- Songs from Sweden: Shaping Pop Culture in a Globalized Music Industry by Ola Johansson
There is a fundamental tension at the center of Ola Johansson’s Songs from Sweden: Shaping Pop Culture in a Globalized Music Industry. On the one hand, Johansson’s study aims to illuminate the generative hybridity of a transnational commercial music culture, in which circulatory routes take precedence over communitarian roots. This is the story of popular cultural production in an irreducibly globalized world, of a Swedish node in a transnational network. On the other hand, Johansson goes to great lengths to establish the specifically national character of that same music culture, which, he tells us, informs and shapes the creative methods and musical aesthetics of the artists, writers, and producers about whom he writes. What, his book asks, is uniquely Swedish about contemporary global pop?
Throughout much of the text, this tension proves illuminating. Assembling a robust archive of media reports, audio recordings, and videos, Johansson traces the careers of approximately three dozen main players in the Swedish popular music industry over the past 3 decades. Two points stand out in this account of Sweden’s turn-of-the-century music economy. First, the exponents of Sweden’s popular music industry are manifestly transnational and variously “multicultural” (Johansson explicitly notes, for example, the multi-ethnic heritages of some of his subjects, about which more below). Successful writer-producers like Max Martin, Jörgen Elofsson, and Rami Yacoub, and many others, thrive on [End Page 287] the ethnoscapes and mediascapes (movements of people and sounds) that articulate Global Cities like London, New York, and Los Angeles, but also, Johansson insists, less populous but no less cosmopolitan cities like Stockholm. Several Swedish writer-producers have second homes and workplaces on the American coasts (LA in particular). All are native to the trends and tastes that twenty-first-century global modernity has engendered. Secondly, this same community is also remarkably local. Many of the purveyors of what Johansson terms “The Swedish Music Miracle 2.0” (following the post-ABBA “1.0” success of Swedish pop bands abroad through the 1990s) share a common backstory: growing up in the city (mostly Stockholm); attending the same schools (such as the elite public high school, Södra Latin, also in Stockholm); and forging deep and lasting friendships, the edifice of an enduring “people network” that is as intimate as it is innovative. This is an artistic community that is defined more by camaraderie than competition—a collectivist spirit of “teamwork” that may be traced, Johansson explains, to the egalitarian spirit of Sweden’s welfare state (p. 73), known by many as “the people’s home” (folkhemmet).
But the tension—between roots and routes, globalization and a strong sense of place—also leads Johansson’s analysis astray at times, particularly when questions of the essential “Swedish-ness” of this popular music community are posed. Before addressing the troubling resonances of ethnic (and, more subtly, racial) nationalism embedded in such queries, let me first consider an interpretive path not taken. Reading Songs from Sweden, I was surprised that Johansson did not more fully engage with the apparent “friction” (Anna Tsing’s evocative term for the local struggles that shape global interactions [Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection, Princeton University Press, 2004]) born of this dynamic of transnationalism and localism in Sweden’s millennial popular music industry. One might have homed in on this irreducibly “glocal” existential condition, so palpably present in the author’s data set, as the uneven but no less foundational ground upon which this particular music industry rests. Further, one might have highlighted the particular “cosmopolitanism” (whether “rooted” or “vernacular,” depending on what theory you prefer) of this urban and decidedly middle-class community of musical entrepreneurs, socialized within a common cultural (and not merely “national”) milieu to fashion careers that are equally—indeed, emphatically—at home in the world.
To be sure, narrative threads of such a story, of what ethnomusicologist Thomas Turino calls a “cosmopolitan cultural formation” (“Are We Global Yet? Globalist Discourse, Cultural...