Earlier this week, during the Swedish QX Awards, there was an extended tribute to Christer Björkman, producer and driving force behind Sweden’s greatest television sensation ‘Melodifestivalen’. I explained what Melodifestivalen entails in an earlier blog, so I won’t repeat myself, but the centrepiece of the tribute was a 15 minute musical medley featuring many of the biggest hits to emerge from the contest in the past ten years, all performed by the original artists.

Whether you’re a longtime fan or new to the contest, it’s an excellent summary of some of the absolutely incredible pop music that it’s produced. Watch it. Then watch it again.

The running order

Shirley Clamp – Min kärlek

Love Generation – Dance Alone

Andreas Johnson – Sing For Me

Sarek – Genom eld och vatten

Sanna Nielsen – Hela världen för mig

Linda Bengtzing – Jag ljuger så bra

Afro-Dite – Never Let It Go

Jenny Silver – Something In Your Eyes

Malena Ernman – La Voix

Swingfly – Me & My Drum

Måns Zelmerlöw – Cara Mia

Charlotte Perrelli – Hero

Incredible. Just for a second imagine a similar medley of entries into the various UK Eurovision selection shows. Doesn’t even bear thinking about, does it?


Gloria Estefan - remarkably well preserved

With past hits including You’ll Be Mine (Party Time!) and Falling In Love (uh-oh!), latin diva Gloria Estefan has never been afraid of looking utterly ridiculous in the name of a catchy tune. So it is with the second single from her unfairly slept-on comeback album Little Miss Havana, which is basically Alexandra Stan’s worldwide smash Mr Saxobeat on HRT, with the inominitable Ms Estefan imperiously declaring “Drama’s on like Susan Lucci, it’s time for hoochie coochie!”.

The video is equally eye-opening, with Gloria presiding over an old-school dance club populated by 50s-style bobbysoxers, male strippers and drag queens (one of whom bears a disturbing resemblance to Nicole Scherzinger).

That music like this still exists, albiet on the very fringes of the mainstream, makes me glad to be alive.

So last night was the start of this year’s run of one of my favourite TV things ever. Sweden’s Melodifestivalen is their ridiculously, gloriously over the top method of choosing who to send to the Eurovision Song Contest. It is basically the X Factor on poppers. In stark contrast to the United Kingdom’s approach to picking a Eurovision contestant – which usually involves a 45 minute rush-job involving either a bunch of charm-free no-hopers or faded Z-listers competing over a dreadful slice of cheap tat that they misguidedly believe will be “fun for Europe” – Sweden take their selection process very seriously indeed, and have succesfully transformed it into the biggest TV event of their year.

The basic premise is that over the course of 6 weeks – comprising four semi finals, a second-chance round and a grand final – genuinely big-name acts compete alongside a few newcomers, all with original songs that they hope to take to the big event in May.  Such is the popularity of the show though, that for many just getting to the final is the goal, with entire album campaigns being planned around their participation and careers being made and ruined on the whim of the Swedish televoters. It is absolutely gripping viewing, even if you don’t speak the language. Here’s what went down last night…

The major cultural events of other countries can reveal a lot about the peculiarities of their native people, and if first performer Sean Banan tells us anything, it’s that the nominally polite and reserved Swedes have a surprisingly juvenile sense of humour. A big comedy star with a number of novelty hits under his belt, Banan was a sort of gurning Chico figure without the charm. It is impossible to adequately describe just how dreadful this entire performance was – suffice to say that the comic high point was the moment when he picked his nose onstage while a bevy of scantily-clad Swedish beauties groped his behind. Still, the Swedes seemed to like it and he qualified for the Second Chance round.

Sean Banan

Once that unpleasantness was out of the way, things took a more musical turn with a country-inflected ballad from girl group Abalone Dots – a sort of Swedish Wilson Phillips with Banjos. It was pretty, and a welcome relief from the unmitigated shite that preceded it, but ultimately quite dull. One of the lower-profile names in the lineup, they came 7th out of 8, which was a surprise to no-one.

Perhaps the biggest shock of the night was the performance of The Moniker, a Mika-esque singer-songwriter who had one of the biggest hits of the contest last year with the irritating but undeniably catchy ‘Oh My God’. Unless you’ve seen that performance – which was staged like the Amyl-fuelled dreams of Will & Grace’s Jack Macfarlane – you’ll struggle to comprehend that his stage show this year; in which he wore a cowboy hat and pinstripe pants while scary Phantom of the Opera-masked Violinists played in the background, was relatively toned down. The song was that most curious of things, a country sex ballad. The Moniker is not a man one fantasises about gittin’ down ‘n’ dirty with, and the “on and on and on and on” chorus really felt like it did. He finished dead last.

A welcome injection of glitter followed with three fabulous Swedish mamas called Afro-Dite, making a comeback ten years after winning the whole shebang in 2002 with Never Let It Go. Their new single The Boy Can Dance was an energetic disco number with fabulously uncomfortable chicken-in-a-basket choreography. It was a bit drunken aunts hit the karaoke, but great fun all the same, and they were visibly devastated to narrowly miss qualification when they finished 5th.

One of the biggest acts of the night were Dead By April, a hard rock outfit who had already scored two Platinum albums and a massive #1 single. Their song made me wonder whatever happened to Linkin Park, and was certainly not for me, but their fanbase plus the inevitable anti-pop vote saw them easily qualify straight to the finals.

Dead by April

The award for train-wreck of the week went to former A*Teens popstrell Marie Serneholt. Dressed in an unspeakably hideous gold catsuit, Marie remained rooted to the spot throughout her performance of the lyrically baffling “Salt & Pepper” and never had a prayer of going anywhere. Her dark expression when it was revealed that she’d finished 6th suggested that her agent would be sleeping with the herring before the night was out.

Actor Thorsten Flinck is best known for playing psychopaths, and he appeared to be chanelling his former roles in his disturbing performance of “Jag Reser Mig Igen”. Despite a voice that sounded like Shane McGowan gargling a box of drawing pins, he somehow made it to the Second Chance round, clearly picking up the “I hate this contest and everything it stands for” vote.

Thorsten Flinck

The best was thankfully saved for last with electro-miserablist Loreen, who put me into what can only be described as a gay coma with her pulsating dance number, complete withe eye-catching Memoirs of a Geisha-inspired choreography. Her live vocals were spot on, and the whole package worked perfectly. She went straight to the finals and must be a strong bet to win the whole thing. I could imagine it making a big impact in Baku come May.

So that’s that. Not a bad start to the show at all, although only two songs (Loreen and Afro-Dite) will be making my iPod. If you want to tune in, the show streams live at 7pm UK time on http://www.svt.se. It really is very much worth watching, if only to make you more depressed when the BBC intern realises he’s almost missed the deadline and puts in that frantic call to John Barrowman .

Note: SVT have a policy of removing all of the qualifying songs from youtube until the week of the finals, so there’s no point in me embedding them. You can probably find them if you do a bit of googling though.

Le Kid - They're actually Swedish

Le Kid make the kind of music that Sweden has become justly famous for producing – lushly melodic, naggingly infectious and underpinned with just a hint of melancholy. Which is not to say they’re content to slavishly follow the ABBA blueprint, they’re very much their own band and this song sounds more like a great lost Girls Aloud single than a Benny & Björn composition.

A great chorus is often enough for a pop tune to do its job, but what makes America my favourite song of 2011 is the way the song is structured so that every section really matters. It does have a classic pop chorus, building up to a euphoric climax, but the verses are also beautifully wistful, built around a looped gasp surprisingly reminiscent of Laurie Anderson’s 80s art-rock hit O Superman. Then there’s that majestic middle-eight, where the heavily layered vocals are pulled back, then brought in again over the space of just two lines. It’s a subtle, but perfect pop trick.

The groups debut album Oh Alright! is crammed with beautifully constructed songs of this ilk, and it’s a huge shame that thus far they haven’t gained much recognition outside the Europop blogs. In a chart scene dominated by David Guetta’s thumpingly repetitive beats and Jessie J’s caterwauling, music like Le Kid’s doesn’t really have an obvious entry-point. But hopefully they’ll stick around long enough for that to change.

The National Pre-Selections for the Eurovision Song Contest have really started to kick off over the last few weeks, although early signs weren’t good when both Switzerland and Denmark opted for boring dirges over far more fabulous competitors. Thankfully, Cyprus made the right choice tonight with this poptastic (albiet utterly, utterly generic) slice of dance pop from Ivi Adamou.

She almost certainly can’t sing a note, but she looks good and she’ll doubtless be surrounded by backing dancers, so I reckon this has a good chance of being Cyprus’ first decent placing since way back in 2004.


Medina - The best thing to come out of Denmark since 3/4 of Aqua

For some reason the UK doesn’t really ‘do’ foreign language music as a general rule. While our European neighbours are happy to accept a catchy tune in any tongue, a mainland hit doesn’t stand a chance on these shores unless it’s a largely instrumental dance track with an easily repeatable vocal hook, or been re-recorded with new English lyrics for our ease of consumption. Even a song as boneheadedly simplistic as Basshunter’s Boten Anna only crossed over here when it was re-titled Now You’re Gone and had all the forenz taken out.

The funny thing is that of all the major modern art forms – reading, cinema etc – it’s music that can be most easily enjoyed without compromising the native tongue. Two series’ of The Killing and a lifetime of Eurovision fandom have not yet given me the ability to speak fluent Danish, but I understand the visceral heartache communicated in Medina’s For Altid as easily as I understand any English pop ballad. It’s there in the dreamy, With Every Heartbeat-esque synths – which drop out to magnificent effect before the final chorus – and in her husky, melancholic delivery.

Nevertheless, for whatever reason the UK music industry is as resistant to linguistic diversity as it’s ever been. As far as I recall, the last foreign pop track that wasn’t a one-off club track  to become a significant hit on our shores was the magnificent Moi… Lolita by Alizeé way back in 2002, and even that was treated as a novelty, with none of her excellent subsequent singles making the slightest impression (Check out J’en ai marre, it’s almost as good).This song probably won’t be the one to break the drought, but rumour has it that the inevitable English version is on its way. She’s already tried this with her earlier megahit Kun For Mig – which made a brief UK chart appearence as You & I – but as so often happens it lost a fair part of its magic in the translation. I wish her the best but personally, I’ll be sticking to my Sarah Lund impressions.

Nerina Pallot - Closet disco queen

To glitter or not to glitter? That is the question that presumably confronted Nerina Pallot when she wrote the discotastic Put Your Hands Up, one of the very best pop songs of last year. In fact, the song was so good that it was initally shopped to the queen of glittering disco-pop, Kylie Minogue, who bewilderingly didn’t choose to include it on her ultimately disappointing Aphrodite album. Rather than allow the song to be passed down through the ranks of the second-string disco divas, perhaps eventually turning up as a Geri Halliwell B-side or something, Nerina wisely chose to keep the song for herself.

Needless to say, what works for the empress of high camp might not necessarily work quite so well for a singer-songwriter best-known for Joni Mitchell-esque piano ballads and anti-war protest songs. Whether or not Nerina can pull off Gold Lame Hot Pants is a matter between herself and her loved ones, but artistically it probably would have been too much of a left turn, and a more bluesy, toned-down version subsequently appeared on her fourth album Year of the Wolf.

The final version was perfectly enjoyable, and enjoyed considerable airplay on Radio 2, but personally I found that it paled quite significantly in comparison to the ‘1987’ remix – presumably the template for the Kylie version – which Nerina kindly released as a B-side. As the title suggests, it’s pure retro cheese, with Nerina cooing, whispering and ‘la la la-ing’ over an 80s synth backing so chunky you could probably use it as insulating winter-wear.

Realistically, releasing this version in all likelihood would have been a mistake that alienated a lot of Nerina’s core audience, but as a more fairweather sort of fan I feel quite sad that this song never got the exposure it deserves. Kylie was a fool to let it go.

On a semi-related note, Nerina is by all accounts a very funny and intelligent woman, and this clip of her explaining how big-bucks major label record contracts frequently leave the act out of pocket is a fascinating watch, particularly if you are a fan of X Factor or poor hapless Joe McElderry, about whom Nerina – whose song Real Late Starter became the title track on Joe’s commercially disastrous debut album-  fleetingly wonders ‘did I kill his career?’