Stockholm Syndrome: the irresistible lure of Melodifestivalen

Melodifestivalen is the planet’s biggest pop competition you’ve probably never heard of. Featuring interviews with Jessica Andersson & Benjamin Ingrosso, this article first appeared on the Independent on 10 March 2018.

Fondly referred to as “Melfest” or “Mello”, the show is Sweden’s six-week long televised search for their entry for the Eurovision Song Contest, culminating tonight in a grand finale watched by literally half of the country.

Turn to Twitter this evening and you’ll notice #Melfest trending, carrying with it cries of “JUSTICE4SCHLAGER”, the dancing lady emoji and multiple gifs of two topless men mucking about in a paddling pool. Welcome to Saturday night, Scandi style.

It has all the pizazz of an X Factor finale but none of the flab – no adverts, sob stories or cringeworthy cover versions here. It’s a music competition where the contestants are treated with respect, pop is put on a pedestal, and there’s no snarky judging panel pouring salt over the proceedings.

And crucially, unlike our talent show equivalents, the ratio of bops to flops is wonderfully high. I guarantee that by time the utterly ridiculous voting process gets underway, you’ll have downloaded at least 4 or 5 of the entries. This level of quality has earned Melfest a considerable internet fanbase away from its home in Scandinavia.

On a similar trajectory as RuPaul’s Drag Race, Mello is now a much anticipated international event thanks to improved streaming options and the social media buzz generated by British fans, particularly those from the LGBTQ+ community.

The production is glossy, the scripts are genuinely funny, the community is welcoming, and the music is spot on. And because the Swedish national broadcaster (SVT) is globally-minded enough not to geo-block to show, all you need is an internet connection and enough booze and snacks to see you through this two hour cavalcade of glorious pop music.

Amongst the favourites to win on Saturday are Margaret – Poland’s answer to Rihanna performing a banger in a Cuban cabana; Samir & Viktor – endearing “brototypes“ for Love Island’s Chris & Kem, singing a song about shuffling their life away on the dance floor; and Rolandz – a glitzy glamrock parody dance band that defies all explanation (well, there’s always one, isn’t there?).

Whatever your musical preference there’s something for everyone here. Melfest is a delightfully appetising selection of different acts, with a few meaty morsels, a good measure of sweetness, and just the right amount of cheese… if only there were a Swedish word to describe such a varied and fulfilling buffet.

To whet your appetite, I caught up with the two grand finale acts with the most impressive Melodifestivalen heritage – Benjamin and Jessica.

Benjamin is a member of an incredible Melfest dynasty – his mother, Pernilla, has participated in the competition five times over the past 30 years, and this is Ingrosso’s second attempt at snatching the Mello crown. And he might just do it. Dance You Off is the hot favourite to win this weekend but faces stiff competition in what’s shaping up to be the most open final in years.

Benjamin Ingrosso interview

Benjamin, how are you feeling about the final?

I’m so excited that I get to perform and showcase my song again. I’m super proud of it. It’s a sad song with an uptempo beat, and melody-wise it’s got a ‘90s vibe all over it. It’s emotional but very up-lifting.

Ah, the ‘90s! Didn’t your mum take part in Melfest back then?

Of course, some of my earliest, most favourite memories are of my mum performing in Melodifestivalen! But the competition has changed a lot since then because it follows the music – it feels a lot more modern these days.

Sweden’s so good at producing modern global pop – why is that?

I think Swedish pop music is so good because we have all these stories and legends around us for inspiration. Also we’re locked inside like 90% of the year because of the cold, so we have to find stuff to do!

And Melfest’s increasing international fandom must be a good thing, right?

Melfest is such a big part of Swedish entertainment – a huge show with so many different kinds of artists and numbers that it works on such a big scale inside and outside of Sweden. As an artist, it’s amazing to think that our tracks are now reaching the UK, and that Melfest is popular there.

And for those tuning in on Saturday night – you’re on quite late in the running order – what should we be snacking on by that point?

Oh definitely sour cream and onion chips, with some Plopp chocolate and milk. Or cinnamon buns.

Seven-time competitor and 2003 champion, Jessica is what the Swedish fans refer to as a “schlager diva” – a proud, powerful woman specialising in catchy lyrics, key changes, corsets and confetti. Majestically camp and much-loved, these divas were the bread and butter of Melfest until modern tastes shifted towards younger male-fronted, electro-pop ditties performed by the likes of Benjamin Ingrosso, Måns Zelmerlöw and Felix Sandman.

Jessica Andersson interview

Jessica, how did you find your Party Voice?

I loved this song from the first time I heard it – it’s an empowerment anthem. I’ve had lots of emails from women who just write me to say “thank you for giving us older women a platform and a voice” [Jessica is 44 years young], and that’s what I wanted to do with this song. Party Voice is not just about having a “party”, it’s also about having a “voice” – a voice for women, a voice for schlager.

I was so happy when I qualified directly for the final because I didn’t have the odds with me. A lot of the media had been commenting that “oh no, she’s too old” and that really annoys me because that’s not how it should be. This competition should be open to everyone, to every age, to every genre. That’s how I want to see Melodifestivalen remain in the future.

Melfest is as much about the spectacle as it is the song, so how did you decide on Party Voice’s presentation?

I wanted the performance to be elegant and luxurious – and my inspiration for the stage show is Beyonce when she did Love On Top at the VMAs, you know it? I wanted to showcase elegance and maturity but also sexiness and fun.

What would you say to convince someone to tune in who’s not seen the show before?

Oh you have to watch it – it’s such a massive show. The twelve artists that make up the final are all so different, but they’re all going to go in to the Top 50 on Spotify by Sunday morning. The show is absolutely huge. 

Melfest is all about the entertainment, the fun, the glamour and the glitter – and the competition is almost sacred to the people of Sweden. Watch it!

You’re performing fifth – so for those Brits streaming the show, what party snacks should we be having by this point?

Champagne. Nothing else.

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