By Jason Lamphier
When it comes to shimmering, sugary tunes with irresistible gay appeal, Sweden takes the cake. Now ABBA's descendants, a fresh batch of Scandinavian dancing queens, are swishing their way to the United States. This clutch of clever artists, including electro sibling duo the Knife, as well as two Gothenburg acts, oddball lyricist Jens Lekman, and clubby synth punks the Tough Alliance, are confecting some of the queerest musical fare today.
Persistently press-shy, the mask-wearing pair behind the Knife stayed out of sight for 2003's stellar, steel drum'laced 'Pass This On,' instead recruiting famous Swedish drag queen Rickard Engfors to lip-synch in a dramatic, spellbinding video and live television performance. In his recent hilarious 'A Postcard to Nina,' Lekman poses as his lesbian friend Nina's boyfriend to fool her father, then later writes her an inspiring note with the urgent message 'Don't let anyone stand in your way.' Meanwhile, the Tough Alliance's Henning F'rst and Eric Berglund conjure Wham! in their dazzling videos for 'First Class Riot' and (especially) 'A New Chance,' in which the twosome share a motor-scooter cruise through a lush landscape and stop to buy a flower-bearing potted plant.
So what spurred this bracing new musical trend? 'We wanted to express our situation,' the Tough Alliance's Berglund says, referring to the breezy, homo-romantic imagery in their videos. 'Two people who like each other a lot, looking for something special beyond this existence, not caring what the rest of the world may think.' Lekman explains Gothenburg's recent profusion of bouncy, fey pop as a sort of anti'cock-rock movement, a reaction against all the 'horrible masculine rock music' infiltrating Sweden from the U.K. and the States. 'These new acts have taken masculinity in a new, queer direction,' he says. 'The Tough Alliance started off flirting with baseball bats and hooliganism, but the last time I saw them onstage they were hugging and slow-dancing intimately for a whole song -- which was one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen.'
Still not convinced Sweden is where it's at for the best in swishy pop music? Check out a dirty dozen oh-so-queer videos from some of Scandinavia's finest.
(1) The Knife, 'Pass This On'
Over the span of three albums -- the last being 2006's spooky stunner Silent Shout -- mask-donning brother-sister duo the Knife have accomplished something so rare in music: They've remained stubbornly detached (rarely showing their faces to audiences and the press), lyrically enigmatic (is the pair waxing existential or just spinning freakish yarns?), and simply beguiling. 'Pass This On' crams all the Knife's strengths into a creepy, lascivious nutshell. Underpinned by a piercing steel drum melody and swathed in Karin Dreijer's distorted, slithery vocals, the song already drips with seduction and mystery. Famous Swedish drag queen's Rickard Engfors's lithe, captivating interpretation in this video, however, adds a dash of camp to an already near-flawless work. A sinuous coquette in an elegant turquoise dress mouthing the words 'I'm in love with your brother' and seducing a lodge-full of pokerfaced men makes it all the more cheeky, fearless, and baffling. Where the hell is this brave artiste anyway? A remote rehab center? A veterans' association meeting?
(2) Robyn, 'With Every Heartbeat'
Once a formulaic, though successful, pop princess, Robyn grew tired of having to make music by the textbook and transformed herself into the CEO of her own Konichiwa Records in 2004. A year later she released her eponymous DIY debut -- a gutsy, unfettered electro-pop album so worthy it's already racked up three Swedish Grammys and a number one U.K. single, 'With Every Heartbeat' -- arguably the best breakup song to hit the dance floor in years. The album's U.S. release is April 29. [Read Out.com's interview with Robyn here.]
(3) Jens Lekman, 'A Postcard to Nina'
One of the most literary, literal, and lovable performers to emerge last year, Lekman is a droll raconteur (like Stephin Merritt), a sucker for baroque (like Rufus Wainwright), and a wry, lovesick fool (like Morrissey). Yet no recent song tackling gay subject matter quite unfolds like his twinkling tale 'A Postcard to Nina' (from Night Falls Over Kortedala). Based on a real-life predicament, the track features protagonist Lekman posing as his lesbian gal pal Nina's boyfriend to trick her conservative father. The resulting awkward moments (e.g., sneaky eye signals over dinner, conflicting stories, fake out-of-office replies) are recounted so vividly that you're bound to crack a smile, but it's the uplifting, soaring denouement -- in which Lekman writes Nina a postcard, urging her to just be herself -- that lingers.
(4) The Sounds, 'Painted By Numbers'
Fronted by the scorching Maja Ivarsson, The Sounds' two studio albums -- Living in America and Dying to Say This to You -- were critical hits. But it's the band's incessant touring (they played more than 200 dates in 2006 alone) that earned them a huge following. If it's possible to capture a tiny taste of their energetic, electric live sets, "Painted By Numbers" comes close, demonstrating Maja and her merry band's sleek good looks and relentless rocking. [Read Out.com's interview with Maja here.]