Music: a front-row seat in Swedish class

- in Column, In English, Krönikor, Kulturkrönika

Why are swedes so obsessed with schlager? And why does every party end with Stad i ljus? Lundagård’s culture columnist Ondrej Gomola reflects over Swedish music and what it says about the country’s residents.

I like living in Sweden. It provides an endless source of joy, cinnamon buns and, at times, confusion. Music, partly thanks to the stellar success of the likes of ABBA and Avicii, plays a big role in Swedish society. Sure, Spotify was invented here, but there’s also the craze around Melodifestivalen (literally “the melody festival”) where Sweden selects its Eurovision contestants. Compared to other European nations, let’s just say that Eurovision and Melodifestivalen are a big deal here.

The latter is also sometimes referred to as schlagerfestivalen, a testament to the many schlager songs in the competition each year. Another testament to Swedes’ obsession with schlager: there’s a club in Lund run by the Helsingkrona nation which plays—you guessed it—mostly schlager music. This I came to realize after the first few songs. Admittedly, its name should’ve been a hint: Schlagernatt (“schlager night”). As a naïve foreigner, I thought it would be fun. Instead, the relentless screaming of songs I didn’t understand made my mind wander towards the medicinal applications of trepanning. Perhaps more ingestion of intoxicating beverages was required. Perhaps. 

But I digress.

Learning Swedish is a good idea, even if most Swedes have an excellent command of English. It helps you vaguely understand Melodifestivalen’s presenters and comes in handy at your local supermarket. But nothing teaches you a language and culture like its music.

When I arrived here in Sweden, I took SFI and various svenska som främmande språk (Swedish as a foreign language) courses, but they only got me so far. The rhythmic tones of the language are hard to master. To a foreigner’s untrained ears, a lot of it sounds like an undulating singing. Imagine being in a musical you don’t understand surrounded by blond people. Sweden in a nutshell. Jokes aside, when you are actually listening to the mellow tunes of Ted Gärdestad or Kent, you’re actually in the front-row seat of Swedish class. You’re no longer clueless when it comes to Håkan Hellström and, as a true Lund student, you know the lyrics of Stad i ljus by heart. There’s nothing that beats the moment at the end of a sittning, ball or club when you link arms with your friends and random students and belt out the song’s chorus, shattering eardrums in the process.

It is a curious thing, music. It has been used by humans for millennia to entertain, communicate and relax. Music can be political or music can disseminate ideas. Often, songs are sung about love (or lack thereof). Or they can be about trains. Music can be whatever you, the musician or listener want it to be. It’s also an excellent way to explore a new culture or learn a new language. 

Before my Swedish exams, I would listen to lots of Swedish music. I hoped that would have some sort of positive effect on my exam performance. But that’s not the only reason why I did it. Many of the songs I’ve discovered over the last year-and-a-bit are pretty damn good: I am listening to them as I write this column. People who haven’t lived in Sweden say that people here are “cold”. Sure, in winter, they might need a cup of coffee to warm up. But from their rich culture and music emanates a warmth unlike any other.