Sound Check Norway: Let the fox speak

What does the fox say? We all know the noises made by farmyard animals, goes the (not very deeply buried) subtext of Ylvis’s unlikely global smash hit, but there are others which, you belatedly realise, you thought you knew but actually you have no idea about. The fox, out on the periphery of the farmyard mainstream, remains a mystery.

Skrevet av Edvard Olai Brekke Værland 13.11.2013

What does the fox say? We all know the noises made by farmyard animals, goes the (not very deeply buried) subtext of Ylvis’s unlikely global smash hit, but there are others which, you belatedly realise, you thought you knew but actually you have no idea about. The fox, out on the periphery of the farmyard mainstream, remains a mystery.

By Rob Young

If you asked me for a more subtle reading of this ludicrously catchy track, I would sit down, pull off my furry mask and suggest that, in the great battery farm of international commercial music, Norway is one of the foxes – largely silent and unknown, apart from the odd yelp of ‘A-ha!’. What does Norway, that reclusive young fox, have to say? Should we communicate by Morse?

When considering the presentation of its own musical wares abroad, the problem for countries like Norway – not unique to the country, but quite pronounced, given its very busy and diverse musical life – is often one of getting the balance right. Should you iron out the defining ‘local factors’ in the name of mass-appeal blandness, or fight to keep everything (the language, etc) that makes it uniquely Norwegian?

… that could only have been made in Norway

Just as in the film world, the ‘foreign-ness’ of foreign films tends to work against the films, especially in the USA, the temptation then becomes to make art that sacrifices the qualities that make it special to a particular place. Likewise, the greatest successes in Scandinavian music in the past decade have been the Swedish and Norwegian hit factories (Cheiron Studios, Stargate, etc) – immensely skilful crafters of hits that push all the right mass-audience buttons, but which carry no trace of their locations or origin, having instead all the anonymity of an airport shopping mall. From a purely commercial perspective, this all has its place. But to what extent can that be called ‘Norwegian music’? By definition, that name would only belong to a music which you could listen to and say, ‘that could only have been made in Norway’.

Predicting the unpredictable is perhaps the hardest factor here. You could spend a fortune, and take several years, researching what makes a hit, but you probably wouldn’t come up with an act like Lordi, the Finnish gothic monsters who won the Eurovision Song Contest in 2006 with ‘Hard Rock Hallelujah’. Voters and judges responded overwhelmingly to the sheer strangeness of the gesture – the most eccentric act the competition has ever witnessed, amid a sea of bland, earnest wannabe famous types offering glittery showbiz cliches. Instead of attempting to fit in with already successful formulas, success often rewards the risk takers, and those who create a sense of mystery and wonder instead of crying out ‘love me, buy me!’.

So, promoting a Norwegian version/facsimile of already existing pop and rock music is not the answer. It’s not convincing, it’s not appealing, and in any case such overtly commercial enterprises seem less appropriate to be gifted with taxpayer funding. In any case, as we enter an era in which distinctions between ‘mainstream’, ‘underground’ and ‘overground’ are being made totally redundant in the environment of Spotify, Soundcloud, etc, it has never been easier to embrace the idea of the niche market.

Being a niche territory can be a strength. The global marketplace is already supersaturated with mass market pop music, teen and girl/boy bands, bland balladry and anonymous dance music. Because of the heavy infrastructure and resources available, these should not be allocated so much to commercial products and instead used to nurture a culture of excellence and individuality. Encourage the unique talents and singular voices, of which Norway thankfully has many. Pop music has had thousands of acts but it tends to be the individual voices, stylists, pioneering artists, who are remembered long after their efforts are spent.

Promote the vision.

One factor which I often feel hard to detect in Norwegian music culture is what you could call ‘the vision thing’. The idea of ‘competence’ – a very positive word in Norwegian, a rather more lukewarm term in English – dominates the business and entrepreneurial world and is frequently carried over to the arts. But being competent is one thing; being visionary is quite another. Being visionary means using your competence (or even, sometimes, incompetence) to make one giant leap further than your limits, and carrying your audience with you (or gaining a whole new one). It’s about the individuality of ideas – something which can go against the laudable notion of Norwegian cooperativeness and folkelighet. The dugnad is a wonderful social institution in which members of a community collaborate on a useful project – for example, repainting a communal building. If one individual came along and demanded that everybody joined her in painting the house with blue and yellow stripes, they’d probably tell her to get lost. But in art and music, it should be the artist’s job to suggest different ways of thinking: seeing, hearing, doing. Artists exist to help us think the unthinkable, see the invisible, hear the inaudible.

Art is more than a product.

Norway’s arts organisations are hindered by bureaucracy. A work of art, a music festival, a work of contemporary composition, is not a commodity in the same way as a pot of yoghurt or a designer chair. Arts leaders need to research, travel and reflect in order to curate successfully. On top of this, they are obliged to put together lengthy funding applications which are often approved only a few months before the proposed date, and after the fact, they have to write their own evaluations of the project. There are two huge flaws with this: one, that their own report is by definition unlikely to be objective, or to offer a genuine critical perspective. (The UK Arts Council employs volunteer assessors – usually professional critics or others in the art world – to visit concerts and festivals and to write critical reports.) Two, that Norway’s artistic directors are spending too much time writing reports when they really should be using their energy on the next project (or funding application). There is the tendency to over-professionalise music, musicians and others in the music branch, making the act of music making lose its magic. The beauty of music – more than any other art form these days, apart from writing – is that it is open to the enthusiast, the visionary amateur, the DIY nerd. It is not controllable or packageable like a piece of lifeless export product. We shouldn’t forget that music is supposed to be energising, exhilarating, fun – something that can play a huge part in the lives of both listeners and music makers.

A music scene is not only about the music.

Look at the really successful musical cities – for example: London, Glasgow, New York, Chicago, Cologne, Berlin, Tokyo, Vienna. What do they have in common? They have a fluid stock of musicians and bands, music clubs and venues with regular committed audiences, a media/music press infrastructure, a climate of vigorous debate in newspapers, magazines and online, locally based record labels and studios, and (still) a reasonable number of record shops. All these ingredients are required for a flourishing music scene, and in Norway, Oslo in particular, most of these are in place. But the discourse around music is the least developed. Context and debate are essential to stimulating interest and the urge to explore in audience’s imaginations – it’s not enough to leave it to the Spotify interface. When the sun shines, most Norwegians feel they absolutely have to drop everything and to get outside. Do they feel the same about a music event – that it’s just impossible to miss? I’m not sure. We need to encourage a climate of ‘unmissable’ music.

Resist the cliches.

It’s a sad fact, but it takes some effort to convince journalists internationally to notice a music release from a country they know little about, and even more to get them to understand something about the context from which it comes. An editor in London or New York is unlikely to show much interest in a CD which merely sounds like a poor imitation of something they are already familiar with.

The journalistic cliché about Nordic music connects the sound to the landscapes: the glaciers, mountains, forests, the cold and the long dark. This lazy description carries little weight any more, and the reality is more complex. What really characterises Norwegian music now, right across the board, is its incredible cosmopolitanism, its willingness to experiment and reach beyond genre borders, and the blazing heat that fuels its dynamic energies. Like its cities, the contemporary urbanity and the powerfully organic are in very close proximity.

I’m not the first one to point out how lucky Norway is to have such a well supported infrastructure for festivals, recording, touring, education and artistic development. State support is there to make worthwhile things happen which couldn’t otherwise survive in a purely commercial climate. Taxpayers have the right to expect that their money is used well, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that all artists are entitled to a scoop from the cultural pot. This is where we need to place more trust in those appointed as It’s a common complaint that too much in Norway is decided by committee. I would agree, and add that the curatorial role has become more important than ever, historically, around the world in the past two decades. Arts leaders need more freedom to set their own agendas, which requires a great deal of trust in their abilities, contacts and knowledge base. Does the present system fully support that trust? I’m not sure.

… this could only have come from Norway

A state funded music body is better placed to present Norwegian music in the aspects that express something about the nation and make audiences feel this could only have come from Norway. The sales follow from that. Remember the core values here: what is being promoted? Is it musical success for its own sake (the ‘anything you can do, we can do too’ factor?) Is it the desire for pure profit? Or is it the desire to show the rest of the world something unforgettably, unmistakably Norwegian?

Rob Young is an Oslo based English writer and journalist, specialising in music, film and art. He is currently a Contributing Editor of The Wire and also writes for Uncut, Sight & Sound, Klassekampen, The Guardian, Morgenbladet, Frieze and Artforum. His books include Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music (2010), Rough Trade (2006) and Warp (2005). He curates talks, seminars and screenings for Norway’s by:Larm and Borealis festivals and is currently writing the official biography of German group Can.