Now, it’s on to Norway as we continue to go country-by-country for this seven-week look at Nordic pop. Despite being significantly smaller, population-wise, from Sweden – five million people, roughly, as opposed to nine million – musically it’s also contributed a lot. Like Sweden, there’s a lot of Norwegian music on the radio and you wouldn’t realize it… at least until the time you finish going through this. Unless you already knew about it.
Unlike Sweden, though, it took a while for Norway’s musicians to break out internationally. While acts like ABBA were gaining worldwide prominence, Norwegian musicians continued to look inward, appealing to domestic audiences – although thanks to Eurovision their music had an attempt to gain a foothold in the region, particularly through the compositions of Arne Bendiksen, called the country’s “father of pop music”. That all changed in the 1980s, when a-ha – formed in 1982 – decided to decamp to London to make a career in music, decidedly with an eye towards making it big.
Well, they did. “Take On Me” was one of 1985’s biggest hits both in the US and UK, aided again by MTV and its leaning on British and European hits (and videos) to fill its airwaves. (It doesn’t hurt that the video for “Take On Me” is known as one of the best of its time, if not all time, due to its new approaches) In the United States, though, they’re seen as a one-hit wonder, particularly as synthpop faded; they easily transitioned to alternative rock in the latter part of the decade and maintained relevance through the 1990s and 2000s. (Largest ever audience as a concert according to the Guinness Book of World Records, anyone?) It’s the weird quirks of an international following that allowed them to continue performing to this day. Also see Fra Lippo Lippi, who remains popular to this day, particularly here in the Philippines, a country vocalist Per Sørensen continues to visit. Same goes with D’Sound, an act I particularly love.
However, Norwegian pop breakouts remain few and far between. I’ve been going through my list and I notice that more of them can easily fall into the “hipster” category (don’t hate me, it’s just what it is) than the “pop” one. That’s not to say there aren’t any; you’ll just have to, say, listen to Norwegian radio to have a sense of how rich the landscape is (and how, err, domestic-focused they remain to be). One rare pop breakout is M2M, aka childhood friends Marit Larsen and Marion Raven, who wrote their own songs and performed their own instruments. While they’ve written a children’s album before, it was not until 1999’s “Don’t Say You Love Me” – one of those really good pop songs – that catapulted them to the stratosphere. (I have memories of singing “Pretty Boy” in fifth grade – same reasons.) However, they parted ways in 2002 – perhaps because their album that year, The Big Room, didn’t do so well charts-wise – and now both are solo artists in their own right, stylistically different from M2M but still with a keen sense of musicality. (I’ve been hearing Marit a lot on Norwegian radio.)
That said, some more Norwegian acts have tested the international pop waters, to some varying degree of success. I guess it’s that “I’m cooler than you” mindset, and how that’s quietly subverted by music supervisors for the pop culture they consume. Take Nico & Vinz, whose 2013 single “Am I Wrong” was everywhere in the world at the time. A few years later, there’s Aurora, whose cover of Oasis’ “Half the World Away” – conveniently used in a John Lewis ad, a big thing in the UK – led her to many ears, and was further reinforced by her quirky little hit “Conqueror”. But let’s not forget Lene Marlin, who’s a popular star in Norway in her own right – but has written for other artists, perhaps most notably Rihanna’s “Good Girl Gone Bad”.
What Norway is known for is electronic music, and unlike Sweden, who’s into floor (and arena) fillers, the Norwegians look towards more ambient and (I use this term again) organic sounds. But that’s not to say there aren’t any making us groove in our seats these days: Kygo‘s an act you’ve likely heard on the radio, and perhaps you’ve also come across music from Cashmere Cat and, from an earlier time, Lindstrøm. However, the biggest name in Norwegian electronic music is Röyksopp, aka Svein Berge and Torbjørn Brundtland, who has claimed international acclaim with their vast musical oeuvre – stretching from the ambient sounds of breakthrough album Melody A.M. to bouncy “Happy Up Here” from Junior, and further down the line, their collaboration with Robyn and the beat-dropping The Inevitable End.
Röyksopp is just one of the representatives of the city of Tromsø, known as Norway’s techno capital. It first spawned popular acts Bel Canto and Biosphere, who later inspired acts like Frost and Aedena Cycle – where Svein and Torbjørn first worked. The group were also lumped together with the so-called “Bergen wave” – it’s mostly media fuzz, really; the artists involved were not keen on the term – through the fact that they released their debut record through Tellé Records, alongside acts like Annie (who some call the Norwegian Kylie Minogue – it makes sense why Monocle 24 plays her a lot), frequent collaborator Bjørn Torske, and our next act.
Kings of Convenience – now here’s an act the cool kids know. You’ll have to admit you may have lumped together Swedish indie pop and Norwegian indie pop together – they do share the same sensibilities after all, although there seems to be more gentleness with Norway’s music. Kings of Convenience – duo Erlend Øye and Eirik Glambek Bøe – have mostly centered on folk, with a hint of jazz and bossa nova, and their smoky voices (and production) giving us a hazy, foggy, comforting vision of their home. They have also benefited from the way acts across Europe cross-pollinate with each other: they got their first press after a stint in London led to their 2001 debut Quiet is the New Loud, which really does what it says on the tin. “I’d Rather Dance With You” only came much after, and you know what happened with that.
But it’s not all quiet on the Norwegian front. Datarock, who’s given me something catchy to latch on to back in college, is also from Norway. Sondre Lerche is also a staple of indie pop playlists, although his recent work is most definitely informed by his now being a resident of New York. On another end of the spectrum (but not the extreme end) is Highasakite, whose electropop and affected lyrics gave them an audience across the continent. But then, Norwegian music’s inward-looking nature means their mainstream is our obscure – take Briskeby, who I picked up on after a stretch of their radio, but is actually a big deal in their home country, complete with honors in the Spellemannprisen, their equivalent to the Grammys.
There is one thing we forgot about Sweden last week: their metal. For some reason – perhaps it’s the cold? – the region is home to some of the world’s biggest metal bands that you don’t know, me included. Norway has been particularly prolific on that front, going one step further with black metal: an incredibly dense, distorted, claustrophobic variation of the genre that has attracted both fans around the world – and criticism from those who look very hard for any so-called Satanic undertones to rock music. Yes, it did not entirely begin in Norway, but the genre’s resurgence in the 1990s came from that country, led by the notorious Mayhem.
There are many other bands, but Mayhem represents the genre’s musicality – and its excessive nature. They were known for their grand live performances: former vocalist Per Yngve Ohlin (aka “Dead”) pioneered the use of corpsepaint – making himself up to look like, well, a corpse – and also buried his clothes under ground, only to dig them up again just before a gig. He also cut himself on stage, while the band had impaled pig’s heads on stage. All for atmosphere. But real life would overtake the group: Dead committed suicide in 1991, which further lent to Mayhem’s volatility, down to the murder of guitarist Øystein Aarseth (aka “Euronymous”) by former member Varg Vikernes (aka “Count Grishnackh”). The group’s still around these days, and have been more experimental in nature, but their contributions to the genre – for better or worse – are here to stay. At least until someone else steps up to the plate with something more outrageous. [NB]
[Next week: we move on to Denmark – small country, big sound.]