Kent - Sweden's Finnish National Treasure

Kent: The Curious Case of Sweden’s “Most Swedish” Band

When I first arrived in Sweden, it was made clear that Kent is THE Swedish band that everyone listens to. Several years on, I’ve found very little to contradict that statement. In any public place I’ve gone to – malls, restaurants, cafes, Kent is always there. But how “Swedish” are they?

Back when I lived in Canada, still just becoming acquainted with the country I’d soon find myself uprooting my entire life for, there was a band called Kent which became my first introduction to popular Swedish music. Kent, it was made clear, is a band that everyone listens to. Several years on, I’ve found very little to contradict that statement. In any public place I’ve gone to – malls, restaurants, cafes – the one band I’ve heard without fail… is Kent.

They’ve just announced their retirement, after 26 years of making albums and a last hurrah tour concluding December 2016. Moreover, they’re still considered to be on top of their game, something very few bands accomplish. So why is it, this writer is forced to wonder, that I’ve never before heard a peep about most of the members being Finns until now? Granted, anyone could easily ascertain this just by checking out their names. And yet, a name does not always tell the whole story, especially in a country where people have commonly had to hide their lineage for various reasons, and where ethnicities intermarry, willingly taking on the identity of being Swedish.

More importantly you see, many have actually made a rather big deal about just how much of a Swedish national treasure this band is, but when you hear about their true history and the circumstances leading to their success, a rather different picture takes shape.

First, to tell you something of their influence: In 2013, Ola Johansson dedicated an entire academic paper in Fennia, the International Journal of Geography, to the subject of Kent and what they mean to Sweden. While Fennia is obviously Finnish itself, oddly the paper made comparatively little mention of these Finnish roots, choosing to argue that their identity is a reflection of class issues and being from “an archetypical [sic] Swedish small city”, Eskilstuna.

One becomes curious about what he sees as so archetypal, when by his own admission several pages later it reads: Eskilstuna is one of the cities in Sweden with the greatest proportion of people with Finnish heritage, currently around 17.5% (Vaara 2009). I am very familiar with this fact, due to my own father having lived there for several years in the mid 20th century. But these oversights aside, Johansson’s paper is a fascinating read in its own right, and I recommend it since it goes deeper down some paths touched upon here.

In 2016, in honor of their career, Sveriges Radio P3 dedicated a fifteen-part series to Kent over this spring and summer; It wasn’t until part nine that something substantial was finally said about such a taboo subject and what the band members have actually experienced in Sweden – which is being marginalized for their Finnish ancestry.

"Us Against The World"
“Us Against The World”

The subject of their roots came up when the interviewer noted that they seemed to have an “Us against the world mentality”, like some here deem Finns to have. They acknowledged this, and went on to explain:

“Back in Eskilstuna, we were put in a special class consisting only of Finns… we were made to feel othered by the ‘original’ Swedish students.”

Similar to what my father experienced 30-40 years before as a migrant worker, Sweden’s biggest national musicians experienced racism and exclusion for being Finnish? Interesting. And it will take some time to absorb… but even since I began to write this post, by pure happenstance I’ve also run into evidence that across Sweden, these sort of things are very much continuing to happen in the 30 years since Kent’s members were schoolboys. According to Kristian Borg, author of Finnjävlar (Finn Bastards):

“Swedish race biologists have labeled Finns as inferior. Finns have been named as the worst foreign element to have arrived in Sweden. The language has been banned and stereotypes about Finns are still widespread. “

It is increasingly clear to me that this is not an isolated phenomenon… which makes Kent’s case all the more fascinating and worthy of exploring. Well, what they managed to accomplish is quite a huge piece of irony:

“According to the Stockholm daily Dagens Nyheter, ‘What Kent have accomplished is unparalleled in Swedish popular culture’ (Wahllöf 2005). The Expressen newspaper states that Kent’s most popular songs are ‘received as national anthems’ (Nordström 2007: 244−245). Kent even ‘represent Sweden better than any other band,’ writes the music journal Musiklandet (Gustafsson 2003). And in an anthology of the band, the editor uses overtly Swedish metaphors when he writes that Kent is ‘as deeply rooted among the people as herring and aquavit’ (Steen 2007: 10)” -Kent’s Sweden, or what a rock band can tell us about a nation (Johansson).

But I would argue that the marginalization of their roots didn’t stop with their school days, it just began to take a different form. It continued on throughout their successful career, never being played up in the public eye. And perhaps the band themselves felt they had reason not to bring it up too much. The proof is that today we talk about it, when it will no longer have the potential to influence their success negatively. The thing is that for a band so well-loved, Kent’s lyrics actually spend a great deal of time criticizing Sweden, and it would be taken rather differently if such critiques were perceived to come from outsider Finns and not Swedes themselves.

At times, this cultural critique reveals misanthropic tendencies, such as the call to be different in an “IQ-free country” (“Kärleken väntar”) where “People are idiots” (“Idioter”) and “One hundred thousand voices can be wrong” (“18: 29−4”). But being different is hard because “In my country you cannot be superior” (“Det finns inga ord”). This is a reference to Jantelagen, a well known Swedish (and Nordic) idea that is typically understood as “you shall not think you’re somebody special.”

There are always sentiments whenever foreigners settle into a new culture that they must fully integrate and forego their identities and thought patterns in favor of the group mentality. Sweden, more than most countries one can argue, is guilty of such suppression. It is therefore interesting that if Kent verbalized many of their deepest thoughts as normal people do, they would likely be in the poor-house today rather than enjoying what is undoubtedly a pretty comfortable “retirement” in their late 40’s.

The band seems to acknowledge that their music, and perhaps more importantly, playing along with the elite, is what has enabled them to give a voice to issues which would otherwise be silenced. Also, that to some degree at least, they have become like the homogenized, ice-cold IKEA culture they opposed – expressed by the song “Dom Andra” (album: Vapen & Ammunition, 2002). In doing so, it’s sort of a wink and nod that this is what integration is a euphemism for.

Middle finger to the dead
We walked over corpses
And advertised our love
Our rich inner lives
But the tickets to heaven
Were sold out when we got there
And the price we had to pay
To be classified as elite
Was that we became like the others
We became like the others

For me, this has all been an unusual journey in that it actually took a long time for me to come around to the idea that there is any real friction between the Swedes and the Finns, aside from “friendly” jabs back and forth. My own experiences in this country do lend credence to it, which will be discussed further in a later post – but wherever I have lived, whether it be in North America or Europe, a certain feeling of isolation has followed. Still, I would be uneasy in pinning it down to a matter of race only.

You see, I’ve always considered myself a regular European Caucasian person. And I’ve considered the Finns and Swedes to be brothers and sisters. I never saw myself as that different from that perspective at least, than any of my peers. But when I look back at all the little comments here and there, stares and other uncomfortable situations, it becomes difficult to ignore that in many others eyes, we are not the same. Another fact that has dawned on me, is how much we Finns have in common with non-white races and marginalized groups – More than we’d like to admit, I’d wager.

But back to Kent to end this off. If you’re wondering why you’ve never heard of such an important “Swedish” band despite ABBA or even The Cardigans being rather well known overseas, the answer is on the surface pretty straightforward: They deemed early on that to sing in English would not be in their best interest due to wanting to avoid “typical English cliches”. And when their two albums where they tried to hit an international success by doing English versions failed, Swedes celebrated. Was it because they wanted to keep Kent for themselves? Or was it in part because “What happens here stays here” – a country so proud of its international image is reticent to have the true feelings of the non-Stockholmian majority population revealed on the global stage?

Kent’s influence is certainly felt one way or another, especially around Scandinavia and Finland. In fact, popular Finnish Tango singer Reijo Taipale liked Dom Andra so much that he performed his own cover version, complete with a video mimicking the original:

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