– even Tor Erik Hermansen and Mikkel Storleer Eriksen of Stargate, who grew up in the suburbs of the small Norwegian city of Trondheim, spent their teenage years obsessed with American hip-hop.
Flash forward a decade later and times have changed. The popular music of 2015 sounds different than 2005. And yet, Martin’s still on top, flanked by Stargate, this time creating hip-hop indebted, melodically-driven, syrupy sleek pop songs that condense the highest level of power ballad bombast into the fewest minutes possible. Scandinavian-produced pop has a finely-tuned balance between propulsive rhythm, strong melodies, easy-to-understand second-language lyrics, and a healthy dose of Nordic melancholia.
While Martin, Stargate, et. all have guided popular music from behind the scenes for the past fifteen years or so, Scandinavian indie artists are increasingly staking out territory at the forefront of popular music. Inspired by electro-pop artists like Robyn, The Knife, and Little Dragon a new generation of genre-blending artists are whipping up sophisticated yet carefree international pop tunes for the masses. Today, a whole squad of Scandinavian artists are leading the way, almost entirely helmed by modern female singer-songwriters.
One of the veterans of the new Swedish pop generation is Lykke Li, who’s most recent record (and her third full-length), I Never Learn, explored the darker reaches of her inner psyche. Meanwhile, Danish pop singers MØ and Fallulah both build upon the indie-pop foundation established by Lykke Li, drawing from disparate sources like electronica and folk. Other Scandinavian artists who are pushing the indie-pop boundaries well into foreign territory are Mr. Little Jeans, who came onto the scene with a dope Arcade Fire cover, and Mapei who after returning to Sweden from Brooklyn, leveraged her emcee chops to develop a hotly anticipated singing career. Elliphant, a female rapper from Stockholm who recently collabo’d with Skrillex, is set up for some big moves just around the corner. Then there’s Icona Pop, a duo of hyper-pop songwriters who clearly “loved it,” and, on the other end of the spectrum, Kate Boy, who’s bouncy electronica references Little Dragon and The Knife. All of these artists reference many different genres and cultural touch points at once, filtering them through a Scandinavian sense of understated cool, presenting the final product lacquered with a synthesized sheen.
In a lot of ways, Tove Lo represents a merging of the best of both worlds. She’s a go-to singer for Max Martin’s Wolf Cousins songwriting and production team, and still writes her own music, often with the help of the same team. Meanwhile, the song she hoped would grow to be a hit in Sweden, “Habits,” ended up blowing up stateside, launching her into stardom on American shores and spiraling into over 100 million views on Youtube. As a signee to Island Records, Tove Lo just performed at Coachella with Alesso, and still finds time to write with the boys back in Stockholm.
There’s no doubt Scandinavians are shaping today’s popular music. Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian artists are, one by one, stepping out from behind the boards, into the vocal booths, and onto stages around the world. Cultural boundaries are blurred, hits are made, and the world sings along, as Scandinavians push pop yet a little further into the future.