ABBA 1974: The Birth of Swedish Modernity?

Curator's Note

For me, this clip of ABBA's winning performance at the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest is more than three minutes of kitsch, nostalgia, irony and misogynist commentary. ABBA’s victory in 1974 was a moment in popular culture that played a part in shifting the image of Sweden as, “a country full of mountains, lakes and forests” (to borrow the words of the announcer) toward a conception of the nation as modern, culturally pro-active and urban-sexy. Sweden was not invisible on the global stage before ABBA: companies such as Volvo and Saab had put Sweden on the industrial map; the country had a long tradition of political activism with figures such as Raoul Wallenberg, Dag Hammarskjöld and Olof Palme; science and the arts had been influenced by the Nobel prize: and, in media, Ingmar Bergman was a “giant” on the global highbrow film circuit. While successful and well-known, however, these companies and individuals represented the dour side of the Swedish Lutheran ethic: safe but boring cars, holier-than-thou social democracy, pain-staking academic achievement and melancholy introspection (all in black and white, of course). ABBA were not alone in helping this shift along. Tennis star Björn Borg played an important (though different) role in re-packaging Sweden. While Björn and Benny of (the B and B of ABBA) were the nice Nordic guys you could be friends with, and Anni-Frid and Agnetha (the A and A) were the Swedish girls boys could take home to their mothers (after a quick swim in the lake), Borg was the ice-man who made “cool” cool through his long hair, headband, and inability to crack a smile. Both ABBA (with 370 million records sold) and Borg laid the groundwork for the subsequent industrialization of Swedishness. Perhaps the most famous contemporary example of this is the Swedish furniture outlet IKEA: bright, fun (but with an undercurrent of seriousness), functional and globally successful. If ABBA and Björn Borg had had a child together in the 1970s, it would have grown up to become IKEA.


fascinating piece, Christian. While my knowledge of Sweden is limited, I can definitely see how these international competitions become important sites for not only gaining cultural capital but redefining it on a global stage. ABBA definitely makes Sweden look hip and sexy, the type of place where young, affluent tourists might want to vacation. The Eurovision has always struck me as such a complex space for negotiating "authentic" national cultural identities in relation to the larger global/western notions of modernity and liberalism. In the 1970s, disco seemed to be the style that best negotiated this tension, as evidenced by both ABBA and the Israeli Eurovision winner from 1978.

Ah ... that Swedish Boogie .... For me, these are the images of Sweden the regional super-power, which they have been, and are still, economically, politically and not least culturally. Norway never had Volvo, nor Abba, nor IKEA. We have massive oil deposits and an equally massive cultural inferiority complex vis-a-vis the snooty Swedes. We certainly did not have the Boogie. America, of course, was Boogie Wonderland. Britain had Bolan, and Sweet. And then the Swedes took the European Song Contest by storm with their Social Democracy Boogie .. plodding but somehow great too ... the ladies shone like real stars while the guys looked like somehing off Uddevalla municipal council. Which goes to prove, I guess, that as we all have America, where everything is much grander and dangerous, many of us also have our regional mini-Americas. A bit less grand and dangerous but still so much cooler, and bigger, so much more With It, than us.

I'm interested in how this moment gets re-read around the world, as it's almost impossible for me to hear/see this now without thinking of this:

Another talent contest, another emergence into the international mainstream of previously national stars. And, if I'm not mistaken, the identical audio track (not to mention the appropriation of lots of the moves from the later ABBA videos). In the latter version, however, the contest is only a momentary triumph, one symptomatic of what's read as a regressive escapism. "I feel like I win when I lose"?

Seen from Sweden’s eastern neighbouring country Finland, ABBA’s victory at the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest certainly began to change opinions concerning the status of the various Nordic countries in the field of popular culture. Sweden has long been the leading Scandinavian country in popular music, and the international success of Swedish pop groups has been a source of envy and inferiority complexes in Finland (al least until Finnish groups such as Nightwish and HIM started to break internationally). Sweden has also been one of the most consistently successful countries at Eurovision for the past couple of decades. But this was not always the case. Before 1974, none of the Nordic countries had done very well at Eurovision, with the exception from Denmark who won in 1963 with plenty of help from the other Scandinavian countries in the voting. In the Finnish media the common view used to be that all the Nordic countries were pretty much equally marginalised and without chances to succeed in this European competition. ABBA’s victory and subsequent career began to change this view and to set Sweden apart from its neighbours. Although it can be said that Eurovision doesn’t truly reflect taste in popular culture, the contest has had quite a lot of symbolic value, particularly in small European countries.

Mari’s comments on Finland reminded me of their submission to last year’s Eurovision contest: Lordi. After years of losing and often times receiving zero points overall, which many Finns blamed on the choice of the contestants to sing in their native language - Uralic - they submitted Lordi to represent Finland in Eurovision 2006. Here is their performance:

Obviously, this was met with some dissent by other Finns. Though it was not because they chose to sing in English, but because they felt Lordi would associate Finland with Satanists (which would lead me to believe they slept through the whole “black metal” scene). Still, Lordi went on to receive the highest score ever on Eurovision, and gave Finland their first ever Eurovision victory. Of course, Finland changed their entire opinion of the band, naming a city square after them as well as placing the lead singer, Mr. Lordi, on a postage stamp. Internationally, they are now signed to a major label and headlined Ozzfest in the summer of 2007, cancelling appearances only if the venue was too small for their pyrotechnic displays. So, what we have seen here is something Jack Banks refers to in his article, “MTV and the Globalization of Popular Culture.” By emulating the “shock rock” genre made famous by Western artists like Alice Cooper, KISS, GWAR, etc., (as well as the theatrical spectacle of said artists’ performances) Lordi made their way to international success. Meanwhile, Finnish bands such as Korpiklaani remain popular only in Finland for their brand of Finnish “folk metal”:

This is not about how the members of the group ABBA are the greatest songwriters of the twentieth century, or how they sold several million copies of album; it’s about how the group’s winning performance at the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest has brought Sweden to the world. Obviously, linkages between domestic and international concerns in these competitions and interactions are becoming more evident. What’s at stake in these international festivals or expositions is not ignored: the winning country hosts the Eurovision (and the assumed tourism euros) the following year. That’s why the singer and the song that can represent the country the best need to be selected for the international competition. The gain is great in two ways: the increasing diversity of many nations helps redefine and promote an interest in global cultural interactions. This creates the enhancement of national cultures and heritages as both an expression of identity and a resource for global interactions. The negotiation of these national cultural identities in relation to the global podium benefits to the participants and audiences for it gives lieu to a variety and a mixture of cultures expressed by M.I.A. and the hybridity that the Japanese author Koichi Iwabuchi is referring to in his text “How Japanese is Pokemon?” Also, an awareness of the shifting winds of politics is a strategic necessity if international programs are to take advantage of open windows of opportunity. Consequently, international cultural interactions are most likely to elicit political and financial support when they are politically aware and policy goal oriented in that direction (opinions have changed concerning the status of Sweden and its neighboring countries in the field of popular culture). Studies have examined the economic impact of folk festivals for example. Tohmo (2005) has examined the regional economic impact of the Kaustinen Folk Music Festival in Finland, in “Economic impact of cultural events on local economies: an input-output analysis of the Kaustinen Folk Music Festival” (Tourism Economics 11(3): 431-451). Eurovision that gave the opportunity to ABBA to sell Sweden is pretty similar to the Israelite talent contest “Ambassador” in which the winner is the contestant that represents the best interest of Israel throughout the world.

Sweden has long been the leading Scandinavian country in pop culture. This clip of ABBA’s music performance at the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest describes more than just the group’s ability to sing and dance in front of thousands of people. ABBA’s 1974 victory demonstrates Sweden’s effort to transform its image into a nation that is urban and sexy, thus attracting younger people looking for a place to escape to. Furthermore, television shows such as Eurovision and even the Israeli version of The Apprentice, known as The Ambassador, blur the boundaries that differentiate the local from the global. In the case of Eurovision, music artists of each country must submit an original song of theirs that best represents their country and then vote on the other countries’ songs to determine which is the most popular song of the competition. Eurovision is historically known for showcasing orchestrated, pop music, which many people around the globe are able to identify with, as noted in the M.I.A. interview. What sets aside Eurovision from most other reality television series is their ability to promote diversity and enhance interactions among the global culture. To an extent, the Contest encompasses the idea of hybridity. On one hand, there is a formula in place, which the participating countries must adhere to; on the other hand, this formula allows some leeway for these countries to maintain their national identity. This helps benefit not only the participants, but the audiences watching them as well. Eurovision gave ABBA the ability to sell Sweden in a light other than in politics and automobiles by setting them apart from their Scandinavian neighbors through other forms of industrialization. Because Eurovision is a television show, it does not fully reflect the values of pop culture, but it does include a lot of symbolic value.

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