We’ve reached the point where things get tricky, slightly. Now we’re past Sweden and Norway – two Nordic countries that have contributed a lot to pop music around the world – we’re heading to countries that are more… incognito, shall we say. But then I have a soft spot for Denmark – my first dip into Nordic pop, at least for this blog, was with this country – and, for a country so small land-wise, it’s also given us a lot. I’m honestly surprised at how many acts I have dug up while researching this week’s installment. So, here we go, then. Denmark.
Like in Norway, Denmark musicians had been inward-looking in the beginning. It’s partly geopolitical: there was a wave of nationalism in the early part of the 20th century, after Denmark was invaded by the Nazis despite a non-aggression treaty. Yet, as the post-war era went on, Danish musicians took in influences from the emerging rock and roll styles in Britain and the United States – although initially it all sounded more like schlager, and later, the use of the Danish language meant there was limited appeal elsewhere. (One exception were glam rockers the Walkers, whose song “Sha-La-La-La-La” you may already know as a 90s dance cover – although it was covered in the 70s by Cantopop group the Wynners.)
An early international success for Danish music is D-A-D – they were called Disneyland After Dark, but Disney won’t have any of that. Built as an antidote to the relatively pessimistic outlook of their contemporaries, their music is relatively heavy but quite melodic – you know, pretty much what you’d expect from the 1980s. Their 1989 album No Fuel Left for the Pilgrims saw some fame internationally, with “Sleeping the Day Away” rising to become their signature song. They did attempt to break through to the United States, but didn’t quite make it, so they’re not as big a name as they should be today. The first Danish musician to truly break out around the world would be Metallica’s Lars Ulrich – but he’s just one segment, so the Danes had to wait a bit longer.
They didn’t have to wait long. Admittedly, however, you wouldn’t think of Michael Learns to Rock as a Danish band, but they are. Their popularity in Asia is perhaps best explained by the universal appeal of their songs – written in English, performed competently, with easy-to-remember melodies. (This blog is based in the Philippines. We know what we’re saying. MLTR is always here for concerts – at one point I bumped into them at the hotel, accidentally.) Also, there’s the name – who’s Michael? There is a Mikkel in the band (Lentz, the guitarist) but the name’s actually from a school textbook, and an allusion to how a pop group was auditioning for a rock concert. (Incidentally, two of its members were into rock – and Mikkel was a rock guitarist.)
Again, it was an attempt to make it in the United States that propelled MLTR to success… elsewhere. The surprisingly upbeat “My Blue Angel”, released in 1991 on their eponymous debut, didn’t make the impact they hoped for, but another single from the album, the more typical “The Actor”, became a hit in Asia. Their follow-up album, Colours, would become a huge success in the region, and the band would perform there many, many times. Asia would also get first dibs on their signature song, “Paint My Love” – actually a translated version of “Kun med dig”, Denmark’s Eurovision entry for 1996, composed by the band’s leader Jascha Richter. Sure, right now MLTR is seen as sentimental, if not downright cheesy, but it did pave the way for another Danish act that would be an international success: Lukas Graham.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Aqua. One of the most popular Eurodance acts of the 1990s actually began in 1988, under the name Joyspeed. Their lead vocalist Lene Nystrøm would only come in a few years later, after she was spotted performing in a ferry. However, their first single – a tramped-up version of the nursery rhyme “Itsy Bitsy Spider” – only lasted a week at the bottom end of the Swedish charts, and failed to make a dent in their home country, so they quit their record label, regrouped, and reemerged as Aqua – inspired by a poster for an aquarium in a dressing room.
Their first single under the name, “Roses Are Red”, established the template – Lene singing, René Dif rapping, and Søren Rasted and Claus Norreen providing production – and proved it’s a strong one, lasting two months in the Danish charts. Of course, it was “Barbie Girl”, from their 1997 album Aquarium, which would catapult them to international success: the song ostensibly about the doll, but is about something else, topped the British and Aussie charts and broke into Billboard‘s top ten. The follow-up (to most of the world, at least), “Doctor Jones”, proved they aren’t one-hit wonders; meanwhile, “Turn Back Time” proved their versatility – they began shedding their bubblegum pop tendencies from their 2000 album Aquarius – and is perhaps the one Aqua song left on radio stations to this day. The group’s split and reunited since, with each member pursuing solo careers (and Claus leaving the group altogether) but they’re popular enough to go back on stage together, particularly in Australia, of all places.
These days Danish indie has got a pretty good stronghold on the rest of the world. It’s not as flashy – sometimes you wouldn’t know your favorite band is Danish – but they’re there. One of those leading the way is Mew, formed in 1995 and winning over audiences and critics from their 1997 debut A Triumph of Man. It’s their 2005 album And The Glass Handed Kites which saw their reputation shoot up across the world, however, with their dreamy indie – a bit shoegaze, a bit prog, both eyes firmly aiming at filling arenas – maxed up the epic scale attracting plaudits.
Helping push Danish music to international audiences is the non-profit initiative Music Export Denmark, co-founded by the state broadcaster DR, the Danish Rock Council and the organizers of the Roskilde Festival. It’s helped, and now there’s a good chance you’ve heard a Danish band on the more indie-leaning places in the past few days, like the Raveonettes and the Kissaway Trail. The strength of the country’s alternative scene means its veterans are also seeing new audiences, like Dizzy Mizz Lizzy, Kashmir and King Diamond.
However, it is in pop (and pop-leaning sounds) where Denmark is making a bigger dent. The obvious suspect, of course, is MØ, who has appeared alongside Major Lazer several times apart from releasing her own songs. Also doing well on the pop front is Oh Land, whose more whimsical electropop has led her to support acts like Katy Perry, and Alphabeat, whose jubilantly retro (and similarly whimsical) pop has brought them fans across Europe, but not much so across the Atlantic.
But we’re shining the spotlight on Medina, who’s perhaps more known in her home country, mostly because she sings in Danish. There is an English version of her signature song “Kun for mig”, however, and she has also released three albums in English; thus has attracted some attention around the world, particularly in Germany. Her sexy electropop may have attracted some controversy (one incident saw her pelted with eggs by some Islamist youths, offended by the coincidental connection between her name and the holy Muslim city of Medina) but she has paved the way for other homegrown acts like Fallulah, who, like most of the variants we’ve played with this week, offers a touch of the mythical and whimsical (slightly, in this case) on her music. [NB]
[Next week: we head to Finland.]