There’s an effect in computer animation called the “uncanny valley”: when human characters look too real, there’s a sudden shift in the way we perceive them, and they become uncomfortable to watch. Our focus switches to the tiny differences between simulation and reality, precisely because they’re so small.
I have a related theory about the disproportionate success of Swedish pop music: the English spoken there is a little too good, too similar to native English, so that the lyrics trigger the same kind of mental switch. But in this case it has the opposite effect — rather than being off-putting, it makes the songs more catchy and compelling. I’ll come back to why that might be, but first let me give some examples of what I mean.
A lot of what I’m talking about is not so much any specific syntax as a general tendency towards bluntness and exposition. You can see this right from the beginning, in ABBA’s Eurovision-winning breakout song “Waterloo” (1974), which is almost too easy an example. Could any native English speaker have written the lyrics “at Waterloo Napoleon did surrender / and I have met my destiny in quite a similar way”? Compare it to the Phil Spector-produced “You Came, You Saw, You Conquered,” which makes the same central joke (falling in love = military defeat) without spelling it out quite so clearly.
This matter-of-fact tone is especially well-suited to bad news, as demonstrated by everyone from Roxette (“It must have been love / but it’s over now”) to the Cardigans (“I fear we’re facing a problem / you love me no longer”) to Jens Lekman (“I’m leaving you / because I don’t love you”).
But there are also subtle differences in word usage, as in ABBA’s “Dancing Queen,” which uses a gerund where it sounds like a participle (when I heard it as a child, I pictured a queen, in full regalia, dancing); or in their “Money Money Money,” which uses “funny” like “fun.” The best example of this is “All That She Wants,” by Ace of Base, which confused millions of listeners with the lines “all that she wants / is another baby / she’s gone tomorrow, boy.” Because “baby” as a term of endearment isn’t often used in the third person, much less for a one-night stand (which is what the song’s about), it sounded like the title character was actually trying to get pregnant and have “another” baby. Since she spends the rest of the song lying in the sun and picking up men, without any previous babies in evidence, it made for a pretty complex character sketch, and ranks with Alanis Morrissette’s confusion about the meaning of ironic as one of the more puzzling musical moments of the ‘90s.
Why doesn’t this happen as much with other European acts who sing in English? Often because they get native English speakers to write their lyrics, as Nena did when she turned the German “99 Luftballons” into “99 Red Balloons,” or Peter Schilling when he translated “Major Tom.” But even when they do write in English, they don’t always have the same delight in wordplay, quirky expressions and figures of speech. And this is the real key to why Swedish lyrics are so appealing. Having fun with language is half the point of pop lyrics, and it may be that you need a little distance from a language (but not too much) to really have fun with it. It’s possible to achieve that distance from your native language, of course, but it’s not always easy. Think of John Updike’s famous quote about non-native English speaker Vladimir Nabokov, that he wrote English prose “the way it should be written — ecstatically.”
Two more recent examples of a Swedish band using the English language creatively are “Heartbeats” by the Knife and “Rent-a-Wreck” by Suburban Kids with Biblical Names. The lyrics of both songs lie somewhere between a string of imagery and a coherent narrative. A sample from the second one: “I visit your city and I slept on your floors / I borrowed your swings and I’ve heard you’re hardcore / All the scores / of the C to the A / and the youth of today / and it’s beautiful…” It’s like the singer is trying to tell a story, but keeps getting distracted by the sound of the words he’s using and digressing into little side-rhymes and snippets of other things he’s heard. In that respect it reminded me a bit of Jack Kerouac, another writer for whom English was a second language.
Of course, there’s a lot of evidence that this theory doesn’t explain, particularly the massive success of Swedish acts in places like Japan. And why haven’t other Scandinavian countries been as prolific on the global scene? They all have big metal scenes, but that’s a whole different thing. And there’s Bjork, of course, but frankly it seems like the idea of Bjork is more popular than her actual music; an interesting form of purgatory would be an all-Bjork karaoke bar, in which all of us teenagers of the ‘90s who’ve alluded to her with casual familiarity realize that we can’t actually remember any of her songs all the way through. Denmark has given us Lars Ulrich and “Barbie Girl,” of which the latter displays some of the above elements. The few Norwegian acts I’ve heard also seem to fit the bill: Röyksopp’s lyrics have some of that same impressionistic feel to me as the Knife, and the Kings of Convenience share the faux-innocent bluntness of Jens Lekman.
Now, I’m not saying that these effects are unique to Scandinavian artists singing in English. I think you could get them with any artist writing lyrics in a second language that they’re equally familiar with. And lyrics are hardly the only reason these artists have been successful. But I think these lyrical quirks are definitely an overlooked factor in their appeal.
[Thanks to my Swedish friends Elsa and Jenny for their help on this post, especially with the more recent bands. Jenny adds: “it’s easier for us to say/write things in English that feel too rough or hard to say in Swedish. The English words don’t mean the same thing to many as the Swedish words. A word like ‘love’ has almost lost its effect on many Swedes, it’s so easy to say to anyone and it doesn’t mean that you love (in Swedish: älskar) them. ‘Falling in love’ and the Swedish ‘kär’ are so different for a Swede, even if they are essentially the same word.”]