How did ABBA – and Sweden – conquer the pop music world?

Forty years ago, Eurovision watchers took a chance on ABBA and launched Sweden as a music powerhouse. Today it is the world's third largest exporter of pop music.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
A man look at an exhibit at ABBA The Museum in Stockholm. The interactive exhibition about the Swedish pop-group ABBA opened in May 2013.

I must confess: I’m part of the cult of ABBA.

It's true. I even have an embarrassing video to prove it. I hear “Dancing Queen” and am transported back to the outback of Australia, when Agnetha, Benny, Bjorn, and Anni-Frid accompanied me on a two-month road trip in college from Sydney, to Ayers Rock, Cairns, and back home.

So I certainly had fun during my recent trip to Stockholm, where I belted out “The Winner Takes it All” in the mock recording studios of ABBA The Museum, a hands-on, karaoke-fueled, role-playing pilgrimage for any fan of the Swedish '70s pop band.

But my purpose was serious: part of research for an upcoming cover story on the Scandinavian welfare model, and how music has been one of the clearest recipients of a model that does not harm creativity but, many argue, actually fosters it.

In fact, if this museum – which opened a year ago this week – is an homage to this globally adored foursome, there is nothing nostalgic about Sweden’s foray into pop. This Nordic country, with a population of only 9 million, remains a pop powerhouse today. It’s the biggest exporter of pop music behind any other country in the world, after the US and the UK.

ABBA inaugurated its worldwide success by winning the popular Eurovision music contest in 1974, and remains the most successful Eurovision winner ever. But it is hardly alone in the pantheon of Swedish pop stars. The origins of Swedish House Mafia are fairly obvious. But did you know that Roxette came from Sweden? And the Cardigans after them? Avicii’s electronic dance hit “Wake me Up?” That too.

What might be even more surprising is that among the many studios off the main streets of Stockholm top hits have been penned for the greatest pop icons of our time. Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys, and Bon Jovi have all flocked here to get their share of what social geographer Ola Johansson calls “pixie pop dust.” 

Which raises a fair question: why?

For many, Sweden's musical magic starts in the municipal music schools, or “kommunala musikskolan,” spread across the country. Sweden’s famed welfare state not only means free university and parental leave policies that are the envy of the world. It also means highly subsidized music, not just in the pulsing capital but even the most remote stretches of the country. In Kiruna, Sweden’s northernmost city situated 90 miles north of the Arctic Circle, the local music school is fully staffed with 12 teachers and state-of-the-art equipment.

“Music is for everyone,” says Per Winsa, who has taught guitar, drums, and rock-n-roll here for 18 years. “Everyone has music inside them.”

On a recent day, during their lunchtime, a dozen 10- and 11-year-olds rehearse a rendition of a pop-rock song by Kent, a Swedish band. A blonde 10-year-old, one of the vocalists, shows early flare for the microphone. Upstairs Jenny Ejeblad, a soprano in hot-pink lipstick, talks about her dreams to hit it big in Sweden. She morphs from a shy teen to a young diva as she belts out a pop tune.

Any of these youths might look back, as so many artists before them, and thank their local music school for their success. It’s a sentiment so prevalent that many artists have joked about “the social welfare behind the Swedish music miracle,” as the Swedish government highlights on its official information page.

Joking aside, it’s also very apt, says Daniel Johansson, music industry researcher at Linnaeus University and founder of music analysis firm TrendMaze. “If you don’t have any money for living, for your heating, it’s very hard to get some creativity done,” he says.

Mr. Johansson, the social geographer, a Swede who works at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, has dissected the other multiple theories behind Sweden's success with song. Some say ABBA itself was an inspiration to hordes of aspiring performers. Some look at Sweden’s proficiency in English, and its embrace of globalization and outside trends, as a way to overcome the numeric limits of its own small domestic market, as well as an inherent love of hummable music that transcends national preferences. Johansson has no definitive answer, but one thing is clear: Sweden is “a force to be reckoned with in pop and rock music.”

The ABBA museum gives credit to the many successes in Swedish music post-ABBA, with rooms organized by decade that include videos that visitors can play on demand. For any lover of music, they are all pretty fantastic. I lost track of time, and spent 30 minutes in the '90s alone.

Thankfully, the photographer grabbed me and took me to the faux disco room, before the museum doors were to close. I must say I’m glad there was no option for a video to be recorded here. Despite my obvious deficiencies in dance, however, it was a true blast. We were the last in the museum to leave.

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