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Music

The 'Swedenization' of the Eurovision Song Contest

ABBA remains the most successful group ever to take part in the competition. Beyond this legendary Swedish band, the country provides some of the world's greatest hits. What makes Sweden such a pop music talent?

As seven-time champion, Ireland tops the table of countries with the most ever Eurovision Song Contest (ESC) wins. In second place, with six notches on its microphone stand, is Sweden - followed by Luxembourg, Great Britain and France with five each.

The Nordic nation's success story began in 1974, when ABBA stole the show with "Waterloo." Ten years later, the Herreys "Diggi-Loo, Diggi-Ley-ed" their way into the judges' hearts, only to be followed by Carola and Charlotte Nilsson in 1991 and 1999 respectively. In 2012 in Baku, Loreen and her wannabe mystic "Euphoria" secured the ESC title another trip to Sweden - as did Mans Zelmerlöw last year in Vienna with "Heroes."

These victories yielded recognition for several Swedish composers, text writers and producers - and not only when the country has itself won the contest: 16 of the 42 participating countries ordered their 2012 songs from the Scandinavian country.

In 2011, the situation was similar, and "Running Scared," the winning track sung by Azerbaijani duo Ell & Nikki, was another Swedish creation. And the list goes on. So what’s the deal? Has Sweden claimed property rights to the world's biggest entertainment event?

Linguist and cultural researcher Irving Wolther. Photo: Horst Ossinger (c) dpa - Bildfunk

Irving Wolther, aka "Dr. Eurovision"

Mainstream in demand

Irving Wolther, linguistic and cultural scientist at the Hanover University of Music, speaks in terms of a "Swedenization" of the ESC. And he should know. Not only is he the driving force behind the founding of the first ever German Eurovision fan club, in 2006 he wrote the first ever doctoral thesis about the contest.

"For many countries, winning the contest is so important that they will do anything - sometimes even deny their own culture - in the process," the lecturer, aka "Dr. Eurovision," told DW. While it was once commonplace for each country to sing in its own language, he says, it has long been deemed more appropriate to sing in English.

"Many people are not aware that a large part of mainstream pop that belts out of our radios is of Swedish origin." In the case of Eurovision, he adds, talent is cherry-picked in order to present Europe with something easily digestible in the name of the participating country. The strategy worked well for Azerbaijan, which hired a Swedish team three years in a row, and was third time lucky in 2011.

Nordic hit production

Sweden's success is no great surprise to music experts. Despite its modest population of 9.5 million, it is the third largest producer of English-language pop and rock music in the world following the US and the UK - and has been for a while.

The Swedes have a presence right across the genre spectrum, with hip artists such as Lykke Li, who sang the 2012 summer hit "I Follow Rivers," rock band Mando Diao and hit parade pop from Roxette to The Cardigans. And that is to say nothing of ABBA, whose fans are still mourning the band’s split three decades down the line.

Members of the Swedish pop group ABBA. Photo: dpa

Pristine sounds from a pristine land: ABBA are unforgotten

Off-stage and behind the scenes, Sweden is doing well too. Ever since ABBA won Eurovision in the 70s, international giants from Madonna to the Backstreet Boys and Lady Gaga have been ordering songs from the northern country. British daily "The Guardian" wrote that barely a week goes by in which a song written by a Swede doesn't make it into the Top 10 somewhere in the world. And because the country has an image of friendly harmlessness, nobody begrudges it such hegemony.

The country's anti-depression therapy

But how they do it? One point is that Swedish schools offer music from an early age and make sure there are enough instruments and practice rooms to go round. Another is that for many families, making music during the long dark winter months is a part of life: killing time and melancholy besides fostering musical talent. And then there's "Export Music Sweden," an organization dedicated to marketing Swedish music internationally, helping to launch young Swedish musicians and establishing successful networks.

In Sweden, casting for the Eurovision Song Contest is an extravaganza. The preliminary selection stage is known as the "Melodifestivalen" and is held in the far north of the country. Round after round, musicians and singers from all over the country compete. But unlike in Germany, unsuccessful participation does not mean an end to the artist's career. On the contrary: For Swedish artists who really want to succeed, taking part in at least a couple of Melodifestivals is nearly a must.

Måns Zelmerlöw. Photo: DIETER NAGL/AFP/Getty Images)

ESC winner Mans Zelmerlöw's recipe for success: a mainstream sound and brilliant technical effects

Swedish individuality

"What's important is a real passion for individuality," Linda Carlsson told DW. "In Sweden, most musicians want to create their own sound because they know that it is the only way to be taken seriously in the rest of the world." Known as Miss Li in the pop world, the 33-year-old says it doesn't make much sense to copy American and British role models. Her songs enjoy success in Sweden, but have also made it onto the US television show "Gray's Anatomy" and been used in international advertising campaigns.

Swedish hegemony of the ESC is thus found in ways big and small: Even the design of the contest's trophy was Made in Sweden.

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