Why Sweden Rules Pop Music, and How We Could Too



By Nathan McAlone

“Starships were meant to fly/Hands up and touch the sky/Let’s do this one last time/Can’t stop/We higher than a mothafucka.” These lines from Nicki Minaj’s 2012 mega-hit “Starships” are pop in its purist form. They bubble up inside you, a nefarious drug made of ohmygod and pleasedontend. You are the starship, flying up and up—at least for the duration of the song. Then you have to press repeat or face the inevitable comedown, and the realization that however much you were feelin it, “Starships” gave your soul nothing lasting to cling to. “Let’s do this one more time.” You really had no choice.

“Starships,” like much of the contemporary pop canon, has deep roots in Sweden. The bulk of the song was designed by two Swedes, Carl Falk and Rami Yacoub, hitmakers who are part of a Swedish pop vanguard that has had its hands in everything from “Hit Me Baby One More Time” to “Roar.” Since ABBA was unleashed onto the world in the ’70s, Sweden has been a force to be reckoned with in pop music. According to a recent essay in Pacific Standard, songwriters and producers from Stockholm have contributed to the success of Lady Gaga, Madonna, Usher, Avril Lavigne, Britney Spears, The Backstreet Boys, Pitbull, Taylor Swift, One Direction, Maroon 5, and Kelly Clarkson, among others. And lest we forget, Sweden also gave us Lykke Li, Elliphant, Robyn, Little Dragon, Kate Boy, Icona Pop, The Knife, and so many others operating in different zones of pop music. This from a country of only 9.6 million people.

There are many theories to explain Sweden’s success: the presence of role models (ABBA and co.), a tendency towards early adoption of styles (see IKEA and H&M), the population’s English proficiency (no dubbing!), their small market (export or die), the music “industrial cluster” (Stockholm is a one-stop shop), cultural progressiveness—the list goes on. Little Dragon’s Yukimi Nagano told us that it may have something to do with pride. Some even say Sweden’s long, dark winters make people huddle up inside their houses and play more music. While the truth is probably a poptastic mixture of all these things, there is one prominent factor that has special relevance for the United States. That factor is government support of music, particularly with regards to education.

The tale of Sweden’s music education starts in the 1940s, when conservatives and church leaders began to fear the encroachment of “dance-floor misery” in the form of foreign pop music.

The tale of Sweden’s music education starts in the 1940s, when conservatives and church leaders began to fear the encroachment of “dance-floor misery” in the form of foreign pop music. Obviously anything that made people dance that vigorously had to be the work of the devil himself. To neutralize this threat, Sweden created its own far-reaching municipal music education system. According to academic Ola Johansson, at one point approximately 30% of Swedish children attended publicly-subsidized music schools after regular school hours. Though these schools initially tended towards classical music education, their curriculum began to open up in the 1960s, and by the 1980s rock and pop had become an integral part. In the 1990s, the schools even introduced courses in mixing and recording. And it didn’t stop there. Beyond these municipal schools, the Swedish government also offered citizens rehearsal space, music equipment, workshops, and concert opportunities. It sounds like every musician’s dream.

These policies got results. Swedish superstar producer Max Martin, who has contributed to most of Katy Perry’s No. 1 hits, says he has “public music education to thank for everything.” Everything is a strong word, but with Sweden continuing its dominance in new pop forms (such as EDM with the likes of Avicii), there must be something special happening. And if Sweden’s comparative advantage in pop does indeed come from their music education, there are a few things the United States could take note of.

The first and most obvious is “money.” Sweden spends a lot of money on music education. Swedish indie pop duo The Knife received about $6,327 to record their first album, and have since become international stars. Even those who are philosophically opposed to government subsidies sometimes see their merit. We recently interviewed indie pop artist MØ, whose home country of Denmark also provides significant funding for arts education. Though MØ decried the apathy that government aid can create in a population, she acknowledged receiving monetary assistance while studying at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. There she developed the design skills she uses to create eye-catching album art (an often-overlooked but important factor in the era of blogs). Her story shows that funding arts education can help facilitate a pop artist’s career in many ways, some of which are not so obvious.

But even beyond money, there are things the U.S. can learn from Sweden. Politicians and bureaucrats bemoan how impractical music education is, and then build the curriculum around forms that don’t have broad application in the modern music market. Let’s take the twin pillars of American music education: marching band and jazz. If you move outside the classroom, these two forms are about as far as you can get from pop. While Kind of Blue was a formative album for me personally, the truth is most of my friends who are obsessed with jazz are jazz musicians themselves. That’s not the case with rap, or rock, or indie pop, or EDM. Marching band is even further removed from the market.

The benefits of a child to learning an instrument are far-reaching beyond starting careers or making marketable product, and to study music that might (arguably) have more intellectual oompf makes sense. I was pushed to play piano as a child and I’m still thankful for it, since it helped me truly understand the architecture of music. And of course, a school jazz band can teach skills applicable to making rock music.

But would giving students more opportunities to actually study rock and pop, as Sweden has done since the 1980s, be so horrible? Would teaching them the basics of mixing and recording, which are surely marketable skills, be a bad investment?

But would giving students more opportunities to actually study rock and pop, as Sweden has done since the 1980s, be so horrible? Would teaching them the basics of mixing and recording, which are surely marketable skills, be a bad investment? There are programs in public schools in the U.S. that offer this, but they don’t exist on a wide scale. They are the exception, not the rule. Perhaps if we allowed interested students to study the art of pop, our songwriters and producers could become as adept at bottling lightning as the Swedes. But maybe it’s just those long, hard, sunless winters. There’s only one way to find out.

  • Clyde Erwin Barretto

    Interesting topic to bring up. But then you also have to think about how much bigger the United States is and the kind of demographics that would have to dealt with. It’d be a huge overhaul to the public school system nationwide. It’d be fun though.

  • Jacob

    Great article, but I think the influence of jazz is understated. At least in Seattle, jazz has a huge influence in our hip-hop community. Lots of artists are recording tracks and performing shows with live jazz instrumentation (sax, bass, keys, etc).

  • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QSZ55hEkxnM TopBananas

    meanwhile America is cutting music classes, smh

  • Sam Shaw

    I feel like this was heavily influenced by the identical New Yorker article this week.

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