Sweden’s 2019 Eurovision entry, John Lundvik (who also helped write the UK’s entry), narrowly lost to The Netherland’s Duncan Laurence in Saturday night’s final, a defeat felt all the more in Eurovision-obsessed Sweden, as STINA BACKER explains…
To the rest of the world, Sweden seems to represent all that is enviably European. Scandinavia’s largest country has a reputation for being stylish, progressive and glacially cool. So it may come as a surprise to some to learn that the Swedes take the annual song competition – occasionally viewed by some of their neighbors as a bit of a joke – very seriously indeed. Unlike many other western European countries, the privilege of representing Sweden at the annual contest is hotly contested, through a grueling series of televised heats which have grown to become more popular than Eurovision itself.
Melodifestivalen, a six-week, American Idol-style TV series in which established acts compete against unknowns has broken every ratings record. Nearly half of the entire population tune in and a 2015 study showed that over Eurovision weekend, Swedes purchase 385 tonnes of potato chips, a massive increase on the average 126 tonnes every other Friday. It seems even health conscious Swedes let themselves go for one weekend a year.
“Melodifestivalen is the Swedish equivalent to the Superbowl,” says Per Blankens, who produced the 2006 and 2007 shows. “No other show gets the Swedes so rallied up. People put on dinner parties just so they can watch it together. They even get dressed up for the occasion.”
The show has proven an invigorating force for the Swedish music industry, reviving old pop careers, launching new ones and selling thousands of records and concert tickets in the process. But why do the Swedes, often viewed as cool, collected tastemakers, get so worked up about a contest widely seen as having little musical credibility?
“Not only are all the most popular television shows in Sweden music-related, but choral singing is the second most popular pastime after sport. It’s only natural for us to get worked up about a music competition.”
That love of music has translated to a long history of Eurovision success, with the most wins in the competition after Ireland (seven), France, Luxembourg and the UK (five each). The love affair began when ABBA won the 1974 contest with Waterloo, launching them on their way to become one of the biggest-selling bands of all time.
ABBA perform Waterloo at the 1974 contest in Brighton
“Watching Eurovision is a national tradition in Sweden,” says Maria Åkesson, a motion graphics student from Stockholm. “When I was a kid it was the only night, apart from New Year’s Eve, that my parents let me to stay up past midnight. People at house parties usually take the betting really seriously but we add silly categories like the worst outfit or the worst song.”
Melodifestivalen‘s timing – screening over six weeks in winter – is seen as another reason for its enduring appeal.
“Sweden in the winter can be quite depressing,” says Sebastian Hjalmarsson Downey-Clark, a self-confessed Eurovision addict who works in London as a primary school teacher. “When Melodifestivalen starts airing in February we’re in the middle of this season, but every week leading up to the final is a week closer to spring. It’s almost as if Melodifestivalen is the vessel that carries Sweden from the dark of winter to the light of summer.”
2019’s Swedish entry: John Lundvik with Too Late for Love
Melodifestivalen is nearly as old as Eurovision itself, having run almost every year since 1959. But it wasn’t always such a polished affair.
“In the 1990s the competition was struggling,” says Christer Björkman, a former hairdresser who won Melodifestivalen in 1992. “There weren’t enough good artists wanting to take part so it was decided that something radical needed to happen.”
In 2002 Björkman oversaw the transformation of the competition from one-off contest between ten songs into a six-week pop marathon of thirty two. The ultimate winner is decided by a combination of public vote and a jury that consists of Swedish industry experts and Eurovision judges from eleven other countries. The new format, featuring knock-out semi-finals held in cities across Sweden, was a smash hit, and Björkman has been involved in the production of every contest since. Today he is known as ‘Mr Melodifestivalen‘.
“Taking the show on the road was incredibly important to its success as it galvanized local support,” Björkman explains. “Equally as important was the fact that the audience now have weeks to familiarise themselves with the songs. They form emotional attachments to the songs and, ultimately, the winner too – which is one of the reasons why so many Swedes still care about how we do in Eurovision.”
The resulting surge of interest in Melodifestivalen sees thousands of songs submitted to the contest each year, and has been a boon to the Swedish music industry.
“The competition is enormously important for the Swedish music industry because not only does it launch new careers and revives old ones, it sells a lot of albums too,” says Björkman. “From winter to spring, Melodifestivalen songs occupy the charts.”
The Swedes are aware that not every country shares their infatuation with Eurovision, but given the benefits to Sweden’s music industry, perhaps the question shouldn’t be ‘why does Sweden care?’, but ‘why don’t others?’.
“Ultimately, you get what you give,” says Bjorkman. “Melodifestivalen‘s success owes much to the Swedish tendency not to do things by half measures.”
And, though he didn’t win, John Lundvik can take comfort in the fact that even the unsuccessful entrants become Swedish celebrities for life.
STINA BACKER writes for CNN.
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This article has also been published in CNN.