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).
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.
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.
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.
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.