If you go to the Eurovision Song Contest and look across the audience you see the most eclectic bunch of people from all over Europe for a huge party. Everybody is dressed up in their brightest outfits and their costumes are as loud as their cheers as they clap along to anything with a beat.
If you head to Melodifestivalen you’ll see much of the same. Except people are more likely to be from Eskilstuna than Estonia. The bright outfits are possibly a touch toned down, but made up for by bright feather boas, LED lit-up hats and homemade signs supporting their favourites. This subtle party look doesn’t tone down any clapping along though – if anything nobody catches onto a beat faster and more enthusiastically than a Swedish audiences.
These are all tiny differences. The big difference comes when you look around the room. A Eurovision audience is made up mainly of adults. A Melodifestivalen audience is dominated by families with small children. What is it about Melodifestivalen that makes it such a hit with children in a way Eurovision doesn’t?
Acts That Engage On Social Media
Unlike the Eurovision Song Contest, one feature of Melodifestivalen is the control that SVT, the Swedish public broadcaster, has on the acts that enter. They aren’t all chosen through a selection jury focused on choosing the best songs, half of those that enter each year are acts completely chosen by SVT. Generally speaking, these are names that diversify the competition and ensure it reaches out to all parts of Swedish society.
Amongst the examples in this year’s competition we have Anis Don Demina and Klara Hammarström. Anis is a rapper and DJ yet is equally as famous as a YouTuber, approaching 500,000 subscribers. Klara Hammarström has released music before Melodifestivalen, but is far better known as an upcoming equestrian and Reality TV star. They go along with the usual list of Idol entrants and former Melodifestivalen participants that so many kids already adore. What Anis and Klara can do is bring to SVT’s flagship program their own fan base cultivated in their separate social media bubbles.
There’s also a strong tradition in modern Melodifestivalen to feature songs that work in the children’s marketplace. Two acts that have become synonymous with Melodifestivalen in recent years are Dolly Style, and Samir & Viktor, who have such a huge following amongst children. Their songs don’t shy away from the crowd have have an in-your-face production that’s fully of catchy melodies. Infuriating to many who are not a child, but that’s not their target audience.
This is clear to see with Melodifestivalen’s voting system that was brought in during 2019. The majority of voting happens on the Melodifestivalen app, and voting blocs are created based on the user’s age. The youngest bloc goes from 3 to 9 years old – a bloc with a taste more musically different to its neighbour bloc (the 10 to 15 year old bloc) than any other age category.
Finally as well, there’s also the issue of timing. Melodifestivalen runs one hour earlier than the Eurovision Song Contest, starting at 20:00 CET. This is late for children, and many will get special permission to stay up feasting on sweeties and fizzy drinks in their quest to stay up for SVT’s biggest show , but this time slot still makes it a slot for family entertainment.
Starting an hour later puts the Eurovision Song Contest out of reach of being a competition for all in the way that Melodifestivalen is. During the preparations for the 2016 Eurovision Song Contest, SVT proposed moving the start time for the Eurovision Song Contest one hour forward. That suggestion didn’t happen – and it’s just another reason why Eurovision just has such a different and smaller popularity in Sweden to Melodifestivalen.
Hooked Before They Can Even Talk
What is most fascinating though is how SVT manage to get children hooked on Melodifestivalen at these very early ages. One of their highlights of children’s programming on their children’s channel SVT Barn was Minimello. From 2010 to 2017 this programme involves Swedish children designing their own Melodifestivalen artist using a toilet roll – and the top 16 designs were given short songs and performed them as finger puppets. In total over 35,000 characters were created and send in during the eight years of broadcast.
While SVT may not produce Minimello any more, the concept lives on. Anna Lidgren is a teacher for the preschool class at Engelska Skola in Upplands Väsby. A 30 minute drive from Stockholm, the school is picturesque in so many ways. There’s no fences and the children can roam alongside the adjacent Viking farm and woodland during breaks. There’s a constant learning environment where teachers eat lunch together with their students and school bells are not necessary. There’s also plenty of Melodifestivalen hits on rotation through February and beyond.
Anna has kept Minimello alive at the school, with all the kids creating their artist and then performing with it in a little puppet theatre to the song of their choice. And Anna’s not alone. There’s whole groups of teachers in Sweden sharing resources and inspiration – some run mock votings each Friday using the rehearsal clips and many other schools use it as a springboard to run a talent of singing competition.
All of this is aimed at children already in school. What about Melodifestivalen and pre-schoolers? Let me present to you the TV show Bolibomba, SVT’s flagship programme for children under the age of 5. The main character, Draken, is played by an actor in a green dinosaur costume. The show is being played out live around Sweden when towns are hosting the Welcome Party to thousands of small Swedish children.
Part of Bolibomba’s programming is directly Melodifestivalen related. For a selection of the songs in the competition, Draken taught the children how to dance along to their favourites. Each of the competing artists also had to take part and follow Draken’s lead. It’s somewhat jarring from an adult perspective seeing these artists in a whole new character of preschool entertainment.
It goes further. A separate series of Bolibompa Baby is aimed at children under the age of 2. The available songs made into animated format include many traditional Swedish traditional songs…and a few Melodifestivalen classics like ’Det gör ont’, ’Håll Om Mig’ and the 1999 winner ’Tusen och en natt’. Except that last song is translated into ’I want to have a cat.’
So if you are wondering where these Swedish children pick up their love of Melodifestivalen from, it’s happening before you, or they, even realise.
When Family Friendly Goes Too Far
It’s one thing to include children in the marketing and branding of Melodifestivalen. It’s different when there is criticism that the show is only becoming children’s entertainment rather than family entertainment. Tobbe Ek, writing for Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet, criticised the third Semi Final for a humour which only appealed to children.
Tobbe was critiquing in particular the interval acts for that Saturday’s show. The opening number with the three hosts was about the perils of live television, and how things could all go wrong and you may even hear words you shouldn’t hear in primetime television. Like ”scrotum”. Other sketches included host Lina Hedlund seeing a vision of producer Christer Björkman, appearing like some imaginary friend in her fantasy, and how Lina has to add that schlager glitter and glamour to every aspect of her daily routine. It does sound like I’m going through the kids section of the local library rather than a humour that all the family can enjoy.
For a comparison, let’s look at Melodifestivalen’s Hall of Fame, where one of the newly announced members made their fame through the show’s interval acts. That man was Björn Gustavsson, the Swedish comedian who did manage to create a humour that spanned across all ages. The song ’Carina Berg’ was a memorable highlight, combining mumbling through words and butchering lines while squeezing in one-liners that flew over the heads of small children. It worked on many levels and got the entire audience in Linköping that night on his side.
Humour, and the pitching of humour at the right level, is difficult to judge. Yet the danger is that Melodifestivalen falls into a path that makes it only something that is discussed on the playground rather than at a coffee break. And signs are that it is missing out, the viewing figures for the 3rd heat this year were the lowest since 2010.
Potentially the target audience is slanted that way. Some viewers have been asked to take a survey on Melodifestivalen’s app after each show. One of the questions asks viewers to on a scale how ’warm and friendly’ the show is. Warm and friendly are nice feelings, are safe feelings, are gentle emotions. But pardon me for wanting my song contest and family entertainment to take on difficult issues and give people a thought that goes beyond how cosy it is to watch Melodifestivalen.
It’s one thing to bring in artists like Sonja Aldén and Linda Bengtzing who clearly have popularity amongst long-time Meldodifestivalen viewers, as well as introducing the Hall of Fame. But again these nostalgic performances and memories just succeed in giving this inner glow as we reminiss their previous golden era. Thank you to Felix Sandman with ’Boys With Emotions’ purely because it dares to give a deeper message than anything else Melodifestivalen 2020 has offered.
Melodifestivalen becomes part of a children’s tradition from a very early age. It is hammered into culture both on TV and schools and has a huge following. But have we taken that direction too far? Have we ended up in a place where we want to create an inoffensive entertainment where the most shocking things will only succeed in making you snigger under your breath?
Kids here in Sweden are brought up to love Melodifestivalen. If we don’t make it a program for all then we make the show a turn off for even more of Sweden’s musical talents, and every song entered sounds like it’s merely an evolution of something else.
Or are we already at that point?