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XTRA Debate: Is ‘Rent-A-Swede’ a good thing?

Within the Eurovision Song Contest and beyond, Sweden has gained a reputation for being a powerhouse of music. With impressive music credentials, it is understandable why another country may choose to export songwriting or creative control to a team based in Sweden. However, is the tactic of ‘rent-a-Swede’ beneficial for the contest at large?

Defining ‘rent-a-Swede’

For the purposes of this piece, the team have agreed on the following criteria to base their thoughts:

  • A Swedish act/artist representing another country
  • A Swede with song credits – be it production or song writing
  • We are only counting those who are Swedish nationals, as opposed to those who happen to just live in Sweden (like John Ballard)

Made in Sweden vs remastered in Sweden

There is nothing in the Eurovision rulebook stating that you cannot import or buy a song from another nation. Nor should there be. There can be great benefits to having a ready-made, highly-produced song. It can save the cost of a national final. You can be sure the song will generally be of a high quality. However, I have reservations about the process. It seems to be far too easy to develop an over-reliance to importing songs from Sweden.

It would be impossible and unfair to fully attribute success to a Swedish writing team, but there are definite success stories. Czech Republic making the final for the first time, while Lithuania get their second best placing in 2016. Bulgaria’s entries since 2016, which have seen constant qualification and some of the nations strongest results have all included Swedes in the writing team. Going back to 2014, Molly’s anthemic ‘Children of the Universe’ – a song for the first time in years gave commentators a chance to state ‘the UK is taking the contest seriously’ – was written and produced by a Swede.  

Clearly, there are benefits to lift struggling nations to a position where they can succeed with tracks that resonate with juries and televoters alike.

Mapping Swedish influence

Looking at the last five contests, you can see there are some nations who are much more dependent on Swedish songwriters than others. Somewhat surprisingly, Bulgaria is tied with Azerbaijan!

© Geonames, MSFT, Microsoft, Navteq, Wikipedia, Bing

Similarly, we often find that delegations will hire out a Swedish team of backing vocalists or dancers to help complete a package. It seems as if delegations hire through talent Swedish agencies or audition Swedish talent directly (in a similar fashion to SuRie supporting Loic and Blanche!) rather than finding home talent. Again, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this. But when delegations choose this tactic year on year, it highlights the dangers of ‘rent-a-swede’. The contest no longer showcases unique talent reflective of a music or cultural scene. Instead, it is reduced to cliches and pyro curtains for the final chorus.


I am torn on the issue. 

I think there is a huge distinction between revamping a song and importing it from Scandinavia. The Caucasus region offers three different takes on this phenomenon.

Armenia 

Since its debut, every Armenian entry have predominantly been composed by Armenian musicians. However, that isn’t to say that this has been a pre-requisite to Armenian entries. In 2015, broadcaster AMPTV had a global open call for songs for Iveta Mukichyan’s song. On New Year’s Eve, it was revealed that the songs were shortlisted to two songs. A song from Armenia – which ended up being the song ‘LoveWave’ – and a song from a ‘very famous Swedish’ writer.

This cryptic reference to a Swedish writer was later revealed to be Thomas G:Son, who has penned highly successful Swedish entries such as ‘Euphoria’ and ‘Invincible’.

However, this does not mean Armenia have avoided Swedish assistance. In 2016 and 2017, Sasha Jean-Baptiste was hired to assist with a spectacular visual performance and choreography of the respective performances. The addition of SJB enhanced the sultry and hypnotising nature of ‘LoveWave’ into one of the most spectacular stagings on the Eurovision stage. Hologram projections, extreme camera cuts stretched the limits of performance and clearly benefited the contest.

Georgia

Georgia have struggled to achieve consistent success. In 2013, broadcaster GPB went for an internal selection and chose ‘Waterfall’ – penned by G:Son. Nodi and Sophie’s power vocals and a competent package elevated Georgia to 8th favourite to win prior to the contest. However, the duo ended up in 15th – the worst placing in the final at the time. Since 2013, every Georgian entry has been origially composed by a Georgian. Correlation does not mean causation, but a sign of GPB’s musical fingers being burned?

2015 marked a new relationship between Georgian songs and Swedish musicians. The original version of Nina Sublatti’s ‘Warrior’ was fully composed by the singer, but was later remastered by G:Son. The difference between the two is night and day, especially towards the middle eight section! Even though the version we all know has a distinctly more rockier and possibly darker tone, it still remains authentic to Sublatti’s core composition.

The same can be said for ‘Midnight Gold’ – which also received a revamp by the Swede. The new version had more grit and edge, but retained the indie punk oeuvre of the Tblisi band.

Azerbaijan

Since its debut in 2008, almost every Azeri entry has involved a Swede in the writing team. Though this tactic has led to critique by some fans – it certainly has led to success. A win in 2011 followed by 4th place in 2012 with almost the identical writing team speaks for itself.

However, the contest is ever-evolving. We have seen a rise of music that authentically connects to the artist or national musical culture (See ‘1944’ and ‘Amor Pelos Dois’). Meanwhile, we have seen slightly more generic songs that lack a cultural tie be punished. ‘X My Heart’ is a perfect example. The song itself is good, with catchy hooks and an interesting chorus. However, our XTRA review included phrases such as ‘generic’, ‘cliché’ and ‘not outstanding’. I would also include the word ‘safe’. As good as Aisel is, I think it would be hard for anyone to claim the song itself is musically groundbreaking. Ironically, that is the strength of the song. It sounds somewhat familiar which is designed to make it easy to listen to. Nevertheless, the song is not truly reflective of Aisel’s background in jazz.

Ultimately, ‘rent-a-Swede’ can absolutely benefit the contest. But unless the song has a tie to something – be it the artist or a well-established musical heritage, the contest can suffer as a result. 

Simon – ‘good music is usually something money can’t buy’. 

The Swedish pop music hot-house / battery farm is an international success in the charts and clubs, and to some extent is praised by critics. So, by logic, having Swedish input and influence to Eurovision beyond its borders should be a positive thing. Within the forum of European pop, Sweden is seen as professional and contemporary, both in terms of musical style and technology. So, this is what a wide variety of nations buy into. But there’s the catch – they’re buying into it, rarely more. The Swedes are transactionally organised about this – how Scandinavian of them – you want, you buy. This means that countries exploring the rend-a-swede model will receive a product, one that (sometimes) fulfils criteria rather than any authenticity, character or substance, certainly in relation to the country or the artist whose names are on the viewers’ screens. Money talks, but good music is usually something money can’t buy.

ESCXTRA Team Poll

While we’ve only given a handful of opinions, we gave everyone in the team a chance to voice their view, in a flash-poll. And here are the results:

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What are your thoughts? Is “rent-a-Swede” beneficial to the contest? Why is it or is it not? Do you think the 2018 Swedish “underscoring” entries (Azerbaijan, Finland, Sweden…etc.) are the beginning of a pattern, or a simple accident? Let us know in the comments below or on social media at @ESCXTRA.

Previous XTRA Debates:

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8 Comments

  1. It’s not a good thing. Firstly, the Swedishfication of ESC has gone too far. And some of the songs sound quite samey – very “polished” production etc. Most countries have their own, flourising music scene. It’s better to stick to that. Which I also think is more in line with the actual idea of the music festival.

  2. Im so surprised to read that thecwriter have nobproblem with the import of songwriters. Besides microstates the rules should be that the composers at least live in the country they represent. For microstates maybe allow neighbour countries. Swedish music scene is good so nothing said but its not only rent a swede its the same Swedes over and over again and the songs more and more similar. So for me… again my own opinion, EBU should look at this rule and try to change it.

    1. I agree, EBU should have a rule, stating that BOTH song writers, producers and singers should be from the country they represent. Maybe microstate like San Marino could be an exception from the rule.

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