But I just learned the old one

You may remember a story from back in June when I had just attended the music festival in Stockholm called Where the Action Is. A portion of that yarn included some gushing over the singer/songwriter of the band Hello Saferide.

I was introduced to the music of Annika Norlin last year by my friend Emma. She played a CD for me of one of Norlin’s bands called Säkert.

I quickly became hooked on the Säkert album, and because it is sung entirely in Swedish, it became a barometer of my comprehension of the language.

While listening to these songs over and over, each time understanding a tiny bit more, the stories they tell have unfolded gradually in front of me. Norlin has also been a journalist in the past and many of her songs aren’t just feelings or pictures, they have a narrative. Even after more than a year of listening, the songs are continuing to unravel before my eyes.

Just yesterday while I was walking, a Säkert song came on in my endless shuffling of music. Even though I’ve heard this song dozens of times, and it’s one of my favorites, a few bits of it were suddenly clear to me today. It was a bam moment and I thought, “Wow, I can’t believe I never understood that part before. It seems so clear and simple.” It’s like when a familiar tree in your neighborhood is suddenly trimmed and you can see so much more of the sky. “Was that always like that?”

Becoming hooked on new music is no small event in my life so when I do find something I like, it’s very enthralling for me. Most of my friends are sick of hearing about it, but I can’t stand or don’t “get” almost all the new music I hear.

This is a rare, painful condition I have been afflicted with for decades, constantly made worse the fact that I am surrounded by people who love new stuff all the time. My condition has sometimes been misdiagnosed as “Hater Syndrome” or “Crotchety Old Man Disorder” but both of those are erroneous conclusions.

It’s not that I’m one of those people who is just old and only likes the music that came out when he was younger. I’ve been like this for a long time. Even in the 1990’s when I was running a record label and throughout my whole life making my own music (link!, link!), I have never shared the enthusiasm that most people I know have for new music or even a wide variety of music. Further, my condition is also not a punk rock affliction where I have to be into stuff nobody else has ever heard of. A few of the artists I love happen to be some of the most successful artists of all time.

It seems the new stuff I end up liking is inevitably music that is made by people I know personally or have some connection to. Perhaps it’s the ultimate way of saying that I can only get into it if I can relate to it. If I don’t know the people who are making it, then it is so much easier to dismiss it as insincere or expendable. More often, I feel it’s just not for me. There are plenty of artists I listen to that I know for sure I would not like if I didn’t know the people involved.

When my friend Maggie from Louisville was visiting Stockholm last month, she showed me some stuff from a new band she loves. I don’t remember the band’s name, but I do remember my reaction to it. I didn’t think, “Oh, that’s not really what I’m into,” or, “It’s okay but it’s not for me.” No, what she played for me blew my mind in a bad way. My first thought was, “Are you fucking kidding me? This is really something that people like?”

Hopefully I chose my words more politely, but I think Maggie knows to expect such cranky reactions from me by now. It happens almost every time I hear something new, especially if is becoming popular. I don’t hate things because they’re becoming popular, but I may have a knack for hating the same things that will become popular.

When I was a teenager, I worked in a mall record store called Mother’s Records. I was in charge of ordering the 45 rpm singles (which should give you a hint to how long ago it was). I would talk to representatives from the five major labels each week on the phone (another clue to how long ago: there were five major corporations in the music business!) and they would send samples of new stuff they were pushing or stuff that was catching on in places that were hipper than Louisville at the time. (I know! Hipper than a city in Kentucky? Where is this magic land?)

One summer, I heard three different songs for which my first reaction to each of them was, “This is the worst fucking song I have ever heard in my life.” As a result, the first orders I placed for each of these records was small because I foolishly believed other people would hate this shit.

Wouldn’t you know it, during that summer, I watched in amazement as, one after another, each of those three God-awful songs climbed the chart and successively became the Number One song in America.

This hellish phenomenon is still happening to me. It’s a special gift I have. It’s like that show where the guy has premonitions about horrible things in the future but he can’t do anything to stop them from happening.

The vomit in my mouth when I hear something I can’t stand might as well be the taste of gold and platinum records.

I’ve watched in disbelief as things that repulsed me at first listen have shot to popularity – everyone from Pearl Jam to No Doubt to Candlebox to Black Eyed Peas to M.I.A. to Everclear to Nickelback.

If I suspect your music isn’t truly genuine or sincere, you’ll probably do okay. If your band makes my skin crawl, chances are you’re destined for greatness. This could be bad news for Annika Norlin.

Hello Saferide and Säkert’s songs are certainly catchy and stylistically diverse, the latter of which is an approach I don’t think enough bands explore. However, I think what makes them different for me and what all this gushing most likely comes down to is Annika Norlin’s ability to be unflinchingly honest in her lyrics.

Some people can write a song about anything and sing “baby baby baby baby ooo wee ooo” over top of it. I could never do that. If I’m going to write I song, I want it to be meaningful and real. My songs are about things that really happened, actual people and emotions I really feel, even if I obscure what I’m singing about a bit. I have never seen the point in wasting anyone’s time with something irrelevant or made-up.

Why make records that have been made before? If you don’t really have something to say, why are you making noise? Sure, some bands are just around for fun and others for money. I have very much enjoyed being in a band, but it has to be about more than just fun, at least for me, and that’s what I seek also in what I listen to.

I like to think of myself as truthful in my songwriting, but I would be a fool to think I’m doing anything more than lightly scratching the surface of what’s in there. Norlin goes places with her lyrics that I would never dare – places most people don’t dare – and that is what has me all worked up on the topic, even after more than a year of listening.

It is spellbinding to hear someone sing – engagingly, vulnerably, shamelessly – about subject matter most people would only consider in their minds. Where most people wouldn’t risk the embarrassment of even saying something aloud, she’s singing it. If such thoughts ever were to come out of you, some of it is like shit you should maybe write in your diary and not tell anyone. (Dancing next to an intriguing stranger all night and never talking to them; obsessively walking through an ex’s neighborhood over and over; the graphic depiction of losing one’s virginity – and all with amazing titles, “If I Don’t Write This Song Someone I Love Will Die”; “Parenting Never Ends”; “Loneliness Is Better When You’re Not Alone”)

I hate record reviews even more than music itself, so forgive me if this is starting to sound as such a thing. I’ll bring the topic back to me and Sweden soon, I promise. (Oh finally! Can’t wait to hear you talk about yourself some more. I liked this better when you were making funny charts and taking pictures of stairs.)

Even more entertaining is that on top of all her heaviness she seems to know that you can’t be so intense all the time. Some of her material seems designed to be a parody of her deathly serious songs.

You can see some of that sentiment in the video for “Anna” where, even though her secret fantasies are laid out unashamed in the text, the video has her boyfriend looking her over like she’s out of her mind, not least for making a photo album of their non-existent daughter’s life. My favorite line is, of course, “She could have married a Kennedy,” but incredible also is that Anna would have been a sweetheart with punk rock manners who played hockey and guitar.

This story has unexpectedly gotten pretty long. I really just wanted to set this up and briefly tell you who Annika Norlin is so I could explain this newspaper clipping. That seems to have morphed into something else entirely.

Let’s put it this way: Two weeks ago, one of the local free newspapers Stockholm City debuted a new column written by none other than Annika Norlin. Well, after you’ve spent all afternoon at work reading my 2000-word infomercial about why I love her writing, you can imagine why I might be enthused about her having a regular column in the free paper.

If you’re a columnist, your audience can get their fix every week or month. If you’re a musician, people have to wait for a new album or concert. That could take years! If you’re both it’s better.

Not only will I be able to get a regular dose of her insight, but this gives me something else written in Swedish that I can really get into. I mean, it’s something different that’s not a text book or a regular news article. It’s something with some context, from a writer I enjoy and in a format that’s not too lengthy.

Whenever I read anything in Swedish it takes forever. If I really want to get it, I’m constantly looking up words. But half-a-page from a newspaper? I can handle that. I go into the city almost every day and there are about twenty minutes between where I live and the center of Stockholm by train. At least an hour of my day is spent on this commute – or waiting for trains, or walking to or from them. That’s plenty of time.

In her inaugural column, Norlin introduced the idea that there should be a new word for “love” because the old word has become too abused and over-used. For instance, a few paragraphs ago when I said “I love her writing,” that doesn’t mean the same as when you are with someone you truly, profoundly love.

The casual “I love you” is a serious, common offense it seems. She writes, “I want to earn my I love yous. I want to struggle to get them. I want to receive them maybe ten times in my life.”

There should be a new word that means “deep, heavy love” which can’t be tossed around in Facebook comments or in other such trivial usage. She closes by committing herself to the cause of finding this new word. When she discovers it, she will remember it, and she will never tell a soul that she has it.

After episode one, the printed words appear no less solicitous than the sung.

The column is tagged at the bottom with the typical newspaper byline “What do you think”?” I, confronted with the combination of such a fantastic idea to find a meaningful new word for “love” and the prospect that more new Swedish words are being invented even as I am struggling to learn the language, I scribbled out a four-sentence note to the City paper and sent it off. Apparently it wasn’t short enough. Upon publishing it the editors chopped it up a bit.

The headline they added is simple: tack means “thank you” and the note says: “I can barely speak Swedish, but Annika Norlin’s column means there is another reason for me to learn better Swedish. She wants to invent a new word for love? I agree that it’s necessary, but I just learned the old one.”

Iida told me that my letter sounded retarded. I presumed she meant that there were errors in my Swedish which made it incorrect, but she was nice enough to clarify that. “No, you sound retarded because nobody in Sweden is this excited about anything.” I’ll say.

On that thought, I’ll leave you with this video for the song “Arjeplog.” In this one Norlin talks about the insecurity complex the people here have and sings the line, “Don’t you get scared of the people who look you in the eye and smile at you?” Oh, the Swedes. I’ve been told not to make eye contact or smile at people because “they’ll think you’re crazy or drunk or American … or some combination of those.” I’m usually at least one. (Shit, Ritcher, it’s Friday. Go for three!)

This is absolutely one of those songs that creates its own visual narrative, so the video is almost unnecessary, but I like how simply it’s done, with a handheld camera in one continuous take. It’s not quite the Alfred Hitchcock film Rope, which was filmed in complete, uncut 12-minute segments, but it does the trick.

Footnotes:

The three horrible songs I heard in the summer of 1988 that became Number One hits were: “Don’t Worry Be Happy” by Bobby McFerrin, “Kokomo” by the Beach Boys, both from the jävla Cocktail movie soundtrack, and “Roll With It” by Steve Winwood. Other Number Ones I also instantly hated include: “We Built This City” by Starship and “Get Outta My Dreams, Get into My Car” by Billy Ocean.

For the ‘mericans readin’ this, I should say that the name of the Säkert video above is “We Will Die at the Same Time” or “We Will Die Simultaneously.” Everything sounds cooler in Swedish. Oh, and the name of the band means “sure,” “certainly,” “safe,” “undoubtedly” or “reliable.” It’s another one of those words.

For the Swedes in the audience, I thought it was strange that they corrected my Swedish in the paper, wouldn’t it be more amusing for the readers if they didn’t? Maybe that’s not how things work here. I have a whole other story coming up about my theories on the relationship between the Swedes and their language. Stay tuned! Here’s what I actually wrote to Stockholm City:

Äntligen.

Nu är mitt livet bara tyst och tråkig mellan torsdagar med Annika Norlins artiklar.

Jag kan knappt talar svenska därför ska det ta några timmar att läser varje krönikar men den här finns ju en andra motiv att lära mig bättre svenska.

Nu kommer hon att uppfinna ett nytt ord för kärlek… Jag håller med att det är nödvändigt men har jag precis lärt mig det gammalt.

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