Boots worn by the members of ABBA, currently on display at ABBA: The Museum, in Stockholm.

Åke Eson Lindman/Abba The Museum

How ABBA Introduced the World to Swedish Pop

Four decades after ABBA hooked the world with some of the catchiest tunes ever written, Sweden has become a pop music hit machine. But, as Jason Sheeler discovers there's more to it than ear candy.

1974, hundreds of executives from around the world gathered in a ballroom in Cannes, France, for a trade show focusing on music and entertainment from around Europe. The lights dimmed. A screen lowered. The reel started. A desk-sized globe spun west from California to a toothpick Swedish flag seemingly removed from a meatball and stuck right into Stockholm.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we proudly present Sweden,” a diphthong-ed and godlike voice announced. “The best and the most beautiful country in the world.” Accompanied by a folksy violin, postcard images flickered by; farmhouses, smiling girls in flower crowns, a violinist playing in golden fields, Volvos. Flashes of plated herring, clogs, elk, sailboats. Frolicking, prairie-skirted circles of gammaldan dancing. A polar bear, Björn Borg, Bond girl Britt Ekland. Another Volvo. A port, a container ship, and a wooden crate stamped with the words MADE IN SWEDEN FOR EXPORT. Out from the box stepped four people the world would soon know as ABBA: Agnetha Fältskog, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson, and Anni-Frid Lyngstad, who at the time were couples. It was a sequined-polyester interpretation of The Birth of Venus.

1. ABBA 2. Roxette 3. Ace of Base.

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This would become ABBA’s year to go worldwide. And in it, the twentysomethings introduced a new, and uniquely Swedish, handcraft to the world: three-to-four-minute intangible, indelible, and deceptively simple creations. You’ve heard them on the radio or dance floor, maybe at the gym, or on your favorite TV show. These are meticulously manufactured, utterly unforgiving earworms. Your toe taps at the hook. Embodying the word catchy, these are tunes with a pulsing, driving beat, probably containing an operatic chorus. It’s that song you feel like you already know, humming along even when you hear it for the first time. It swells and dives and then soars and ends suddenly, succinctly, with a period instead of fading off with an ellipsis. It’s a formula—one that Swedish hitmakers and singers have used for the past 40 years.

When ABBA walked out of that box, Swedish radio was dominated by a dour strain of folk-rock. But Ulvaeus and Andersson, who wrote all of ABBA’s songs, weren’t really making a play for hometown airwaves anyway. In releasing their songs in English (television shows are not dubbed in Sweden, so English is learned young), they wanted to pivot toward worldwide pop both in lyrics—their first hit in Sweden was decidedly less crossover-friendly than “Take a Chance on Me”; it was “Jag Väntar Vid Min Mila,” which translates to “I'm waiting by my charcoal kiln”—and in look. ABBA’s aesthetic was an over-the-top, platformed disco glam inspired by Superman, the Swedish flag, and calico house cats.

Their costume designer, Owe Sandström, now 72, remembers their debut. “They had prepared meticulously,” he says. "Björn and Benny had worked so hard on the songs. They were ready. But the world wasn’t. No one had ever seen or heard anything like it.”

ABBA would go on to achieve global superstardom, sell more than 375 million records, and then, as with other disco acts, find themselves suffering the indignity of lite-rock radio, grocery store Muzak, and Adam Sandler movies. In this century they have been re-respected, with a museum in Stockholm, a successful Broadway show (Mamma Mia), and a Meryl Streep movie franchise. The band broke up in 1982 following their divorces but reunited recently to record two new songs.

But perhaps even more than a movie, endless official merchandise (clogs, beanies, bars of soap) or a ten-time platinum greatest-hits album, ABBA’s most enduring legacy might be as pioneers. The band made the world smaller for Swed- ish artists hoping to follow in their footsteps: Roxette in the 1980s; Ace of Base and the Cardigans in the ’90s; and Robyn and Peter, Björn, and John in the 2000s, along with producers such as Max Martin, Patrik Berger, and Anders Bagge. In this decade, female artists have dominated: Lykke Li, Tove Lo, Skott, Say Lou Lou, Tove Styrke, Icona Pop, and Grant, each with songs that bear the DNA, if not the fingerprints, of ABBA, Robyn, and Martin, who has written and produced 22 No. 1 songs for Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, and Britney Spears. (Incidentally, every artist interviewed for this story offered a full-throated endorsement of ABBA. Even after knocking their capitalism, Peter, Björn, and John’s Björn Yttling recalled geek- ing out over recording in the same studio in which “Dancing Queen” was made. “It’s nice to keep it in the family.”)

Last year, Sweden ranked third in terms of worldwide record sales—an incredibly disproportionate figure considering that its population is 10 million people and that its GDP is one-tenth that of the United States. “I have three thoughts on why we are so good at pop music,” said Bagge, 50, who, as co-founder of a production company in Stockholm, has written and produced hits for Madonna, Janet Jackson, and Jennifer Lopez. Bagge has sat in the Simon Cowell chair for 10 years on Swedish Idol. “Somebody told me that we are so successful because Björn and Benny peed in the water. Then, we all must study music every year until we finish high school. And we’re perfectionists.” A fourth reason Swedes do pop music so well is simply because they love it. Spotify was founded in Stockholm, and the country has no legacy of pop that is its own, much in the way Japan perfected jeans in the 1980s: a ridiculously successful commerce born out of obsessive love. “We’ve watched a lot of American artists on MTV growing up,” says Caroline Hjelt, one-half of Icona Pop. “For us it was absolutely most natural to express ourselves and sing in English.”

7. LykkeLi 8. SayLouLou 9. IconaPop

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In high school, there are specialized music programs where teens can study only music—including pop, and then continue studies at the university level as well. “You actually get paid to study, and from the government,” says Skott, whose full name is Pauline Skött. “I think this is why so many try and why people can really dive into it, getting into the handcraft.” Today there are even more specialized schools (Bagge has opened one) where young people armed with laptops and finely tuned eardrums line up to dissect the melodies by Björn and Benny, Max Martin, and Robyn. “We definitely will imitate the best until we make it our own,” Bagge says.

“I got to learn about who came before me,” says Alma Ced- erlö, who chose the name Grant in school, after Cary Grant. “But most of all I learned the importance of melodies.” She goes on to explain that the central through line of a song is the melody. Equivalent to the narrative arc of a TV show, it is a series of pitches that dip in and out of harmony. The melody, says Grant, is of utmost importance and it’s what most, if not all, Swedish pop hits have in common. “There’s something magic about our melodies, you know? We really take our time to get it right.” She mentions Robyn, who recently took eight years to record an album. “Our melodies can sound—what’s the word? Familiar.”

“I love when I can hear a song and immediately I understand it,” says Tove Styrke, who got her start when she placed third on Swedish Idol in 2012. She references ABBA’s “Gimme Gimme Gimme.” “I hear the chorus once and I can sing along. And then I listen more to it, it gets deeper and I realize that there are layers to it. And that there are, like, real emotions in there.”

“Whatever Swedes do, we want to get it right. We are workaholics,” says Bagge. “We get very focused. So even with a pop song we are that way. Everything is in its place. There’s an order.” He lists songs such as Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own” and “Young Folks” by Peter, Björn, and John as classic examples of this slick and highly contagious class of songwriting. And “Dancing Queen,” of course.

“We’re still Vikings, you know,” Bagge says. “Just with a synth in our hand instead of a sword.”

To understand the canon of Swedish pop is to understand the geography of Sweden. The country, founded along trading routes by, yes, Vikings, is still quite remote. While the majority of people live today in the more populated southern region, the country reaches up into the Arctic Circle. That’s where Yttling, 44, grew up—without electricity, playing traditional Swedish folk songs on his family’s pump organ right across from where Stieg Larsson was writing The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. “There’s a long winter here, dark days and darker nights,” he says. “Talking is weirder than being quiet, so you stay inside and dream.” And create.

4. Björn Yttling of Peter, Björn, and John 5. Robyn 6. Tove Styrke

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Yttling says the foundation of Swedish pop can be found in traditional, somewhat sad folk songs—such as “Herr Man- nelig,” about a troll roaming through snow looking for love. “It’s only the drumming that’s the difference. They’re about how the winter is here but spring will come. But then winter will be here again.” He laughs and says, “I know, depressing. But really, it’s like happy and sad.”

That happy-sad thing comes up a lot in speaking to Swedish pop artists. There’s a word for it, and it has no direct translation—vemod. And it’s at the heart of Swedish pop.

“It’s like always lingering melancholy and sadness,” explains Elektra Kilbey-Jansson, one-half of the duo known as Say Lou Lou. She and her twin sister, Miranda, grew up in Stockholm singing folk songs with their mother, who was in the first all-girl rock group in Sweden, known as Pink Champagne. “Vemod is longing for something,” says Miranda. “It’s a feeling that sits in you forever.” She explains that Swedish writers have a great way to work with it. “ABBA especially.” The twins start singing “Knowing Me, Knowing You.”

Memories, good days, bad days
They’ll be with me always
In these old familiar rooms, Children would play
Now there’s only emptiness
Nothing to say

Miranda says, “Swedes are just so good at nailing that feeling of despair.”
Elektra says, “Despair, but also hope.”
“Bittersweet.”
“But sweet,” Elektra explains that this is where the Swedish pop production comes together, bringing lyrics, melody, chorus, and beat combined with vemod to create a hit song, one, no doubt, you’ll one day dance or boot camp to. She says it’s ultimately about acceptance—accepting that the sadness will always be there but not making such a big deal about it. Lykke Li is really good at using vemod, she says. Robyn, the Cardigans, and Tove Styrke too.

“People don’t even know they are doing it,” says Miranda. “It’s just there in our songs. It’s what we are like here. We know not to expect too much, not to think everything is going to be, you know, rainbows and—”

“A walk in the park,” says Elektra.

“Our songs are just deep, in a different way than other nationalities’,” Miranda says, acknowledging that she and her sister aren’t merely following in ABBA’s footsteps but stand- ing on their shoulders. “Our songs don’t have to be this, like, ‘Oh, I’m dramatic, some long poetry, Bob Dylan verse.’ There’s something that’s very quaint and simple and—”

“Catchy.”