Bitter-Swede Symphony: Why We Love and Hate Sweden At Eurovision Written by on April 24, 2016 | 5 Comments

Sweden occupies a curious place in the heart of the Eurovision Song Contest, in parts loved by fans as a unifying force of love, in other parts cast down as the ultimate agent of selfish chaos and change. Jasmin Bear looks at the relationship between country and Contest.

If someone has uttered the word Sweden in your presence during the past twelve months, chances are – in your capacity as a Eurovision fan – you’ve reacted in one of two ways: swooned dramatically as your brain conjured up images of Carola hitting a note so high, it shatters the glass box she’s crab-dancing in with Cartoon Stick Man; or rolled your eyes as you were reminded that yet again, we’re off to the land of lingonberry jam for Eurovision purposes (and that you’ll see the smug mug of Christer Björkman at some point).

I’m not saying there’s no middle-ground reaction – but it has to be said that Sweden often stirs up emotions at extreme ends of the adorable/deplorable spectrum. If you’re a Eurovision fan and a user of social media, you’ll know that better than anyone.

Sweden, Our Flat-Packed Home

Although Sweden didn’t host their first contest until 1975, the country has become the spiritual home of the Eurovision Song Contest – a home furnished with affordable flat-pack furniture, of course. And, with the likes of Abba, the aforementioned Carola, and Loreen among their archived ESC artists, there’s a Swedish success story to be found in every decade. Out hosts for 2016 are synonymous with success – yet that status has divided many fans into two distinct camps: those who are self-proclaimed Swedophiles; and those who are sick and tired of Sweden, and their unstoppable smörgåsbord of success.

My tent has long been pitched in the former camp’s camp territory, where I’d (hypothetically, honestly, just saying) miss my best friend’s wedding to watch Melodifestivalen, and where I unconditionally wave a flag of convenience for Sweden’s entry. So I can’t ignore all the insults tossed the country’s way within the fan community, overshadowing any compliments.

It’s a curious love-hate relationship that runs deeper than mere difference of opinion. But what drives it? It might be beneficial to try and find out, what with Sweden inviting us to another of their Eurovision parties in just a few weeks’ time. We’ve all rsvped – but how many of us are actually happy to be attending?

Admiring The Annoyingly  Competent Contestant

I’m no expert when it comes to identifying irony. Nonetheless, I figure there must be a hint of it in the fact that, while Sweden have “won” so often lately at Eurovision (two third-place and two first-place finishes between 2011 and 2015 is nothing if not “winning”), they’ve found it difficult to win over the myriad of fans with anti-Sweden attitudes – ranging from mild dislike to a full-on vendetta (based on all the comments I’ve seen between Måns Zelmerlöw’s victory and now, politely urging Sweden to excuse themselves from the Song Contest’s top step this year).

Come together on the streets of Stockholm (Image: SVT)

Come together on the streets of Stockholm (Image: SVT)

Intense irritation towards an entire country’s participation seems rather odd and like something that would horrify Marcel Bezençon. But perhaps it’s no stranger than someone like me being hopelessly devoted to that same country, no matter what they send to Eurovision (unless it’s ‘La Voix’. That, I could barely tolerate). It’s likely that a source of both the Sweden-oriented distaste and devotion lies in its reputation, and the resulting fan expectations.

Given Sweden’s status as the Contest’s golden child, complete with Herreys-approved gyllene skor; their polished, slickly-produced brand of pop music that has made a global mark; and the affection many of us have for Melodifestivalen (which I’ll return to in a moment) means a fair amount of fans may be “conditioned” to see Sweden’s entries through rose-coloured, glitter-encrusted glasses. We expect SVT to deliver a high-standard song based on previous form and on their desire to uphold their stellar reputation – so it doesn’t take much for those of us that way inclined to decide that they have.

Conversely, those expectations can be a turn-off to those who don’t need a big push to say ‘nej’ to Sweden. And they can lead to an acute awareness that attaching a Swedish label to a song can alter opinions of it. I’m sure everyone has seen or heard someone claim that a Eurovision entry from Eastern Europe or the Balkans, for example, would be receiving a more positive reception if Sweden were sending it. There’s a degree of truth in that, and the unfairness of it is understandable – but when a reputation such as Sweden’s is so easily built upon via hugely-successful entry after hugely-successful entry, should all of the subsequent anger be dumped on their doorstep? In other words, why should Sweden be criticised for upping the ante?

It’s easy to resent someone who rarely seems to have lemons lobbed their way by life. Sweden, in Eurovision terms, has definitely fit that description during the past five years. But let’s not forget that they have faltered before: Anna Bergendahl’s non-qualification in 2010 was the shock of the year, and Robin Stjernberg finished 14th on home ground in 2013 (a decent result, but not by Swedish standards).

Success tends to waver, as Azerbaijan – the Sweden of 2009-2013 – would agree. After Frans has finished telling us what would happen if he were sorry in Stockholm, fans could be left unsurprised by another impressive result (and wondering if 2017 will see the stumble); or feeling a little sorry for a Sweden that has, for once, been beaten at its own game. The latter could either be a cause for celebration or a lengthy sobbing session, depending on your standpoint regarding our hosts.

Melodifestivalen: The Two Sides of the Fan Frenzy

With Frans’ fate unknown, Sweden’s frequently failsafe formula for achieving a podium Song Contest finish is bubbling away nicely. As we all know, they begin to cook it up each year in March at Melodifestivalen. No other National Final elicits more of a mixed fan reaction, and ‘#Melfest‘ always ends up trending on Twitter as fans both flatter and deride it.

Melfest enamour arguably influences affection for the show’s winner, known thereafter as a Eurovision entry. Since 1959, Melodifestivalen has been Sweden’s method of selecting their song for Europe – but the now six-week, six-city extravaganza is more than a selection show. Consistently attracting a massive Swedish viewership, and luring in non-Swedes with its polished production, great music and the world’s most exciting phrase (“Sverige, vi har ett resultant!”), it has become an institution, and I don’t hesitate to set weekly 3am alarms in order to tune in. When I do, myself and the millions of others watching with me follow the winning song and artist (whether we recognise either as the winner or not) from first listen and first look, to their semi reprise; to Andra Chansen, on occasion; then on to the final.

Melodifestivalen 2013 Voting (image: SVT Direkt)

Melodifestivalen 2013 Voting (image: SVT Direkt)

If we like what we’ve heard and seen, we’ll support that song as it transitions from Melodifestivalen to Eurovision. As with contestants on reality TV, a rapport develops between competitor and consumer, and so does a story that we want to see end happily. Yes, I’ve just described the process of a passionate fan following any national final from go to whoa. The difference here is that ‘Made In Sweden’ label stitched somewhere on Melodifestivalen’s winner.

Sunshine and rainbows aside, Melfest is seen by some as an overrated, overproduced musical machine churning out clinical, cookie-cutter hit material – and to those fans, an unhappy ending to the winner’s story might be välkommen. But I must defend Sweden here: does any country win the Eurovision Song Contest by accident? Without any degree of calculation? Not often, if at all. Risky entries (like Belgium 2015) have the potential to pay off in the way of by-the-book, engineered-to-triumph entries (like Sweden 2015). But without any labour, there’ll be no fruit. It’s wrong to slam Sweden for success they’ve worked for, just like (most) other countries.

SVT Plus ESC Means ‘Melodifestivalen, The Sequel’

Whenever Sweden hosts Eurovision (i.e. every five minutes) the resemblance to Melodifestivalen is obvious. The upcoming Stockholm contest looks set to be the most Melfest-esque of all time thanks to the voting sequence overhaul – and that has also shaped the love-hate relationship between ESC fans and Sweden.

If Eurovision 2016 is more of an extension of Melfest than a standalone contest, however, that would make sense. Every year, a host broadcaster puts its own stamp on the show, and does their utmost to ensure it’s a fabulous and fuss-free contest. When you’re Sweden, and you have that six-week, six-city ratings-smasher to your name, naturally you’re going to use Melodifestivalen as a reference point when planning your Eurovision party.

Granted, the revamp of the way the points will be presented in May, modeled on Melfest, was a lot to take in. And Eurovision fans, like anyone else, can be resistant to change. But there are two important things to remember here. Firstly, the EBU Reference Group has the final say on any tweaks of the Eurovision format – SVT are no more able to mould the 2016 contest to their specifications (without permission) than ORF in 2015, or DR in 2014. Secondly, Melodifestivalen has moved beyond ‘music contest’ borders and morphed into an exciting primetime entertainment program – and that echoes the mission statement of the Reference Group regarding the Eurovision voting changes.

SVT and the EBU both want to create dynamic, attention-grabbing entertaining viewing. So if you don’t like the lengths they’ve gone to in order to achieve that goal, don’t point your finger purely at Sweden!

Is Eurovision Sweden’s Puppet On A String?

Sweden do have a more dominant Eurovision presence than many other participating countries, even when they’re not hosting. Take the spread of Swedish-penned songs throughout the competition. 2016 will see Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Lithuania, Malta, Moldova and Norway arrive in Stockholm with local songwriters in their corner, hoping they’ll be a good-luck charm. That practice is common, but carries negative connotations: to a fan, the concept of a country snapping up a Swedish track might seem desperate, underhanded, or both. In addition, it’s a move that has contributed to a sense of homogeny in the Contest of late, which in turn has contributed to bitter fan attitudes towards Sweden. Bitterness may be substituted for happiness, however, with those of us who are more Swede than sour.

Christer Bjorkman Looks Angry

Christer Bjorkman – Bitterness or happiness?

The individual making Sweden a more formidable Eurovision force at the moment is Christer Björkman. More than the man behind modern Melodifestivalen (and much, much more than a failed entrant of the 1990s), he’s producing the Stockholm show (having produced Malmö’s too); acted as a juror at the Belgian national final in January (having done the same for Cyprus in 2015); and just made front-page news in the UK after accusing the late Terry Wogan’s commentary of skewing peoples’ perceptions of the ESC. Basically, he’s Stefan Raab on steroids.

Not everyone is pleased to see his face popping up pan-continentally, or to hear him back an overhaul of the Eurovision rules that will allow him to create more ‘television magic’, though. It can’t be denied that the guy knows what he’s doing – particularly in the ‘how to transform a music contest into a ratings bonanza’ department. Yet Björkman is still the Chris Martin to Eurovision 2016’s Coldplay – meaning he was bound to cop a barrage of blame when the Contest underwent the equivalent of a shockingly experimental single release.

Ja, Sweden and Björkman do pull a lot of contest strings. But let’s not forget that the EBU is Eurovision’s boss body – not SVT. And it’s a certain Jon Ola Sand from neighboring Norway who is employed as the EBU’s Executive Supervisor (not that I’m suggesting all voting-revising anger should be redirected towards Norway).

From Måns to Frans

Adding further fuel to the fire of Swedish-based fan negativity was the country’s victory in Vienna. Måns Zelmerlöw’s win was somewhat unconventional, as Heroes took out Eurovision without topping the televote. That led to instant and widespread social media abuse of Sweden, more so than of the possible plot-holes in the voting procedure, as they were accused of literally stealing the show.

Mans Zelmerlow wins Eurovision, with a dash of Christer Bjorkman

Christer Bjorkman has a flashback to Copacabanana…

Had the outcome been better for Russia, they too would have become the target of fan frustration. If Polina Gagarina had held on to her early lead and won the contest in similar fashion to Sweden, the reaction would have been just as volatile, if not more so based on the nature of the fans’ relationship to Russia (one that may change for the better post-Stockholm). That doesn’t change the fact that Sweden are more often blamed for things out of their control than any other participating country. Think of the mass recruiting of Swedish songwriters, or the fact that we’re about to head off to a Scandinavian host country for the third time in five years. How dreadful… for our back balances!

Fast forward from the Grand Final of Eurovision 2015 to the final act of Melodifestivalen 2016, and there was Frans and ‘If I Were Sorry‘ being cattily criticised by people who must have forgotten that Frans is a seventeen-year-old boy, and not a metaphorical punching bag; and Sweden, like any other country, can choose whatever the heck they like to represent them, and that should be that. But, at the same time as fans were discussing other 2016 entries in terms of ‘If that was Sweden’s entry, everybody would love it’, they were being very vocal about not loving Sweden’s entry. Funny that.

It seems like hardcore followers of Eurovision either love Sweden because they’re Sweden, or dislike them for the same reason. The country may be a powerhouse participant, but like all of their fellow competitors bar the Big 5, they have always had to fight their way out of the semi finals (if they haven’t been hosting, or weren’t automatically qualified between 2004-2007), and they have failed before. Anna Bergendahl’s miss lends Sweden a less impressive qualification record than Azerbaijan, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Greece, Romania, Russia and Ukraine. News flash: they are fallible, even if proof is rare.

To The End

There are a great deal of reasons why Eurovision fans feel drastically differently about Sweden. As such, I believe that the bad juju goes far deeper than disagreement, and that the simmering resentment always boiling to the surface can be excessive. I’m not asking anyone to make like me and build a Carola shrine in their Ikea catalogue of a bedroom – but if you are a fan who has used social media (or a friend, family member or stranger on the street) as an outlet to express how ticked off you are at Sweden, then there are a few things you might want to keep in mind.

Know that good fortune rarely lasts forever. See Germany’s string of successes between 2010 and 2012, when they struck gold out of nowhere…and then came Cascada. Recognise the difference between voicing an opinion and spewing forth a stream of hate more melodramatic than Sanja Vučić on stage.

And when the countdown clock in Norrmalmstorg hits zero, why not sit back, relax with a Rekorderlig and just enjoy a beautifully-engineered Eurovision Song Contest? At that, a Contest more likely to move on to Moscow, Marseilles or Melbourne (that’s patriotism talking, not bias) than anywhere else in Scandinavia. I suspect that, like Frans, you wouldn’t be sorry.

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5 responses to “Bitter-Swede Symphony: Why We Love and Hate Sweden At Eurovision”

  1. i think it’s a current society tread. rooting for the underdog and booing at the smug victor. sweden does get the brunt of it because their successful. IDk if ireland got the same hate when they won it three time in a row. i think they did.

    TBH, i’m one of the swedish haters because of 1) the over relaiance of swedish composers make the constest bland and takes away the diffrent cultures of the nations of europe. 2) bjorkman, i don’t know why but he has this aura of not even funny simon cowell in him (or his trying be simon cowell to but failing)

    the does not mean i hate sweden as a country or as a music industry. their are great gems at melfest like last years second place ‘jar ar fir’ or this year ‘human’. plus, songwriters is sweden’s 3rd export next to ikea and chefs. so god bless sweden!!!

    also, if there’s another country you should take pity it’s the UK. it get more shade not just by fans but the general public.

    anyways , lots of love from the same face of the earth.

  2. Aufrechtgehn says:

    Very nice piece!

    I think it’s quite normal, heavy success always attracts a certain amount of backlash. Somebody said you’ve not really made it until you got at least 10% haters. 🙂

    I must say I have much respect for Björkman as a producer, and he said many true things in his latest speeches about Terry Wogan or the failure of German TV in establishing a successful preselection format. At the same time, I’m beginning to grow tired of his “why don’t you just all do as we do and copy Melodifestivalen” lectures.

    I also respect him for successfully having steered away the contest from the former “oh, it’s just trash”-attitude to a state-of-the-art, more or less respectable TV event. At the same time, I dearly miss the trash entries, the train wrecks, the Krassimirs, the Jeminis, the Guildos. The Eurovision menu gets more and more homogenous, we’re heading towards having 40plus alike-sounding, alike-looking, slickly produced, swedish-penned, same-formula entries. Which, in my book, is just as boring as the 25 alike-sounding, lightly folk-tinged, jury-optimized ballads we had in the dark ages of the early 90s.

    And I know, it’s not (entirily) Sweden’s fault that almost every single country is following Sweden’s lead. Still, I can’t fight the feeling that Christer is killing all the fun. And for that, I dislike him.

  3. Derek says:

    The recent release of Star Wars and its monumental success has caused me to give trends like this a lot of thought.

    Ireland once had the formula for success. The conditions were perfect for their brand of music to dominate the votes year after year. Then one day, the paradigm shifted and Ireland wasn’t “it” anymore. You can see it in their eyes, the determination to one day reclaim the title, but for whatever reason they just can’t find the right combination of factors that will take it.

    Sweden has, and while there are a number of people on either side of debate as to whether or not that’s a good thing, there’s no denying their dominance. I think the key to understanding the detractors is watching the Contest evolve each year into “Melodifestivalen 2.0”. Even if they have earned their premier rank, it violates our innate sense of fairness: everyone should be able to succeed, and they shouldn’t have to compromise who they are and be “Swedish” to do so.

    I enjoyed the new Star Wars movie well enough, but that doesn’t mean every movie that comes out bare the banner of Star Wars. So, too, do I not want to tune in and see “Sweden Presentes…Eurovision” year after year. Christer or someone in his circle should be prepared for the inevitable day when suddenly we hit peak Sweden, and their distinct style will no longer be what the people clamor for. It looked like it was going to be in 2010, but now there’s no telling when that day will be.

  4. Shai says:

    I am in the camp that think that Sweden’s current dominant position is not one that the contest benefits from.
    Like some of the commentators here, I fear that this leads to very homogeneous sound.Songs sound the same and seem to have the same production values, but a Swedish made song doesn’t necessarily leads to a Swedish result, which was what the country wanted from in the first place.

    The saying:”if this was a Swedish song, you will think differently”apply the other way around. If any song Sweden has sent, would have been sent by a different country, will it get the same result/praise as Sweden has received? I dare to say no. In fact I think it would have been butchered the moment it hits the airwaves or youtube.

    Sweden attitude of now is the one of “I know better and therefore everyone should do the same”. That is a patronising attitude and no one likes to be patronised. What works for Sweden may not and doesn’t work for everyone else. A more humble approach from Sweden would be a blessing but that may be too much to ask.

    Sweden’s dominant position should be decreased, the sooner the better. it will put the contest in the right balance. Countries may look for different routes, sounds and songs and by this they will find a way to be distinctive and unique. As long as countries rely on Swedish made songs and sound, they sound like a pail copy of something done and used before. That can’t be good, can’t it?

  5. Sweden says:

    Thank you for the post. Interesting read. Happy you like our National selection.

    Can’t speak for all Swedes, but I am Swedish. I grew up with Melodifestivalen and Eurovision Song Contest. Was a child during the 70-ies, a teenager during the 80-ies, have lived under a period when it was utterly uncool to watch it here in Sweden. When one could never let anyone know that one watched it, let alone loved it. For me it was a thing we did together as a family, a special day, like Christmas. In the middle of the 90-ies you could start telling people you liked Melodifestivalen and Eurovision. It began to be cool.

    Today Melodifestivalen is six weeks of happiness, beginning of February to middle of March. When it is dark, cold and you just long for something good. We’re a small country, less inhabitants in the whole country than people living in New York. In these six weeks we talk about the contest, the songs, the middle acts, the clothes. It’s something that unites us. We may not agree on the best song but it unites us. All rehearsals are sold out.To do well in Eurovision has always been a matter of Swedish National Pride.

    We’re proud that many people outside of Sweden like Melodifestivalen but it’s not like we force anyone to watch it or have an opinion. Anyone who wants to join in on the fun is always welcome, we like to share. But please don’t accuse us of ruining the show for everyone else.

    I started reading blogs and comments after Loreen won. This is the first comment I’ve ever made in a ESC forum. This year people don’t want Sweden to win, yet we get enormous criticism for choosing the wrong entry. Frans is not Eurovision enough. And let’s not forget plagiarism accusations… again.

    I’ve seen many Melodifestivalen finals live, many rehearsals too. Saw Frans live in Friends Arena, really liked him. Really stood out first time I heard the song. Thought he had the best entry. He’s 17-teen years old, has co-written the song, shy, the real deal, not playing any games, charming. I wouldn’t want my child to be bullied in social media like he has been the last month. Due to all that has been written about Sweden and Frans this year, I may not want us to win (imagine what will be said/written if we did) but I know I really want Frans to prove all social media haters wrong.

    Austria and France will get my vote this year. Like the songs very much. Hope they do well live.

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