In this edition of The Internet's Fave Weekly Pop Chat™, columnist Douglas Greenwood contemplates the connotations of the pop scene's most zealously used phrase, and why Scandinavian pop stars deserve better than to be bundled into the same category.
Few terms in the music sphere carry as much clout as ‘Scandi-pop’ does. It’s a sub-genre created as a marker of sonic excellence; a sign that you’re about to encounter something few artists in the English speaking pop scene have the autonomy and talent to pull off themselves.
There’s a slew of stars that are listed alongside it: Robyn, MØ, Tove Lo, ALMA, Lykke Li, Tove Styrke, Zara Larsson, Sigrid – heck, we can include ABBA on this list too. But is it fair to bundle them together based purely on two common qualities: their penchant for bangers and the land they grew up in?
After all, that chilly corner of northern Europe has earned itself a reputation for producing miraculous, spirit-lifting, emotionally dense pop music. Sonically, there’s nobody else doing it quite like they do. Even producers like Max Martin (who made his triumphant return with Ariana’s No Tears Left to Cry this year after a dodgy half decade fighting chart music’s hip hop zeitgeist) are considered true pioneers of their genre. There’s certainly something in the water.
October marks a killer moment for one of Scandinavia’s biggest pop stars. MØ, perhaps the most commercially successful of the lot, releases her excellent sophomore LP Forever Neverland on Friday. Meanwhile, the plucky Tove Styrke drops her new single ‘Vibe’, slap bang in the middle of a world tour that’s bringing her to the UK next month.
“It’s definitely not condescending,” she tells me, backstage before her LA show, of the way her music is so swiftly described with a term that seems to be everywhere. “But obviously, it’s a hard one to navigate, because when people say they “love Scandi-pop” I’m usually wondering ‘Which artist?’ because we all sound so different.” The positives, in her eyes, tend to outway the negatives though: That being said, I’m so happy to be part of this culture that exists in Sweden [and Scandinavia]. There are so many talented people making really good stuff that’s making an impact outside of it.”
She is, among others, talking about the hotly anticipated return of Robyn, something I’ve gushed over extensively in the past. Her new record is a searingly hot anti-pop record of sorts, packed with songs that practically demand to be lived in and loved rather than mishandled and loved for nothing more than a hot minute. They’re not as instantly permeating as her earlier records – especially not the pop masterwork ‘Body Talk’, but it’s still wildly impressive to witness.
It’s at times like these we start to pick apart the nuances among pop music in general, as well as the way in which artists like Robyn differ from her Scandinavian contemporaries. New Zara Larsson material drops later this week, and although it’s a little less sweet (or smouldering) than what we’ve heard from her before, it’s still a million miles away from the music Robyn, or Tove Lo, or Lykke Li is making these days.
So when we refer to our favourite Nordic singers as ‘Scandi-pop sensations’, what is it that we’re doing? Are we giving them the opportunity to have their work noticed; aligning them with some of the greatest pop stars of our time? Or are we subconsciously throwing our most eclectic talents into a simple, unambiguous category that allows journalists to automatically assume they all have the same end goals in sight? ‘Scandi-pop’ seems like a glorious term on the surface, but maybe it’s time to take it a little more lightly than we have previously.
Maybe we should be spending less time fawning over a musician’s home country and more about the singular and impressive music they’re making. Sure, there’s some truth in this idea of Scandinavian stars all being hugely talented – but is that because they’re skilled, intelligent songwriters and performers, or purely because of the place they call home? I’d probably argue that it’s the former keeping that iconic scene afloat.