[Metroactive Music]

[ Music Index | Metro | Metroactive Central | Archives ]

Pop Goes the Euro

[whitespace] a-ha
Jonathan Leonard

Norwegians Would Be Pop Stars: Even a-ha can be elevated by a rising tide of Europop.

New bands from Scandinavia and France challenge the reign of American guitar rock

By Gina Arnold

A FEW WEEKS AGO, one of the biggest acts of the '80s reunited for a single gig. This band sold millions of albums worldwide and even had a hit on American MTV, an unusual accomplishment for an act not hailing from the U.S., Canada, Australia or England. It is, nonetheless, a band for which many Americans have extreme contempt. When it took the stage this December at the Nobel Peace Prize concert in its hometown of Oslo, Norway, and the crowd rose to its feet cheering, a Norwegian journalist grabbed my arm.

"You're not going to make fun of them, are you?" he asked anxiously.

Strangely, I had no desire to cast aspersions on a-ha, purveyors of the cheesy hits "Take on Me" and "The Sun Always Shines on TV." Either because seeing a group in its native surroundings (and at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, at that) changes its context, or because Europop no longer sounds so funny to me, a-ha suddenly sounded just great.

The band's music exemplifies Europop, a type of synthesizer music generally found on European radio. Euro-pop usually features high, pleasant male vocals and a disco beat. It is soulless bubble-gum pop, the kind of catchy but unsexy music that appeals to preadolescents. It has long been derided by both English and American audiences, who generally prefer the harder, guitar-based idiom that underlies all country, folk and mid-tempo rock.

Now, however, Europop is doing better than ever in the U.S. and may well be the sound of the future. A recent batch of new releases of note shows a much higher proportion of non-Anglo bands (hailing mainly from Scandinavia and France) than in years past.

Does this mean that when it comes to rock & roll, America is all tapped out? Answer: yes. At the very least, the four-piece, all-guy rock band has become a dinosaur, unappealing to young people who've been burnt out by years and years of it. Kids today don't like guitar rock, and who can blame them when their parents are still rocking out to the Rolling Stones?

There are a few other reasons why Europop is flourishing. Electronica, which never really made it here, did at least force people accustomed to big guitar sounds to listen more seriously to techno-beats. Moreover, because of several large corporate mergers, the American music industry is in a period of flux right now, and licensing acts from Europe is cheaper than developing new artists.

But probably the most important reason that Europop is finding acceptance here has to do with the fact that Europe itself has changed so much in the past decade. Sadly, it's becoming more like America. Now each individual country is overrun with Burger Kings, Starbucks and Gaps. England is linked to the continent by the Chunnel, and a universal currency--the Euro--is about to replace all those different types of money.

Culturally, Europe is becoming more homogenous as well. American movies and music are ever more accessible, thanks to cable television. The result is that the radio charts are becoming more like ours, fueled by hits by North American acts like Alanis Morissette, Nirvana and the Beastie Boys.

THIS TREND means that European kids who grew up on U.S. rock--rather than on Abba--are forming bands that sound more American than they used to, bands that are still poppy but slightly grittier and more sophisticated. This is particularly true in Norway, Denmark and Sweden, countries that don't seem to have much of their own musical tradition to impose on pop. (The national anthem of Norway, for example, has the same tune as "God Save the King.")

Norway is also the country that looks, architecturally speaking, more American than any other place in Europe. Thanks to vast economic growth fueled by North Sea oil, many of the towns surrounding Oslo are brand-new and look like Cupertino or Milpitas. The place abounds with shopping malls and shelter stores like Ikea. And everyone--but everyone--speaks perfect English.

So no wonder their rock bands sound so much like ours! A look at the lineup for this year's SXSW (South by Southwest) music and media conference reveals no fewer than 11 Scandinavian bands: two Finnish, one Danish, one Icelandic, four Swedish and three Norwegian.

One of the Norwegian acts that played at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony is Espen Lind, whose record Red represents an extremely accomplished example of tinkly Europop translated into a more accessible, rock-oriented sound. Lind's oeuvre is much like that of the Cardigans, a band that also managed to mix Abba-pop with indie rock (and which covers Black Sabbath in concert).

Lind suffuses his music with Abba references in the way that many American groups stud their songs with Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan references. But Lind has also heard David Bowie and the Velvet Underground. His English, on songs like "Baby, You're So Cool," is word-perfect: at one point he rhymes "white lies," "grand prize," "Levi's" and "alibis," which is a much more literate streak than one hears in the average Bryan Adams song.

Lind is also, like a-ha and the Cardigans, extremely pretty. It's easy to picture him appealing to little girls who like the Backstreet Boys and Boyzone--especially when he sings in falsetto. (Red is not available in the U.S., but you can order it from online retailers.)

Another worthwhile new Scandinavian act is the Merrymakers. The band hails from Sweden, and its American debut, Bubblegun, is due out here in February. The Merrymakers were discovered by Andy Sturmer of Jellyfish, and the group's music is highly reminiscent of acts like the Las, You Am I, the Dbs--and Jellyfish.

Oasis, eat your heart out: tune-wise, these guys make the Beatles sound like John Zorn. They're not a synth-act, like Lind or a-ha, either: they're closer in feel to Scandinavian guitar-rock bands the Nomads and the Hellacopters.

Another country that is emerging as a pop power is, strangely, France, a place long ridiculed for its very bad rock music. France is not a hotbed of hard rock, but it is on the forefront of the retro-futurist cocktail-lounge movement. Last year, Daft Punk and AIR both did very well in America, and this year Cassius looks like it may do just as well in techno circles.

Of course, Europe still has plenty of acts we sophisticated Americans wouldn't touch with a 10-foot pole. Spain, Italy and all the former Soviet bloc countries are still held hostage by the musica of the discoteca, but England, too, bears its share of crap.

Billie, for example, is a 16-year-old singer/dancer in the tradition of Tiffany and Debbie Gibson. B*witched is an Irish Spice Girls, only with worse songs. And Robbie Williams is a former member of Britain's answer to the New Kids on the Block, Take That. He is absolutely, monumentally huge in England, but he'll have a hell of a time making it on our shores.

All these acts are pretty rotten, but in a way, when visiting England it's a pleasure to hear them, since they alone represent the last vestiges of what used to be known as the "regional hit"--a concept that is fading fast as Europop and the Euro take over music and money on the Continent. To American ears, however, there is always charm in things that don't quite translate. That is why the genuinely cutting-edge new pop acts don't come from Europe at all, but from Japan.

[ San Jose | Metroactive Central | Archives ]

From the January 14-20, 1999 issue of Metro.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Maintained by Boulevards New Media.