Do you like Swedish pop music? The answer is probably yes, even if you can't name a single artist born in Sweden. Do you like Katy Perry's 'Hot N Cold'? Pink's 'Please Don't Leave Me'? Kelly Clarkson's 'Since U Been Gone'? Many of the songs on the new Taylor Swift album, '1989,' half of which were co-written by Max Martin, a Swede? '1989' sold almost 1.3 million copies in its first week, the biggest week for an album since 'The Eminem Show,' in 2002. Swift's album is a big moment for the musical influence of Sweden, but new albums by the Stockholm residents Tove Lo and Mapei reinforce the fact that the Swedish sound may now be the reigning pop language everywhere.
The first Swedes to dominate the charts were the group ABBA, in the nineteen-seventies. They were followed by the brief but intense reign of Ace of Base, in the early nineties. Today, Martin, who started as the singer in a hair-metal band called It's Alive before moving into songwriting, can be credited with either writing or influencing a large proportion of the Swedish pop produced in the past twenty years. He and his cohort of songwriters are backstage workers, who write mostly for, and with, others, a version of the classic assembly-line songwriting model that has served artists as disparate as Frank Sinatra, George Jones, and Whitney Houston. (This team process does not diminish Martin's individual fame in Sweden, where he will soon appear on a postage stamp.) As Taylor Swift shows, Swedish pop doesn't need actual Swedes singing it.
Martin had his first impact in the U.S. in 1997, with the Backstreet Boys' hit 'Quit Playing Games (with My Heart).' He also worked with a teen-ager from Sweden named Robyn, whose début album, 'Robyn Is Here,' yielded two top-ten hits. He then turned his attention to another boy band of the nineties, 'N Sync, and to a former Mouseketeer named Britney Spears. Martin's most enduring legacy, still, is his work on Spears's biggest and best-known hits, such as ' . . . Baby One More Time' and 'Oops! . . . I Did It Again.'
In 2004, Martin teamed up with a New York musician named Lukasz Gottwald, professionally known as Dr. Luke, and changed his approach. The two pushed a heavy sound that reclaimed the feel of guitar-pop bands like Cheap Trick, and gave big hooks and loud guitars to female solo artists like Clarkson and Perry. In the past few years, Martin has worked with another longtime collaborator, Shellback, who's also a Swede; together, they produced much of Swift's '1989.' Martin's choruses rarely feel overwrought or lyrically complex-they hang back at first, before leaping up the scale, high enough to excite but not so melodramatic that they invoke opera or hair metal. Think 'Hot N Cold,' ' . . . Baby One More Time,' 'Teenage Dream,' 'I Want It That Way.' Sounds natural, but it couldn't be harder.
Both Stockholm and Nashville are hubs for professional songwriters and producers, and Swift was signed as a writer in Nashville when she was fourteen. In an uncynical way, both Swedish and Nashville pop exploit the pleasures of the process. The fan expects certain constants-short songs, bright sounds, hopeful surges-and also wants some unexpected moments, which is where the personality of the artist comes in.
Swift, as has been widely noted, supposedly left the country demographic to make '1989,' which she calls her 'first documented, official pop album.' But Swift had already made a really good pop album, in 2012-'Red,' which featured the help of Martin and Shellback on three tracks, including the near-perfect kiss-off 'We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.' 'Red' was Swift's pop coming out; '1989' is more like 'Now That's What I Call Swift!,' a satisfying compendium of expert, bright, familiar pop that captures Swift's ebullience but loses the distinguishing parts of her personality amid all the variations. Swift has a brand as familiar and visible as the Batman signal. It takes a lot of noise to blanket that signal, but '1989' somehow does that. Many of its songs could have been written for other people, and that's the real first for Swift here, not any alleged move from one style to another.
Tove Lo, whose début album, 'Queen of the Clouds,' was released in September, is less well known but more current. Though Swift single-handedly generates a frightening percentage of the money still being made in the music business, she somehow ended up with an older version of Swedish pop. Lo has written hits for others, including Cher Lloyd, and for Lo's former bandmate, Caroline Hjelt, one half of Icona Pop. She's also a member of Martin and Shellback's songwriting collective, Wolf Cousins. Lo's records, though, feature the work of only her team, not of her mentors.
Her sound is of the moment: simple, electronic, and unfussy. Her style is of a piece with that of a loose group of artists, like Lorde and Lykke Li, who feel naturally rooted in the digital and the spare. (Lo also cites Robyn as an inspiration; both went to the Rytmus Music School, in Stockholm.) Lo comes across as a hedonist who refuses to devolve into chaos. Her current hit, 'Habits (Stay High),' is about doing drugs to forget an ex. But she's not flogging a tired rewrite of the rock-star script. She eats dinner in the bath, goes to sex clubs to distract herself, and tries, like millions before her, 'to keep you off my mind.' 'Habits (Stay High)' is about a self-destructive lapse, but 'Moments' presents a different kind of transgression: Lo confesses that she's a catch. She sings, 'I have my moments . . . I am charming as fuck.' It's concrete, blunt. She likes her own pleasure, without feeling the need to apologize for it or to tie it to some phony theory of transcendence.
Unlike many artists I've talked to, Lo admits that Swedish pop has specific characteristics. She told me that it has 'clear but simple lyrics, is a lot about the melody, and also having a little bit of melancholy or a darker sense to it, to not make it too sugary or too bubblegum.' Three parts formula, one part character.
A trickier version of Swedepop can be heard on 'Hey Hey,' the début album by Mapei, a Liberian-American woman, born Jacqueline Mapei Cummings, who grew up in Stockholm and moved to Brooklyn when she was eighteen. After beginning as a rapper, Mapei released one of my favorite pop singles of 2013, 'Don't Wait,' co-written by Magnus Lidehäll, a rising post-Martin Swedish writer and producer. The song presents a circular acoustic-guitar figure with the brittle tone of the koto, a Japanese stringed instrument, and then takes it away. The song is built largely from finger snaps and a quiet kick drum, letting instruments enter for only seconds at a time. It's openly romantic, and the unchecked sentiment is balanced by the dignified frame of the backing track. Mapei sings the verses slowly, allowing plenty of gaps, and leaves the big plea until the brief but impassioned chorus: 'Don't wait till I do wrong, don't wait till I put up a fight. You won my heart, without a question, don't wait for life.' In keeping with Lo's description of the ideal Swedish pop song, 'Don't Wait' sounds pleasantly haunted and crackly, the opposite of sappy. One shaft of sunlight has a greater impact than an allergy ad's worth of blue skies.
The rest of 'Hey Hey' zooms through a nervous clutch of styles: slower songs for an older demographic; the kind of revised American soul that fuelled both Adele and Amy Winehouse; some orphaned rap and loud guitars. In person, when she opened for Lykke Li at Radio City Music Hall in October, Mapei was confident and full-voiced, even though she hasn't made up her mind about her persona. If '1989' is the entirely effective work of many professionals, 'Hey Hey' is the beginning of a career. It doesn't matter if Mapei has some stumbles as long as she keeps a place in Stockholm. ♦