Quite Unusual: A Swedish Take on Modern Culture

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Fredrik Strage’s new book begins with the line, “No one who has seen Fucking Åmal buys a pop-star perfume.”

If that was the only sentence in 242, it would easily sum up cultural observation in the twenty-first century. The reference to Lukas Moodysson’s uncomfortable tale of forbidden love in small town Sweden, set in opposition to the fetishisation of celebrities and the consumption of them through commodities, is not only about authenticity; it is about knowing.

Strage’s day job is to know what is going on. As a writer for the large Swedish daily, Dagens Nyheter (DN), Strage is wired to the underground and a keen observer of trends. He is a frequent guest on daily news programmes, where his role is to highlight the emergence of an EBM artist like Rein to an audience otherwise distracted by reality TV. His podcast, Hemma hos Strage [EN: At Strage’s House], gets close to artists in a more modern format.

242 collects as many articles from Strage’s regular column in DN. They start with a note on Britney Spears’ perfume from 2005 and end with a piece about a children’s tale read to his daughter from 2017. Although the title is suggestive of Front 242, the Belgian godfathers of electronic body music, the band is only referenced in an appended auto-interview – one-fifth as many times as Kate Bush is listed in the index.

Strage’s background is as a fan of bands like Depeche Mode and Liaisons Dangereuses, but his perspective is as broad as his style is light. That’s why Damon Albarn rubs shoulders in the collection with Dead or Alive; Ke$ha with Kraftwerk; and Madonna with Malaria.

We follow him to an underground club in Berlin, where Douglas McCarthy of Nitzer Ebb sprays him with saliva as he sings, and to the Mall of Scandinavia in search of records. At Stockholm’s Bodyfest event, he enters the mosh pit with Karin Bolin Derne. We hear about neo-Nazis invading the synthwave music scene and are offered thoughts on dying alone.

In article 230, we meet Andreas Noreen, presented to the readers of DN as Depeche-Andreas. A life-long Depeche Mode fan from Gothenburg, he brims with excitement at the opportunity to meet the band and have a photo taken during a Stockholm visit. What is omitted in print is that Strage is not only an observer at the meeting; he is a facilitator, having used his influence to open the band’s dressing room doors for Noreen. It’s an act of kindness that is blurred through remote viewing.

Several of the reviews for 242 in his native country have lamented that Strage’s book is not about the magic of the number 242 for followers of electronic music or a novel set in their world. Those would have been interesting ideas to pursue, but this collection is a fun and insightful commentary on popular culture over more than a decade, as seen through a very particular Nordic lens.

Strage’s significance for Swedish criticism is that he approaches culture from outside of the mainstream. In his writing, artists on independent music labels or from alternative subcultures are given their place without the fear of not fitting in. A trendspotter he might be, but the articles collected here succeed in conveying the joy of people making that culture their own.

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