November 2016

The Land Where Hits Come From

Over the past few decades, Swedish songwriters have changed pop music worldwide.

In our feature story “Made in Sweden,” we discussed how this came to be. But there’s another lingering question that’s much harder to answer: Why Sweden? Our best guess is that it has something to do with the simple fact that Stockholm (Sweden’s capital city) is not London or New York or Los Angeles. In other words, it’s not a principal center for the music industry, which means that the songwriters who have emerged from there have been able to put their own twist on pop music formulas without being overly influenced by whatever’s trendy in “the business.”

One important point to note: A great deal of Swedish pop is in English (songs in the native tongue tend to be more the domain of folk performers). Most Swedes are fluent in English, have grown up listening to and admiring English-language artists, and therefore feel confident emulating those artists in their own work—right down to using the same vowel and consonant sounds. And of course, singing in English creates a much bigger potential audience for your music: If millions of Americans, Britons, Australians, Canadians, and other Anglophone listeners all over the world can understand what you’re saying, you’ve got access to a truly global market.

Among the first Swedish acts to figure this out was ABBA, whose songs were so popular outside of Sweden that they eventually formed the basis for a smash musical, Mamma Mia! Here’s one of their biggest hits, 1976’s “Dancing Queen.”

Fast forward to the early 1990s, and the next big Scandinavian hitmaker, Ace of Base. That group’s producer, Denniz Pop, founded Cheiron Studios, which would soon become one of the world’s top hit factories. Here’s “All That She Wants,” from 1993.

By the end of the 1990s, songwriter/producer Max Martin was in charge of Cheiron Studios and crafting smash after smash for American singers. One of the biggest was Britney Spears’ 1999 debut single “…Baby One More Time.”

After a few years, Martin and his collaborators changed stylistic gear, putting aside the R&B influence of songs like “…Baby One More Time” and adopting a sound based more in rock. Exhibit A: Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” from 2004, one of Martin’s first major co-writes with the American Lukasz “Dr. Luke” Gottwald.

Now officially the third most successful songwriter in pop music history (after the Beatles’ John Lennon and Paul McCartney), Max Martin continues to pen blockbusters to this day, often in partnership with another Swedish native, Karl Johan Schuster, a.k.a. Shellback. Here’s one of their recent productions; chances are you’ve heard it before.