When I mention the words ‘Swedish pop’, you’re probably only thinking of one thing. ABBA remains Sweden’s largest cultural export. They’ve sold almost five hundred million records and have inspired a long-running stage show, two blockbuster films and even a museum. But Sweden has also produced Avicii, Zara Larsson, Robyn, Swedish House Mafia and The Cardigans. Furthermore, since 2008, it has also been home to the world’s largest music streaming service, Spotify. Sweden’s disproportionate contribution to world pop is the subject of a new BBC documentary, Flat Pack Pop: Sweden’s Music Miracle, produced and presented by music journalist James Ballardie. The programme centres around the short but prolific life of producer Krister ‘Dagge’ Volle (better known as ‘Denniz Pop’), one of the most influential musical brains you’ve probably never heard of.
Denniz Pop grew up in a working class neighbourhood in Stockholm, starting his career at the underground Ritz nightclub in Örebro. With ABBA at the height of their popularity abroad, Sweden was fertile ground for new talent. State support picked up aspiring musicians, keen to capitalise on the country’s unlikely image as a home of pop music.
“Having ABBA meant the infrastructure was already in place,” Ballardie tells me over the phone, “so for Denniz Pop the circumstances were just right.”
What started out as an experiment in the Stockholm underground soon blossomed into a genre of its own, and before long Denniz Pop and fellow Ritz DJs had founded their own record label, SweMix, a company that took hits from around the world and gave them a distinctly Swedish flavour.
“It was part commune, part family,” says Ballardie, “and they used the Ritz as their barometer.”
Denniz Pop at the SweMix studios
Ace of Base, a reggae-folk band from Gothenburg, had stalled in their partnership with Danish label Mega Records and, desperate for a breakthrough, decided to give Denniz Pop a go. Ace of Base’s demo cassette was sent to Denniz Pop’s house and, though they knew taking them on was a long shot, they hoped he would find time to listen to it. As it turned out, Denniz Pop had plenty of time to listen to it as, when he put the tape in his car stereo, it got stuck and played on repeat for six months.
He couldn’t avoid it but, equally, he couldn’t accept it, as the SweMix team were fully booked recording tracks for Alban Uzoma Nwapa (Dr Alban), a former dentistry student rapping to earn cash. Denniz Pop’s collaboration with Dr Alban led to his 1992 song It’s My Life reaching number one in seven countries. Rather than overshadowing Ace of Base, when Denniz Pop could turn to them, this success meant he had the entire Swedish music industry behind him and limitless resources at his disposal. Denniz Pop took Ace of Base’s demo, All That She Wants, and refined it into a simple, melodic pop song, cutting rap segments and removing unnecessary riffs. With this new track, Ace of Base reached number one in thirteen countries and peaked at number two in the United States.
His reputation cemented, Denniz Pop hired a group of musicians to support his movement, and they moved to new studios in Kungsholmen, renaming SweMix ‘Cheiron’. Ballardie refers to this new group as Denniz Pop’s ‘disciples’, loyal only to his vision for the future of bubblegum pop. Leading the group was British rapper Herbie Crichlow and Swedish singer Martin Sandberg, whom Denniz Pop renamed ‘Max Martin’. The team refined Denniz Pop’s writing process, which included a complex testing process. Denniz Pop believed dance songs should work as well on the radio as they did on the dancefloor, and this meant testing tracks not only in the Ritz, but on car stereos. When working in the United States, therefore, Denniz Pop would frequently send assistants onto the highway to play demos as they drove.
But, though his methods may have been eccentric, Denniz Pop’s songs were methodical. Each track, for example, would, without fail, feature a characteristic ‘B-drop’, inspiration for which he had taken from the chorus of ABBA’s Name of the Game.
“Swedish music is all about technical achievement,” Ballardie explains, “but being clever within a formula.”
I ask Ballardie if SweMix were, in a sense, following the rules of Scandinavian functionalism pioneered by its most famous companies: Volvo, H&M and IKEA.
“I think they’re particularly similar to IKEA,” he replies, “as Swedish producers were scanning the world, like IKEA, and picking the best pieces to repackage. Spotify also follows this logic; it is both innovative and algorithm-driven. Denniz Pop’s songs are algorithm-driven and minimalist, but entirely driven by quality.”
Like Swedish multinational companies also, the musicians at SweMix liked to keep a low profile. Working with such famous acts the musicians had become, overnight, incredibly wealthy. This was course for embarrassment in Sweden, a country ruled for decades by a semi-communist Social Democrat party and a set of pan-Scandinavian social codes known as ‘Jante Law’. The Social Democrats forbade old money and a class system, while Jante Law forbade the flaunting of new money. Coincidentally, perhaps, it was as the producers at SweMix were getting richer that they moved to the United States. Was it that they were searching for somewhere unashamedly capitalist?
“America was simply where the talent lay,” says Ballardie, “so I don’t think they were ruthless capitalists. It just made more business sense.”
America, for SweMix, was undoubtedly where the talent lay. In 1998 they took on their most ambitious artist yet: the American teenager Britney Spears, sent over by American label Jive. Jörgen Elofssen, a jingles writer, was brought in to provide a unique input and this, merged with SweMix’s formula, created the sound of Spears’ first album and her most famous song: Baby One More Time. SweMix divided into three teams to create the album, competing against one another for a common goal.
The Spears album was the team’s most important yet. But it came as Denniz Pop was undergoing treatment for aggressive stomach cancer. He died two months before the album was released, aged just thirty five. Unsurprisingly, this coursed the mood in Cheiron to change irreparably. But with such acts as Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys looking for success, Cheiron couldn’t afford to be overcome with grief, so Max Martin took over as Denniz Pop’s natural successor and Cheiron continued to churn out hits, producing three of Westlife’s number ones: If I Let You Go, My Life and Fool Again.
But, ultimately, Denniz Pop’s death caught up with the company and they disbanded in 2000.
“It was like the Beatles after Lennon’s death,” says Ballardie, “the spirit of Cheiron just ebbed away.”
But the careers of Cheiron producers had only just begun. Herbie Crichlow found success writing for Rita Ora, and Jörgen Elofssen now writes for the XFactor. Max Martin moved to Los Angeles and has produced such hits as Taylor Swift’s Bad Blood, Katy Perry’s Hot ‘n Cold, Justin Timberlake’s Just Dance and The Weeknd’s Can’t Feel My Face. He’s now the third most successful producer in history, after only John Lennon and Paul McCartney, and has twenty two American number ones to his name.
So why isn’t he a household name?
“Swedish producers,” Ballardie explains, “see it as their job to stay in the background, merely lending support to the main act. To Swedes, unlike Brits and Americans, it’s about the music rather than the image.”
Max Martin (second from left) with Cecilia Bartoli (second from right) receiving the 2016 Polar Music Prize from King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia.
Recent Swedish acts – such as Avicii, Zara Larssen, Icona Pop and Swedish House Mafia – have challenged that idea by branding themselves as international celebrities. But their formulaic, minimalist approach to music remains. It is an approach taken up by fellow Nordic countries, who have produced international smash hits as a result. Norway has a-ha, Denmark has Lukas Graham, Iceland has Björk and Finland has a strong heavy metal scene.
But Ballardie doesn’t think it’s a pan-Nordic miracle.
“It’s really just Sweden,” he states.
So why should Sweden – of all places – have become such a pop mecca?
“To me it would have made more sense for all this to come out of Germany,” says Ballardie, “they are equally efficient but have a larger population and, thus, more resources.”
Perhaps there is something inherently Swedish about a love for simple melodies, harking back to medieval folk songs and cattle calls. Ballardie thinks some explanation may lie in the long months of darkness, combined with an effective musical education programme.
“I remember when I was at school,” he says, “we had recorder lessons and so on. I think Sweden’s music education was just a hyped up version of that. But, of course, when combined with their surroundings, Swedes were more interested in picking it up. There’s something ingrained in the Swedish mentality that music is a way of binding a population together, in a very socialist way.”
Whatever the explanation, like Volvo’s cars and IKEA’s wardrobes, hot Swedish tracks continue to fly off the production line. And with a new generation of singers firmly established, this shows no signs of slowing.
James Ballardie’s documentary, Flat Pack Pop: Sweden’s Music Miracle, is available now on BBC iPlayer.
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Tags: max martin, pop music, Swedish music, swedish pop
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