Despite what many of my friends like to think, I really do enjoy pop music. While my problem is with radio and how it enjoys treating songs like piñatas (hint: it’s repetitive and eventually does more harm than good), pop music shows flashes of what’s bubbling into popularity. It acts as a great tuner to the different waves of talent ebbing in and out different music scenes. Pop music is built on having its hands mired deep in every genre since its conception, with results ranging from iconic to absolutely cringeworthy. If you still can’t tell from the title of this article, Swedish sensation Robyn falls firmly in the first category. Her music is a kaleidoscopic collection of glittery pop, with heavy influences from dancehall, disco, dream pop, funk and house. Her work has resulted in her being labeled as one of the most influential pop acts of the past twenty years. The strangest thing about all this is that you probably are a little clueless as to why that’s the case.
We can start by looking up the 2010 song “Dancing on My Own”. No, not the weepy Callum Scott cover; the actual one. Bass drum thumping, synths exploding all around you and an energetic Robyn cheering you on as you destroy the dance floor. The song rises and rises but by the time the song ends, the lights come back on and you’re only left craving more. That song from her album Body Talk Pt. 1 set the standard for the next five years for every club-pop anthem and blazed the way for artists like Charlie XCX and Lorde. The album borrows from every sound possible, offering up Robyn’s vision like a gem. You hold it up to the light and you get to see different facets that add to the albums shine.
Next, listen to “Show Me Love”, released more than a decade earlier. It highlights everything that formed the base of 90s teen pop: the shuffling drums, the wonky baseline and Robyn’s melodic delivery. You could almost imagine Britney Spears hopping onto the song at some point and harmonizing with Robyn. This song came out in 1996, two years before Britney broke onto the scene with “…Baby One More Time”. The rise and fall of Robyn’s hit could be seen as a sign for what was to come a few years down the road but more importantly acts as a marker for something much larger at work.
That bigger picture becomes clearer once you look at the song writing credits of many pop songs today. Looking as far back as 1990, Swedes pop up as either writers, co-writers or producers to some of the biggest hits that have appeared on the Billboard Hot 100. Besides Robyn, the best example for this is Max Martin. Beginning in 1999, Max Martin has either written or co-written 23 Billboard Hot 100 number one hits. That’s only second to the Beatles’ songwriting powerhouse duo of John Lennon and Paul McCartney. The songs Martin has helped pen include the Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way”, Britney Spears’ “…Baby One More Time”, Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl” and The Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face”. That’s just a small sample of who he has worked with but what is incredible is the range of his output. How is it that American record companies, arguably the originators of today’s pop music, look to Sweden to produce some of the most prolific songs of the past 20 years?
While there isn’t any definitive answer, what we do know is that Sweden has always had a phenomenal impact on pop music, thanks to common household favorites ABBA. Since winning Eurovision in 1974, their unapologetic style mixed with their catchy melodies made them another benchmark for musicians, mostly within Sweden, to compete against. From there, Swedes worked hard on getting more of their own onto the global stage. In 2010, Ola Johannsan, a Swedish academic, explored her country’s music industry and contributed a few working theories as to how it experienced this seismic shift in exporting music.
Historically, the first band that announced Sweden’s re-entry onto US charts after ABBA is Ace of Base. They are the ones responsible for the hit “The Sign” in 1990. Between ABBA’s 1974 Eurovision success and Ace of Base’s 1990 debut, Sweden invested heavily in its public sector, funding different school programs to educate the youth in sports and music. That allowed for the foundations of Sweden’s tight-knit music industry to form. Thanks to cultural imports like MTV and Sweden’s history for forward thinking companies (think IKEA and H&M), Swedes were always on top of the latest trends in pop culture. A great example of this is Spotify, founded in Stockholm in 2006. Lastly, Swedes carried on the skills ABBA focused on: pop built on melodic lyrics. Although that may sound like a no-brainer, a lot of American pop focuses on melody and lyrics last. Taking all that into consideration, it’s easy to see how Swedish artists rule the pop charts. If you need more proof, look no further than the current no.1 hit, “Blinding Lights” by the Weeknd. That was co-produced with Max Martin.
Coming back to Robyn, I think it is an understatement to say that her music and the industry that she represents has only had a profound impact on pop music. Swedes have quietly taken over the majority of pop and dance music, with artists like Avicii, Lykke Li and finally Robyn leaving ground-breaking work that made their counterparts stop and reassess what they are doing. While Robyn’s releases are few and far between, her music always manages to come off as timeless melodic triumphs, destined to define the next generation of pop music.