How to collect Nordic pop music, part one: the introductory course

We’ve done this for the past two years: a seven-week series looking at a music scene of a particular country. We don’t do it particularly well, but we feel we provide a good idea nonetheless. This year we go bigger: we look at five countries. Well, arguably it makes things easier, because we’ll go one country a week in a couple of weeks, but on the other hand we’re diving into a region that has provided a lot to popular music around the world, and a region which we’ve dipped our toes into occasionally over the five and a half years of this blog. Welcome to the north. Welcome to the Norden.

 

Wait, the Norden? You know it as the Nordic countries – I just went for how the Danish, Norwegians and Swedish call it. The Finnish refer to the region as the Pohjoismaat, while the Icelandic refer to it as the Norðurlöndin. We’re looking at those five countries up north in Europe, although the region also covers Greenland and the Faroe Islands, two autonomous regions within the dominion of Denmark.

Historically these five countries have had close cultural and political relations, united by a common way of life, language and religion. (Yes, the Danish, Swedish, Norwegian and Finnish languages are different, but they share the same roots; the first three are so alike they’re mutually intelligible.) However, the five are pretty distinct in their own ways, informed by geography and geopolitics stretching centuries, including several wars – there was a back-and-forth territory-wise, initially between the countries, and later through Russian and German invasions during the two World Wars.

One more thing: the Nordic region is different from the Scandinavian region. That only refers to Denmark, Norway and Sweden, which share a peninsula and are so close some have moved to unite the three under a country names Scandinavia. People incorrectly use the term to refer to the five countries, so to be clear, we’re talking about the Nordic region, which covers a wider base. (Just to make things complicated, the whole region was once united as the Kalmar Union in the 14th to 16th centuries, mostly to block the Germans from coming in.)

Why their music? Because it’s everywhere – more prevalent than you might think. Whether you’ve had “Hooked on a Feeling” stuck in your head after Guardians of the Galaxy, or grooved non-ironically to “Mamma Mia”, or wanted to show your cool cred by humming “I’d Rather Dance With You” – Nordic music is everywhere, and a pretty healthy thing it is, too.

The countries have had their own traditions of folk music stretching back to the Viking era, with their own instruments and compositions. There are some similarities – the often mythical themes of their lyrics, for instance – although, again, geopolitics come in to sway things. The Danish monarchy, for instance, shaped the growth of music in the countries; the Swedish used their music to herd cattle; Iceland’s relative isolation meant its folk music managed to keep a rhythm that’s been lost by its neighbors. Support from the monarchy also meant a flourishing of classical music, with composers and performers across Europe performing in the Nordic countries, giving way to a vibrant classical and opera movement.

Inevitably, influences from other countries would make their way to the region, especially as relations (whether in peace or at war) came to a head. It began with jazz, and later with pop and rock. Success were initially limited to their respective countries, although some acts became known internationally in the middle of the 20th century, Abba perhaps being the best example. Now that we’re quite globalized, acts from the region have gained more prominence, whether it be pop, dance, indie or whatever lies in between.

So what music are we talking about? Where do you want us to begin? Well, we’ll dive deeper in the coming weeks, but here’s what we’re bracing ourselves for.

Swedish pop music has been more prominent than their neighbors, perhaps again because of Abba – although acts like Neneh Cherry, Roxette, Europe and the Cardigans have also paved the way. Now acts like Avicii, Robyn and Tove Lo are dominating the charts, bringing in a strong electronic and dance component – while the less mainstream side are still represented by acts like Little Dragon, Lykke Li, Miike Snow and First Aid Kit. And then there’s Max Martin, pop producer extraordinaire, who has worked with Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys, Taylor Swift and Katy Perry. Essentially, your typical American top 40 station.

Norway has followed Sweden’s tack, bringing us Fra Lippo Lippi and a-ha in the 1980s, and then A1 and M2M in the 1990s. It’s also done its part in dominating pop radio, with acts like Kygo and Cashmere Cat (and Ylvis – he knows what the fox says). On the flipside, there’s Ane Brun, Kings of Convenience, Aurora and Highasakite.

While Denmark is a smaller country compared to the rest of the region, they still brought us Michael Learns to Rock, Aqua, and in recent years,  and Lukas Graham. Finland also punches above its weight, although you’re likely more familiar with the Rasmus than Alma, who’s making waves in the United States these days. And then there’s Iceland, which has really punched above its weight, bringing us BjörkSigur RósEmilíana Torrini and Of Monsters and Men. A lot of familiar names, yes? We’ll resume next week with more. [NB]

 

[Next week: five essential Nordic acts to kick us off.]

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