Melodifestivalen is an annual singing competetion in which the people of Sweden select the singer and song that will represent the nation in that year’s Eurovision song contest. So, imagine an annual singing competition in which people who are generally professional performers perform one song that is written by or for them. The nation chooses a winner who then performs against the songs from other countries. The contest has been taking place since the 1950s and it is HUGE, at least here in Sweden where folks widely recognize pop culture as one of their top exports. The whole thing feels kind of like American Idol on steriods and with the pride of the nation at stake.
Melodifestivalen 2012 kicked off right here in Växjö shortly after our arrival and it has been going steady ever since. I must admit that I have been somewhat horrified by the national-cultural phenomenon that is Melodifestivalen.
Why the horror? Well, first, the music hasn’t really wowed me. Then there is the whole nationalism thing that feels just as dangerous to me when 9 million people are singing the same song as it does when sports arenas are filled with people chanting “U! S! A!” but I can get past that.
My struggle mostly derives from my general skepticism in the face of the mainstream and my own hang-ups about the universal mainstream-ness of MF (especially considering the average quality of the product everyone is going gaga over). Before the kids could speak any real Swedish they were singing the songs and memorizing the performers from MF (this year AND last year, too). I thought it was great that they were finding ways to connect with their new schoolmates but wondered aloud to my friends how they were actually hearing the music and seeing the performances and about the quality of the music and lyrics. Folks would generally say that they knew the music wasn’t great but that the kids loved it. It always sounded to me like people were talking about Melodifestivalen as something that they smilingly indulged their children in – like going with them to see Spy Kids 27 or keeping them in Pokemon cards (such indulgences seem more common here generally). But then Jie-jie came home to tell me how they were having a Melodifestivalen talent show at school. One day when I went to pick-up Mei-mei I found her dancing to her favorite MF song, Babydoll. They had the CD at school. Once I learned the songs (and how could you avoid it), I encountered them everywhere.
So, this isn’t just some craze among the kids. It is something that is actively created and disseminated by adults. The kids love it, but they love it in part because the adults love it too. When I suggest to my friends that this is more than kid’s music, they generally talk about MF as something that is crucial to understanding Sweden. In most cases they have equated Melodifestivalen with the Superbowl in terms of how big it is and its significance to contemporary Swedish culture and identity. I don’t get it but, hey, I don’t get the superbowl either.
All that being said, I did catch the bug a little last night when Sweden’s champion, Loreen singing the song euphoria, won the Eurovision song contest! Today Loreen graced the covers of all the newspapers. Euphoria was in the air, on the airwaves and on the tip of many tongues. At the end of Jie-jie’s dance recital the dance teachers even did a special performance of Euphoria in honor of Loreen’s (and Sweden’s) victory.
Melodifestivalen, the soundtrack of Sweden and a cornerstone of the national cultural context. I find myself shaking my head and smiling that indulgent smile several times a day.