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What is it About Swedish Pop Music? Searching for that 'Swedish Sound' at SXSW

Ilana Panich-Linsman/KUT
Swedish duo The Magnettes perform at SXSW.

You might be surprised to hear that Sweden is the world’s third biggest exporter of music. ABBA, Ace of Base, and the guy who invented Spotify are all Swedes.

And when Swedish musicians travel outside their country, one of their first stops is South by Southwest.

But what makes Swedish music so popular?

Maybe it’s the clothes. Rebecka Digerwall is the lead singer of the Swedish duo The Magnettes.

She wears a long black shawl. She’s got a black bob and John Lennon specs. At Threadgills, at an all-Swedish showcase, the subject of Swedish artist Robyn comes up. So, does Rebecka’s band sound like Robyn?

“We have like a new wave, electro feel to it,” she says. “With catchy melodies and all that Swedish stuff.”

What is that “Swedish stuff”? Think of all the Swedes you might have heard of: Ace of Base, newer artists like Tove Lo and Fever Ray.

“Just being Swedish is like ‘yeah they’re Swedish, I’ll go see that.' The impression that we’re very good at music and melodies. I think that’s ABBA’s fault,” Digerwall says.

Maybe it is. But there are other reasons, too.

An article published in 2013 gave eight reasons why Swedish pop is so great. Here’s just two from Atlantic writer Nolan Feeney: First, Swedes speak English well, so American audiences can sing along. Second, the government’s generous: It put aside more then $200 million this year for performing arts.

But what about that “Swedish stuff”?

Niclas Berglund from the band Roshambo says that maybe Swedish music is so popular in the U.S. because of the “Swedish sound.”

“Swedes tend to, when they play with analog instruments, try to be melancholic and pretentious deep,” Berglund says. “Like us.”

And just at that moment, a young woman jumped out of her car. She’d written her number on a piece of paper, and handed it to Berglund.

“You should call me,” the young woman said.

Berglund couldn’t remember where he’d met this woman, or why she wanted to hang out with him. But maybe that’s it: Maybe Swedish cool is as indefinable as it is undeniable.

Audrey McGlinchy is KUT's housing reporter. She focuses on affordable housing solutions, renters’ rights and the battles over zoning. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on Twitter @AKMcGlinchy.
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