Text by Astrid Olsson
Eurovision has long seemed like an unlikely prong in the makeup of Brand Sweden. There's the minimalist design, the edgy fashion, the cool electropop singers, the world-renowned social welfare... And then there's Eurovision. It's loud, it's brash, it's cheesy - and Sweden loves it. Last year, when Loreen won the country's fifth Eurovision title (only Ireland has won more), more than a third of the country tuned in to watch.
But even the popularity of Eurovision pales in comparison with the Melodifestivalen, or Melo, the national singing contest which is shown on television every Saturday night through the winter, and whose winner represents Sweden at Eurovision. Melo has run since 1959, and cosy Saturday nights watching it have become an integral part of the Swedish wintertime, with stores reporting a rush on crisps and fizzy drinks on Saturday afternoons.
The Melodifestivalen final this March - in which former boyband member Robin Stjernberg surprisingly beat offYohio, a 17-year-old boy who looks like a Japanese cosplay girl - was watched by more than 4.13 million Swedes. The same event in 2012 was the year's most-watched show in Sweden, with the various stages of the contest taking third, fourth and fifth in the annual viewing rankings; the Eurovision final came in sixth (the iconic Donald Duck Christmas Eve show was second).
"The Melodifestivalen and Eurovision are to Sweden what the Superbowl is to America," says David Landes, an American who edits The Local, an online portal for Swedish news in English. Landes had never heard of Eurovision when he arrived in Sweden in 2000; now, he says he's become a convert, partly because he has two young children, and for them it's an unavoidable part of life.
"You just get swept up in it," he says. "People have Melo viewing parties or gather in bars, and all the kids know the songs. My four-year-old prances around and sings Melo songs, and at the end of the year all the forms at school do a performance - there will always be three or four songs from the Melodifestivalen in there. It's a cultural marker, like the World Series of baseball was for me as a kid."
Mattias Johansson is president of the Swedish branch of the OGAE (Organisation Generale des Amateurs de l'Eurovision), an international Eurovision fanclub. The group has about 400 members, making it one of Europe's biggest, and they organise regular get-togethers, from picnics to gala dinners and voting nights, including two big parties a year - one in the autumn and one for the Melodifestivalen final. This year, 250 people came, watching the final before having their own party with a Eurovision-only DJ set and live performances from Eurovision acts. "We have a great variety of people - male and female, old and young - but they just all share a love for this kind of music," he says.
Johansson - who names Annabel Conde's Vuelve Con Migo for Spain in 1995 as his all-time favourite Eurovision tune - says it's the tradition and the family aspect that drew him to Eurovision in the first place. "I remember being six years old and watching my first one with the family," he says. "It was a party with the whole family. There was just something really cosy about everyone around getting excited about the same thing.
"I'm a history fan, and as I grew up I started to go back in time, looking at bands like Abba, who've become a part of my life," he continues. "Sweden has entered almost every year since 1958, so there's a rich tradition and culture there. Everyone in Sweden has grown up with it."
Although the Melodifestivalen final doesn't take place until mid-March, from autumn of the previous year the papers are full of gossip about which artists will be involved. "It's not just frivolous, either," says David Landes. "There's been a lot of talk about how they brought in an international jury for the Melo final, to add to the telephone voting from viewers - the idea was to get a candidate that would do well at Eurovision. It's taken seriously."
As it turned out this year, Yohio won more votes from the public, but Stjernberg edged the final vote because of the international jury - the idea presumably being that a wholesome young man would do better at the Eurovision final than a lachrymose boy dressed as a girl. For the record, Stjernberg also beat out the ice hockey-playing David Lindgren, a curious hybrid of crooner and boyband member, and Louise Hoffsten's bizarrely-titled song, Only The Dead Fish Follow the Stream.
As to why Sweden is so big on all things Melo and Eurovision, Landes has a few ideas. "I think the fascination really started with Abba." Waterloo is the bestselling song ever to come out of Eurovision (more than six million copies sold) and launched the band's international career. "There's always this feeling that the latest act might just be the next Abba," he continues. "More than that, even though Sweden punches well above its weight in a lot of ways, there is just this sense of pride when it does well at Eurovision."
Perhaps that's down to Sweden's singing culture, with more than 600,000 Swedes performing regularly in a choir. "My wife and her mother both sing in choirs," says Landes. "It's just something a lot of people do, and if you're into singing, you're more likely to get excited about a singing contest."
Landes notes that many of Sweden's music acts "actively distance themselves from Eurovision association", even if Melodifestivalen songs inevitably dominate the Swedish charts. On 1 March, the Swedish iTunes top ten featured nine Melodifestivalen tunes, with Sean Banan's Copacabana at the top. The song might be described as a Swedish Gangnam Style, a catchy comedy rap with a little less satire and dancing skill.
Only Robin Stjernberg, alas, will be on stage when the Eurovision final comes to Malmö in May, and more than 125 million viewers around the world will tune in (Eurovision is said to be the world's most-watched non-sporting event). Jan-Erik Westman, a spokesperson for host broadcaster SVT, tells us why the town was chosen in the first place: "It's a smaller city. We wanted to scale the event down and make it more intimate, so that you get that Eurovision feeling in the whole city," he says. "We also chose Malmö because there are more than 160 nationalities in the city and Eurovision is really about getting people together and building bridges between cultures. We wanted to take it back to the philosophy that existed in the 1950s." Whatever the philosophy, Sweden will be watching in large numbers.
The Eurovision semi-finals and finals take place in Malmö on the 14, 16 and 18 May www.eurovision.tv
Sweden's Five Key Eurovision Moments
The first one
Sweden made its debut in the competition in 1958, when singer-actor Alice Babs came fourth for Lilla stjärna. The song is the only Swedish entry ever not to be chosen through the Melodifestivalen, which started in 1959 - it was chosen by Sveriges Radio.
The last one
Malmö is hosting Eurovision 2013 because Swede Loreen won last year's competition in Baku, Azerbaijan, with her catchy hit Euphoria - and a new record of 18 maximum scores.
The four other wins...
... were Charlotte Perelli (then Charlotte Nilsson) in 1999 with Take Me to Your Heaven, Carola's Fångad Av En Stormvind (1991), Diggi-loo Diggy-ley by Herrey's (1984) and, of course, Abba's Waterloo, in 1974.
In a 2005 show to celebrate 50 years of the Eurovision Song Contest, Waterloo was voted the best Eurovision entry ever.
And the bad ones...
Sweden's worst showing came in 1992 with Christer Björkmann's I Morgon är En Annan Dag, which came 22nd. The country boycotted the contest in 1970 over voting procedures and didn't progress beyond the semi-finals in 2010- the first time that Sweden hadn't appeared in a final since back in 1976.