For the past couple of weeks, I've been following Swedish national television's broad new Saturday night family entertainment show, Dansbandskampen. And I've totally been enjoying it. It's trying to reinvigorate one of Sweden's most fascinating music genres, and doing it in the context of an idol-style, big-budget live show.
Dansband is Sweden's comfortable rural working-class genre, in terms of social status similar to nashville country. Yet it's position in the culture is very different. Rooted deeply in the unique social dancing history of Sweden, in which communally owned, alcohol-free Dance halls provided the main venue, they're thoroughly adapted to dancing, with little off-the-beat expressive content to distract from the dance itself. The dansband is a visual living sound system, totally in the repetetive category of music posited by Rasmus Lindgren (in swedish).
Yet it also presents a puzzle. While it is a thoroughly popular genre, increasingly so among young people, it's surprising in its resilience. Largely unchanged since the late sixties, it's still all about the same instrumentation, the same mixing strategies (with the very special reverb use), the same formations. (Compare the seventies, eighties and nineties.) What's perhaps the most striking is the way they've not tried to go electronic at all. In fact, there were plenty more synth experiments in dansband in the seventies than they are today, simple keyboards excepted.
Contrast this with the attitude in Germany, whose schlager music of the seventies was quite similar to the Swedish material, but where it's now morphed completely into techno-derived schlagerfox. Meanwhile, any band in Sweden which steps outside the boundaries will inevitably end up being labelled pop instead, a fate which hit the above featured Barbados. Like I said, it's curiously resilient.
So Sweden is stuck with a very thoroughly liveist holdout. My professor at university singles out the live-like nature of the recordings as their main strength, and of course the bands are designed to tour and play venues constantly. On the TV show this becomes very interesting as the bands are required to cover a pop song (which, of course, they do regularly in any case in an effort to keep up to date). Highlights so far have included dansband covers of Apologize and Take On Me, re-liveifications of largely electronic tracks that (in that spirit) remind me of that cool Kurdish village dance video I posted a while ago.
I'll keep following the show and try to understand this music, which I've yet to fully do. Especially the judges' verdicts are often a mystery to me (what made this band good or bad?) and unlike Idol I can't comfortably say they're wrong.