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The Boston Phoenix Swede Dreams

Stockholm's Pop Exports

By Michael Freedberg

NOVEMBER 3, 1997:  Although European pop songs have begun to be taken more seriously in America, it still would have been hard to predict the impact that Swedish artists like the Cardigans and Robyn have had in the US in 1997. Sweden's really big name, Abba, broke up 15 years ago (though England's Bjorn Again continue to make a decent living touring as an Abba tribute band). More recently there was the fleeting stardom of Roxette. But this year, if you're looking in the US for European hits, Sweden is it. And no wonder. Less committed to the dancy, four-to-the-floor beat that dominates other European pop songcraft, Swedish acts use the hip-hoppy, modern-rock structures that dominate American radio. As for the Swedish language, it's not an issue. Today's Stockholm stars -- the Cardigans, Ace of Base, Army of Lovers, Robyn, the Souls, Sonic Dream Collective, Covenant -- take after Abba and sing in English. They manufacture for export, as if they were producing a Volvo, a drug from Astra, or an Electrolux washing machine.

Which means that the invasion we're experiencing, via its biggest hits, the Cardigans' creamy "Love Fool" and Robyn's "Do You Know (What It Takes)" and "Show Me Love," is really an American and British invasion of Sweden. Most other European pop is not teen-oriented; it is the American fixation on the teenage demographic that the new Swede-pop serves. If living in Stockholm gives one some special insight into what life's about, we're not told what it is or how it sounds. The new Swedish stars are citizens of the interchangeable, universal world.

It wasn't always so. Abba used European forms: ethereal chants and choral lullaby. The personas of the sultry Agnetha and the regal Anni-Frid were diva-like -- in the original, light-opera sense of the term -- long before the epithet got attached to female vocals in a disco context. But that was then. Today's Swedish pop rarely relies on the conventions of Euro. Covenant's Sequencer (21st Circuitry), for instance, sounds gothic in exactly the same style, and voice, as Sisters of Mercy and their raconteur, Andrew Eldritch. Robyn, in her debut CD, Robyn Is Here (RCA), pouts the same kind of nasty cute soprano -- over the same kind of bittersweet homegirl beats -- that you can hear on any Brandy, Monica, or Adina Howard record. The jagged guitars and pissed-off female of the Souls' Bird Fish or In Between (Trauma/Interscope) cannot be distinguished from any number of locally made angst-rock CDs.

Only Ace of Base and Sonic Dream Collective, of the recent Stockholm exports, retain a footing in Euro: Ace of Base trip as light a fantastic as the flightiest Eurodisco, and the 14 tracks on Sonic Dream Collective's Gravity (Interhit) sound even frothier, as dreamy and fast as the fanciful love songs of Whigfield, Corona, or Livin' Joy. But it's the Cardigans, the one Swedish band to command a real American audience, whose music most resembles Abba's. In the high sweet harmonies and blithe melody of "Love Fool" one hears a slightly saddened version of the angelic idealism -- dare we call it "blue-eyed soul"? -- that was Abba's special take on soul music. The blond beats of the new Swede-pop could just as easily reinterpret angst pop, new jill, and gothic: but they do not. These artists seem to value form higher than personality. Who they really are doesn't matter.

The success of Robyn's completely impersonal Robyn Is Here, especially, suggests that US pop audiences want a breather from realistic portraiture, a style that has commanded pop-song taste since the disco years. It still does rule in Europe. In Quebec an aggressive brand of disco rock and string-band monologuers advance "le fait français. In Catalonia one hears the raucous hurry of "rock-catala." Around the world, from West to East Coast to "le planète Mars" and the banlieues of Paris, hip-hoppers speak of the 'hood -- its ways, its outlook, its dialect, its rebels and suckers and seize-the-moment wise-asses. Swedish pop shuns this kind of locality. Whatever it is that makes Stockholm different from Marseilles, the South Bronx, or Barcelona is not talked of by Robyn and the Cardigans.

There is certainly good reason, in this time of group-think and "diversity," to leave differences aside and pursue universal truths. That all of us are one and share one fate gives life an idealism and a nobility society has valued since the beginnings of civilization. The domination of American customs in the world's marketplace of taste certainly supports a universalist music. Unhappily, however, American imperialism in Swedish pop must, to Stockholmites, mean something opposite to what it means to Americans. This contradiction at the heart of the music forbids the most formula-bound Swedish musicians from expressing their inner selves; it robs their songs of a soul.

Maybe this is the deepest meaning of the Cardigans' subtly brilliant "Love Fool"?

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