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The divas of Melodifestivalen: Schlager 101

This weekend marks the start of Melodifestivalen 2016, Swedish television’s annual search to find the song and artist that will represent their nation at the Eurovision Song Contest.

Melodifestivalen-2016

The Swedes take this process more seriously than most. Melodifestivalen is a six-week long tour round the country in which an eclectic mix of major pop stars, exciting newcomers and legendary old turns slug it out in a glitzy arena spectacular that is the top-rated show on Swedish telly. The sheer spectacle of it all makes make the actual Eurovision seem like a talent show in the church hall.

This was how the 2014 grand final kicked off, to give you some idea of the amazing ridiculousness (not to mention the ridiculous amazingness) of the whole thing. I’ve been in the arena for several finals and it’s the closest I’ve ever seen a Swedish crowd get to going wild – although admittedly the extent of that is that they lean forward slightly in their seats and all wave balloons around a bit.

One of the highlights of this week’s first heat was to have been the triumphant return of old hand Anna Book, singing Himmel För Två. This was significant for Anna because it was to mark the 30th anniversary of her first Melodifestivalen entry, ABC. The fact that ABC only ever came 5th and so didn’t get anywhere near the actual Eurovision stage is irrelevant – it gave her enough of a profile to sustain a TV and music career, and keep her face in the papers and gossip mags. She even came second in Sweden’s version of Strictly Come Dancing in 2006, which led to another Melodifestivalen appearance with Samba Sambero, a cheeky Latin tribute to her success in the ballroom.

But it was also important because it would have marked the first appearance for some years of some proper, old-school schlager music in the contest. This type of jaunty pop was the mainstay of Melodifestivalen for a long time, but has become highly unfashionable more recently.

I’ve been a schlager fan ever since it experienced a bizarre surge in popularity in London around 2006. For a while, there were regular club nights where exiled Swedes and ridiculous London gays would gather to celebrate their love of genre’s major divas.

Then we got bold and basically killed the thing we loved. A few of us went on expeditions to Stockholm and beyond, to meet our favourite artists and see them in action for ourselves. We wangled our way into the press rooms and afterparties of Melodifestivalen and horrified the Swedish media with our devotion to these glorious faded heroines.

Over the next few years, we noticed that fewer and fewer of them were appearing in the line-up. It almost seemed like Sweden was embarrassed at the international attention these unfashionable artists were attracting – especially as they never seemed to do that well when they actually went to Eurovision.

Sweden may have won in 2015 when they sent Måns Zelmerlow to Vienna with Heroes, but it was no victory for us fans of the old school tunes. For the first time ever, none of the main schlager stars were represented – with the possible exception of Jessica Andersson, but she doesn’t count because she was singing a BLOODY BALLAD (Schlager ballads are an entertaining subgenre, but unless there’s a cheap beat, dance routine and lyrics about love, wind, hearts, strangers and rainbows, our thirst will never really be slaked).

So it was a big deal when Anna and a few others were unveiled as competitors for 2016. After several years of chasing younger viewers (not to mention actual Eurovision victory, which I suppose is the whole point of the thing, and yet also totally not the point at all), it seemed that the older generation might finally come in from the cold.

BUT! Today there’s been an absolute schlager-fiasko, as the popular press in Sweden like to call all Melodifestivalen “shockers”. When a short clip of Anna’s rehearsal was played, some smart-arse Eurovision fan noticed that the tune sounded a bit familiar, and soon identified it as a Swedish translation of Taking Care Of A Broken Heart, which Felicia Dunaf had entered for the Eurovision preselection in Moldova (Moldova!) back in 2014.

Never mind that she didn’t even end up singing the song in the televised semi-finals, or that it had only had about 800 views on YouTube. In Melodifestivalen, rules are rules, and poor Anna was promptly disqualified. Melodifestivalen head honcho Christer Björkman, who is known to be a big schlager fan, has reportedly been seen crying into the shellfish buffet backstage at rehearsals, and I’m sure he’s not the only one.

This post was originally supposed to be a celebration of the long-overdue comeback of both Anna Book and her style of music but, like all the best schlager anthems, it’s ended up being bittersweet.

But the music must go on! You can watch the Melodifestivalen heats at 7pm (UK time) for the next few Saturdays at the Melodifestivalen website. And to get you in the mood, here are five all-time classic Melodifestivalen performances.

UPDATE! The good news is that Anna will be allowed to perform her song after all, as a special guest. But it won’t be eligible for voting.

Evighet – Carola (2006)

Carola, one of the Sweden’s most legendary pop stars, was an old hand at Melodifestivalen, but this performance took her to a whole new level. Festooned in blue chiffon, she seemed to be floating about a foot above the stage throughout this performance. She slayed all before her as she romped to victory, but wrecked her voice with the strain of hitting the song’s extraordinary high notes, and never quite managed to top this first performance.

Linda Bengtzing – Hur Svårt Kan Det Va (2008)

Linda is the bad girl of schlager, and her songs always have a uniquely spiky quality that sets them apart from her contemporaries. This is her masterpiece – a thumping, crazy mess of a song with bonkers staging to match, but in her capable hands it all just works. Linda is also back this year after many previous appearances and, when asked why she was giving it another go, simply replied: “Why am I back for the seventh time? I should be in it every year, so a better question is why I wasn’t in it last year.” WHAT a woman!

Att Älska Dig – Shirley Clamp (2004)

There will always be a place in my heart for Shirley. She may never have been the most successful of the Schlager favourites, but there’s a warmth and heart to her performances of slightly OTT uptempo bangers with killer key changes. She’s my special favourite. When Shirley takes to the Melodifestivalen stage, as she does without fail every three years, it really comes alive. It was hard to choose just one of her songs to feature here. I almost went for her more contemporary 2014 comeback, Burning Alive, or the time she formed a comedy Bananarama-style girl group called Shirley’s Angels. But the winner has to be this, a soaring anthem about the transformational power of true love, that may or may not be the most-played song in my iTunes library.

Sanna Nielsen – I’m In Love (2011)

Some of you may recognise Sanna, as she finally got the chance to represent her country at Eurovision 2014, and even scored an unlikely UK Top 40 hit with her big ballad, Undo. Her finest Mello moment for me was this one – a pulsing, 80s-style pop anthem that could soundtrack any Bette Midler movie’s shopping montage. But don’t ask me what she’s doing in that giant illuminated fruit bowl, because I JUST DO NOT KNOW. This song has the unusual feature of casually slipping the key change into the quiet bit before the bit where the key change usually happens, the shock of which almost made me fall out of my seat when I first heard it.

C’est La Vie – Hanson, Carson & Malmkvist (2004)

This one is really quite special. There’s an odd tradition of creating new trios from three female singers of a certain age and shoving them out on the Melodifestivalen stage to belt out a schlager banger. In 2004 it was the turn of Ann-Louise Hanson, Towa Carson and Siw Malmkvist, who made it to fourth place in the final with this high-kicking, high-octane masterpiece written by Melodifestivalen maestro Thomas G:son. I do hope Swedish television put their hands in their pockets after this, to pay for the ladies’ replacements.

BONUS TRACKS

After I’d written this, I received a number of messages from schlager fans furious that their favourites weren’t in my top five. So here are even more divas.

Det Gör Ont – Lena Philipsson (2004)

It Hurts, the English translation of this filthy schlager stormer, came fifth in Eurovision, but for me the original Swedish version is far superior. At the heart of its appeal is a bravura performance from Lena herself, in which she gets VERY jiggy with her microphone stand – no special effects, no dancers, no wind machines, just pure star power. Lena is generally quite amazing, though. She presented Melodifestivalen one year, and her extreme bitchy resting face as she introduced her pop rivals was a joy to behold.

Hero – Charlotte Perrelli  (2008)

For many people, this song and performance represents the very pinnacle of schlager. A simple, catchy melody, uplifting lyrics and a production that builds and builds before exploding in one of the most glorious key changes in the history of music. It seemed unthinkable that Charlotte, who was already a Eurovision winner, wouldn’t finish in the top five at the contest, but it could only limp to 18th place. She was perhaps let down by a slightly odd presentation in which she appeared in bleached-out black and white, and some quite severe make-up. Charlotte’s still a big favourite of mine, though, and she’s a likeable and versatile singer – her gorgeous version of Monica Zetterlund’s jazz classic Trubbel is a sophisticated slice of misery.

Idag & Imorgon – Kikki Danielsson (2006)

Kikki has had a colourful and varied career, including some international success as a country singer, but these days she’s perhaps better known for the salacious stories about her problems with alcohol and her weight that appear in the Swedish celebrity magazines. This very old-fashioned effort was her last appearance in Melodifestivalen to date, although she did pop up in an entertaining Sweden v Norway medley in 2010 singing a couple of her old favourites.

Don’t Let Me Down – Lotta Engberg and Christer Sjögren (2012)

Lotta is like your auntie who likes to get up do a bit of karaoke at family parties. She was originally a big star on the dansband scene – an even less cool version of schlager, if you can imagine such a thing – but she’s now the host of the successful TV show Lotta på Liseberg, in which all the other people I’ve mentioned here turn up and have a bit of a singalong. She’s got a long history in Melodifestivalen, but her most recent entry was this sensational duet with Christer Sjögren. It’s a cheeky, funny midtempo affair about a couple who reunite later in life and promise not to mess things up again, and has more than a touch of the Demis Roussoses about it. The performance below is notable because Lotta is clearly pissing herself throughout, and it genuinely looks like she won’t make it to the end without collapsing in hysterical laughter.

Så Nära – Anne-Lie Rydé (2005)

This is one of the most passionate performances in the entire history of Melodifestivalen – and indeed the entire history of the world. Former punk rocker Ann-Lie writhes enthusiastically around the stage and eventually straddles a giant brown muff that spans the entire arena. Anne-Lie is another one who has entered multiple times but never quite had the success that I for one think she deserves.

Melodifestivalen Final opening song – Petra Mede (2009)

OK, this isn’t strictly speaking a schlager song, or even a schlager singer, but I just couldn’t resist ending with this ridiculous spectacle – a homage to Kylie’s Your Disco Needs You with no doubt hilarious Swedish lyrics about the competition, all sung by the host as she rode through the arena on a chariot. If you’re still not sure whether or not Melodifestivalen is the best thing you’ve ever seen after watching this clip, then frankly I have no further use for you, so off you pop.

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