Swedish Popular Music: “I Don’t Care, I Love It”

AviciiLately, it seems that every time I hop in the car I hear the song “Wake Me Up” by Avicii come on the radio. So I was wondering, who’s this guy with the Latin sounding name? After a few minutes of searching the Interweb, I found out two things: 1) Avicii is the pseudonym of Swedish electro-dance producer and DJ Tim Bergling, and 2) Avicii is not Latin at all, but a word that means the lowest level of hell in Buddhism. Now I’m no expert on Buddhism, but from what I understand, once there, you can’t escape that level of hell. What those connotations have to do with this artist’s music, I’m not going to even hazard a guess! Personally, I find it kind of catchy.

At just 24, Avicii has already been a star in Europe for several years. With “Wake Me Up,” he’s the third Swedish act to land a tune in Billboard’s top ten in the past year, following Icona Pop’s “I Love It” and Swedish House Mafia’s “Don’t You Worry Child.” Before those acts hit the U.S. top ten, it’d been a long time since a Swedish artist had accomplished the feat. You have to go all the way back to 1996-97, when Robyn had a pair of singles that each rose to number seven. While it remains to be seen whether Avicii , or Icona Pop, will become fixtures on U.S. music charts  (Swedish House Mafia had already announced their imminent breakup prior to the release of “Don’t You Worry Child” in 2012), Swedish acts are hitting the American singles charts the hardest they have in many years.

Despite the fifteen-year gap in the upper reaches of the Billboard Hot 100 Chart, many Swedish acts have achieved a notable level of success in the United States during the interim. Those artists include Alcazar, Basshunter, The Cardigans, The Hives, Lykke Li, Opeth, Eric Prydz, and The Sounds. The names in that list cover many different musical genres, proving that popular music in Sweden isn’t limited to a particular style. That said, however, I find it interesting that the Swedish acts that found massive mainstream success in the United States all fall into a pretty narrow range: mixed-gender pop/dance groups accenting female vocals.

Ace of BaseThe most recent of these Swedish superstars is Ace of Base, who stormed onto the scene in 1992 with the album The Sign (originally released in Europe as Happy Nation, with a slightly different track listing) which became one of the best-selling debut albums in recording history. Comprised of Ulf “Buddha” Ekberg and siblings Jonas “Joker” Berggren, Malin “Linn” Berggren and Jenny Berggren, Ace of Base placed four singles in the U.S. top ten, including the number one title track from their American debut disc. Worldwide, Ace of Base has sold over fifty million albums, making them the third-bestselling Swedish act of all time.

Roxette is a duo made up of vocalist Marie Fredriksson and songwriter/vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Per Gessle. Fredriksson and Gessle came together after successful stints in other groups, but each one’s previous success in their native Sweden was nothing compared to what they’d achieve together. In the three years covering 1989-91, Roxette was a hit machine in the United States and throughout the world. Stateside, they had four singles shoot to number one while another pair peaked at two. Their career has continued far longer in Europe than it has here, but with worldwide album sales of over seventy million, Roxette is the second-bestselling Swedish act ever.

As popular as the two aforementioned bands have been, they never even approached the spectacular heights achieved by ABBA between 1972 and 1982. From almost the very beginning, ABBA – whose name is an acronym of the band members’ names:  (A)gnetha Fältskog, (B)jörn Ulvaeus, (B)enny Andersson, and (A)nni-Frid Lyngstad – was  an absolute sensation in Europe and throughout most of the English-speaking world.  The band certainly had plenty of success in the states, too, though not nearly as much as one might expect. They only placed four singles in the U.S. top ten, with just one reaching number one (“Dancing Queen”). Throughout their career, and for some years after, it just wasn’t cool to like ABBA in this country. Perhaps the nation’s ABBAcollective mood during that time – due to the Watergate Scandal, the Oil Crisis, rising unemployment and inflation rates, the Farm Crisis, etc. – was such that many Americans weren’t in the proper temper for such bright, bouncy tunes.

The general assessment of ABBA’s output, however, appeared to shift significantly in the early nineties. At that point, several contemporary American artists covered ABBA songs, a couple of popular Australian movie imports (Muriel’s Wedding and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) highlighted ABBA tunes, and ABBA Gold: Greatest Hits was released, which has been a consistent seller ever since. By the end of the decade, the musical Mamma Mia! had landed on U.S. stages, continuously playing venues throughout the next decade, and followed in 2008 by a film version starring Meryl Streep. Suddenly it was cool to like, even love, ABBA. On March 15, 2010, the band was fully legitimized when it was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Despite the fact that they never officially disbanded, the group has not recorded together in over thirty years. Even so, ABBA has sold over 300 million albums worldwide, easily making them the most successful Swedish act of all time, as well as one of the planet’s biggest acts, period.

Before I bring this blog entry to a close, I’ll also mention a couple of Swedish rock bands that had a taste of mainstream success in the United States. Seventies pop/rock cover band Blue Swede holds the distinction of being the first Swedish music act to score a number one single in America. They did so with a remake of the B.J. Thomas hit “Hooked on a Feeling” in April 1974. Although you may not remember the band, you may well remember the “ooga-chaka ooga-chaka” background chant that they cribbed from English singer Jonathan King’s earlier cover version. Blue Swede hit the top ten again later that same year with a cover of The Association‘s “Never My Love” before disbanding in 1975. In the mid-to- late 1980s, the hard rock band Europe was Sweden’s apparent answer to the American arena rock/hair metal trend of that period. Europe placed four songs on the U.S. top forty singles chart (two of those rising to the top ten) and had two albums reach the U.S. top twenty albums chart. Europe remains an active recording and touring act still popular throughout… well, Europe.

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