Stockholm: The Forgotten Pop Music Capital

While most genres are synonymous with the cities in which they were born – like New Orleans and Jazz or New York and Hip Hop – Pop is harder to pin down. Pop music is one of the most transcendent and global music genres, achieving commercial success in virtually every corner of the globe in which it can reach. While a few cities like Los Angeles or London could argue why they should be considered the Capital of Pop, in truth, Stockholm, Sweden, should take the crown.

Pop music as we know it really began to take form with the Disco in the 1970s. Of course, Pop has earlier origins in Rock and Roll, Funk, and R&B. Still, that distinctive, bubbly sound became identifiable on its own with musicians like Donna Summer, Earth, Wind & Fire, and ABBA rising to international prominence. The lattermost artist, a quartet from Stockholm, was the most successful Euro-Pop act of that decade, scoring a string of iconic disco hits like “Dancing Queen” and “Waterloo.” As they became one of the best-selling recording acts of all time, their impact and influence is difficult to understate. Their musical influence still resonates with pop musicians worldwide and led to a surge in the use of Stockholm as a recording center.[1]In 1978, ABBA launched Polar Studios in Stockholm to record their last three albums. Afterward, artists such as Led Zepplin, the Ramones, Rammstein, Roxy Music, Genesis, Adam Ant, Backstreet Boys, … Continue reading

With the decline of the Disco by the beginning of 1980, Sweden’s influence in pop declined as well, though not without putting up hitmakers like Ace of Base, and Roxette. Sweden and Stockholm’s return to prominence came with the emergence of a new pop star. Born in Stockholm, Robyn grabbed record labels’ attention at an early age, rejecting an offer from the US-based Jive Records in favor of the German-based BMG (now RCA) at just 14 years old. That seemingly innocuous decision would reverberate within the music industry for decades. While her debut LP Robyn Is Here would achieve moderate worldwide success in 1995-96, the album and Stockholm itself would launch three of the most influential careers in modern pop music: those of Robyn, producer Max Martin, and pop icon Britney Spears. 

Robyn Is Here put two singles in the Top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 and picked up several certifications around the globe. It was the first example of Robyn’s headstrong vision for herself and her craft crystallizing in success. Still slighted by her rejection, Jive Records continued their search for a marketable R&B and Europop teen. Upon her discovery in 1997, John Seabrook of Jive Records theorized that the Louisiana teenager Britney Spears could be the label’s own Robyn.[2]As claimed in the fantastic video essay by Trash Theory. Almost shamelessly, the label tapped the talent of Robyn-collaborator Max Martin for Spears’ debut, who then offered a rejected track from his sessions with Robyn, now known worldwide as “…Baby One More Time.” The song was an instant phenomenon, selling half a million copies on its day of release and becoming one of the most iconic pop singles of the 1990s. Spears and Martin’s working relationship would continue to her next project, and its lead single “Oops… I Did It Again!”

Robyn’s career diverged from there, although she remained deeply entrenched in Stockholm and Sweden at large. Robyn’s artistic vision grew at odds with BMG’s, resulting in her second and third studio albums only receiving local Swedish releases. These tensions continued as she was drawn away from her established R&B sound towards the Disco’s newest child, electropop. While the label initially resisted, her fourth album Robyn would lean into this sound and was the first step in her new direction as an electropop juggernaut. Upon its in Sweden in 2005, it received instant critical adoration, followed by international releases in 2007-08, around the same time Britney Spears began gearing her sound towards European and specifically Swedish influences.

After four successful Platinum albums, Spears’ fifth studio album, Blackout, drew heavily on the sound that Robyn was pioneering in Europe. Spears collaborated with Swedish songwriter Henrik Jonback while she was touring Europe, and the record was also partially recorded in Stockholm with heavy influence from Swedish creative duo Bloodshy & Avant. While the pair produced four of the album’s tracks, the most recognizable of those songs is the album’s recognized highlight and second single, “Piece of Me,” which boasts backing vocals from Robyn herself. With auto-tuned vocal loops and throbbing bass behind her, it bears notable sonic and lyrical similarities to Robyn’s 2005 single “Handle Me.” The Euro Disco influenced album is now considered to be Spears’ best record and a pop standard.[3] Blackout is one of Rolling Stone’s 500 greatest albums of all time, was added to the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame’s archives, and has since inspired numerous think pieces on its impact.

While Martin and Spears maintained a working relationship as previously mentioned on 2001’s Britney, Martin’s career hit a noticeable lull in the years following as the two briefly parted ways. It wasn’t until 2004 when RCA Records pushed one of its artists to have a recording session in Stockholm at Maratone Studios with Martin and fellow Swede Lukas Gottwald (better known as Dr. Luke) that their careers would reach their peak. Known in the United States as its first American Idol, Kelly Clarkson had yet to achieve sustained international success. Together, Martin, Luke, and Clarkson would craft one of the most defining singles of the 2000s with “Since U Been Gone” and its follow up hit “Behind These Hazel Eyes.” The former track originated as a standard fare pop tune for Hilary Duff. Still, it was eventually given its rougher Pop-Rock sound at Clarkson’s behest, and its radical success shifted the sound of 2000s Pop radio from R&B to include more electronic and rock flair. The space in Pop music opened up by “Gone” made Martin and Dr. Luke the most sought after producers in Pop, writing more than a dozen Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 singles for artists like Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, and once more, Britney Spears. The majority of those No. 1 hits were recorded at Martin’s Maratone Studios in Stockholm. Martin continues to be perhaps the most sought after songwriter and producer in pop. Meanwhile, Dr. Luke, despite graphic accusations of rape by Kesha, is a major collaborator of rising star Kim Petras, and returned to the Hot 100’s summit in 2020 with Doja Cat’s disco tune “Say So.”

While Spears and Martin continued to achieve nearly unmatched international commercial success throughout the late 2000s and early 2010s, Robyn remained relatively under the radar. While she scored several dance hits in the US, she never again achieved major commercial success in her own right. Her greatest success now is perhaps her ability to direct the future of Pop music from behind the scenes. One can clearly draw a straight from her 2010 LP Body Talk to some of today’s most recognizable songs and artists. The lead single “Dancing On My Own” is Robyn’s career-defining single, establishing her as a critic’s darling and an industry tastemaker. The album’s influence is felt by the artists she directly influenced – Britney Spears, Sam Smith, Lorde, Ellie Goulding, Carly Rae Jepsen, Charli XCX – and those who have risen to prominence in part by borrowing from her sound or producers – like Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, and Lady Gaga.

Now, Swedish Pop singers are creating some of the sleekest, trend-setting synthpop in the world. Stockholm native Tove Lo stormed the charts in 2014 with “Habits (Stay High),” and her dark, “hot mess”[4]Not to be taken in a degrading way, but rather address an aspect of her vulnerable artistry, as detailed in NPR’s Appetite For Dysfunction: The Weeknd, Tove Lo And The Art Of The Hot Mess.artistry preceded the rise of the Weeknd to commercial dominance in 2015. Lo has since written songs for Lorde, Ellie Goulding (“Love Me Like You Do” with Max Martin), and Dua Lipa. Other Swedes, such as Zara Larsson, Icona Pop, Léon, Benjamin Ingrosso, Lykke Li, and Tove Styrke, have achieved modest to moderate worldwide critical and commercial success. The only other cities that can compete with this level of musical output are Los Angeles, New York, London, and Seoul, cities that are magnitudes more populous than the Scandanavian metropolis.

While it may not appear obvious at surface level, there are Swedish fingerprints all over pop records today. Whether it is Swedes producing and writing for superstars, or Swedes topping the charts under their own names, there’s something in the water in Sweden’s capital. With no signs of stopping anytime soon, Stockholm will continue to be an important player in the direction of pop music for years to come.

Take a historical journey through some Stockholm-influenced tunes below:

References

1 In 1978, ABBA launched Polar Studios in Stockholm to record their last three albums. Afterward, artists such as Led Zepplin, the Ramones, Rammstein, Roxy Music, Genesis, Adam Ant, Backstreet Boys, Beastie Boys, Belinda Carlisle, Burt Bacharach, Franki, Celine Dion, Roxette, Terra Firma, Entombed, The Hellacopters, Joan Armatrading, and many major Swedish artists recorded music at Polar Studios.
2 As claimed in the fantastic video essay by Trash Theory.
3 Blackout is one of Rolling Stone’s 500 greatest albums of all time, was added to the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame’s archives, and has since inspired numerous think pieces on its impact.
4 Not to be taken in a degrading way, but rather address an aspect of her vulnerable artistry, as detailed in NPR’s Appetite For Dysfunction: The Weeknd, Tove Lo And The Art Of The Hot Mess.

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