Scholar went to Sweden in 2010 to study folk music but soon realized that he was studying a genre of music that was being appropriated into a fringe political movement
The nationalist Sweden Democrats have rapidly become the third-largest political party in Sweden, and their nationalist messages mirror those in conservative political movements in much of Europe. The phenomenon has shocked the political establishment of Sweden, and the general increase of far-right populism has significant implications for the globalizing planet.
Assistant Professor Benjamin Teitelbaum of the University of Colorado Boulder spent seven years researching the rise of the Sweden Democrats and the increased nationalism of the region. Teitelbaum is not a political scientist or geopolitical analyst. He is an ethnomusicologist.
Teitelbaum, who is rostered in the CU Boulder College of Music and also teaches in the International Affairs Program, went to Sweden in 2010 to study Swedish folk music. Soon, he realized that he was studying a genre of music that was being appropriated into a fringe political movement. “It was surprising to realize that I was following something that was becoming so politicized,” Teitelbaum said.
The ethnographic frame of his research gave him deep perspective into the lives of his subjects. Ethnography is the study of cultures, specifically where researchers immerse themselves in their subjects. Teitelbaum spent nearly three years observing, talking to, and in some cases living with people involved in far-right nationalist activism.
Teitelbaum recently published a book on the subject, titled Lions of the North: Sounds of the New Nordic Radical Nationalism, which is a culmination of his experience and his research. In the book, he explores the role music played in the rise of the Sweden Democrats and other, more radical nationalist forces in the region.
“It seemed at first that this was going to be a marginal group, a little flash in the pan, some passing moment in politics.”
The Sweden Democrats held zero seats in the Riksdag, the Swedish legislature, in 2006, receiving 2.9 percent of overall votes. In 2010 they had 20 seats and 5.7 percent of the overall votes. By 2014, the party had 49 of the Riksdag’s 349 seats and received 12.9 percent of votes, making them the third-largest party in the country. Teitelbaum is not alone when he says, “They are poised to be the biggest party in the country in 2018.”
What makes the far right in Sweden striking is that its rise surprised the political establishment, Teitelbaum said. Tolerance and openness have long been hallmarks of politics in Sweden. Even when opposition to immigration was motivated by concern about economics or infrastructure, it was still largely taboo, he added.
Of the nationalists, he observed: “When they had no prospects, no optimism, they could turn to music and gain some success, achieve a new type of victory in the symbolic world rather than the real world.” The music reached enough people so that symbolic success became real-world success.
People often associate the far right with white-power skinhead music, but Teitelbaum views that association as dated. “The music was a way of rebranding themselves,” Teitelbaum said of the nationalists. “The one thing they didn’t want to be was skinheads.”
There are several differences between the angry skinhead music of the ‘80s and ‘90s and the new nationalist anthems of a silent minority.
Music genre is one. There is less punk and metal. But Teitelbaum said that is the least-important difference. The more important change was in content.
Teitelbaum describes it this way: “There is less chauvinism, that is, less direct attacks on minority groups. Less outward calls for violence. There is less self-aggrandizing rhetoric, less celebration. If you look at the lyrics of a lot of these songs, they’re no longer turned inward; a lot of the lyrics to the old songs were directed at other skinheads. Now the new rhetoric of the music is changing focus. It’s turned outward, to reach new people, to speak to new concerns and to broader concerns.”
Instead of targeting a group of people and labeling them as the enemy, or targeting other skinheads to celebrate supremacy, the music of the movement speaks to new people, to spread outward. “It’s meant to use values that are shared by society at large,” said Teitelbaum, “and twist them around.”
“Chauvinism is out, subculture is out, and instead it’s about using mainstream values, it’s about reaching out to new people. It’s the very opposite (of what it had been previously), it’s anti-skinheadism. It’s everything that the past wasn’t.”
For example, Sweden Democrats argue that diversity is inherently good. In Teitelbaum’s research, he found many people he studied worked to frame themselves as champions of diversity. They want to have a heterogeneous world, but only by keeping the different parts homogeneous. By keeping cultures distinct, the argument is, cultures have the space to celebrate what makes them great.
This ideology is in many ways like basic racial separatism, but it is now called “ethnopluralism” and has been taken up by the new right across Europe.
Teitelbaum focuses on two artists who are at the forefront of nationalist Swedish music: Saga and Ultima Thule. Saga is a female soft-rock singer-songwriter whose 2007 album On My Own features tracks titled “One Nation Arise” and “Ode to a Dying People,” both of which are a call to action against what she views as the impending end of white people.
Ultima Thule is called Viking Rock, a moderate alternative to white-power music, observers say. Their music celebrates the shared history of Sweden and its people. Much of the Sweden Democrats’ leadership credits Ultima Thule with having inspired their political activism.
The far-right movement in Sweden would not exist without the music, Teitelbaum said, adding that the rise of the Sweden Democrats is unique in its ties to music. Far-right movements in neighboring countries Norway and Denmark do not have the same musical influence in their politics.
According to Teitelbaum, the Sweden Democrats aim to forge a tidy, respectable anti-immigrant movement that is not dominated by angry white men. Changing the rhetoric of the music is enough to reach new people, but getting rid of the marriage between music and politics is the next step.
Since Teitelbaum conducted his research, the landscape of the far right has changed. The Sweden Democrats are no long considered a counter-cultural opposition force, but are now in a position of governance. “One of the greatest dangers to the far right in Europe has been governance,” said Teitelbaum. “They are much stronger and grow much faster as opposition forces.”
Now that the Sweden Democrats are in a position of power, the music is no longer as important. “It will play less and less of a role when it comes to articulating an agenda.” said Teitelbaum, “They don’t need it like they used to. They have party platforms. They have speeches. They have bills to propose. They can give interviews to major media.” All of these channels of communication were less available to them previously.
The Sweden Democrats find themselves at a crossroads.
The new far right around the world is finding itself in a similar position. Conservative, nationalist, and populist movements in the United States, Austria, Hungary and Sweden are no longer on the outside looking in. “The seeds of destruction are almost sown into the far right’s success,” according to Teitelbaum. The success of the far right is built on its criticism of the liberal establishment, but the calculation changes when the outsiders become the establishment.
“I think all the scholars of the western far right need to be part music-ethnographers, in that it is such an important part of the history, such an important part of this movement,” said Teitelbaum. That history began with Swedish nationalists being marginalized because of their presumed neo-Nazi past, and the movement grew because, like many subcultures throughout history, they found a voice in music.