in From the Archives

Strange, striking, and sometimes commercial

by Samuli Knuuti

The pop-music Finland of 2004 is no longer just “the land of a thousand sad and sorry songs”, as the classic Eppu Normaali quipped some twenty years ago. The former backwoods have become a baking oven for every conceivable subgenre of popular music, turning out appetizing fare to suit all tastes, from fancies for the cake-shop window to savoury nibbles for the basement bash.

The state of Finnish pop in the year 2004

From backwoods to forefront

Back in the 1980s, when I was just entering my teens, Finland was a dreary, monoculture place, or at least as far as pop was concerned. Those were the days before sky channels, before local radio stations, before buying records on the Internet; it was a time when the national radio sent out less than ten hours of rock a week, and when the TV stations featured music videos in about one programme a month. Finnish rock was very homogeneous and lagged behind that of the rest of the world. Above all it was unfit for exporting, almost the only exception being Hanoi Rocks, which shook the dust of Finland off its boots at an early date.

Whereas other parts of the world had moved on to post-punk pop with its myriad subgenres, showing signs of the new electronic dance music soon to emerge (hip hop, electro, house, techno), Finland was still enthralled with guitar rock.

Fast-forward now to June 2004: The main Saturday attraction at this year’s Provinssirock festival was Finland’s own HIM on its only Finnish gig this summer; as I write, The Rasmus is in the British top twenty album charts for the second month in succession and the new release by Nightwish, pioneer of opera metal, is climbing up the Central European charts. The radio stations and sales charts are full of hip hop in Finnish, a style of music that only five years ago was as inconceivable as Los Angeles accordion music. And for those who don’t fancy Finnish, such artists as Paleface and the Don Johnson Big Band have proved that the Finns can also get their tongues round hip hop in other languages. Finnish heavy, in all its surliness, has followers the world over, and column space is being devoted to the new experimental electronic guys in the trendy international press. Nor does there seem to be any lack of variety in the sales statistics either, for in 2003, no less than 57 per cent of the records sold in Finland were of Finnish music.

This does not mean that the old-style, guitar-based rock in Finnish has vanished from the scene: one only has to switch on the radio to prove this. Even Eppu Normaali, the predecessor of Finnish adult rock and the Rip van Winkles with album sales of more than a million have come up with a new release this year after a recording silence of eleven years.

The past twenty years have, in other words, yielded a considerable harvest, the fruits of which we are now enjoying.


Machines speak, men rap – electronica & hip hop

In addressing the state of Finnish pop in 2004, it is both logical and interesting to begin with electronic music. Firstly, it was precisely with dance music that Finns first found their way into the international charts at the start of the new millennium. For it was in 2000 that the one-man trance project Darude of Ville Virtanen and the hip hop duo Bomfunk MC’s achieved something no one would ever have thought possible: their singles Sandstorm, Feel The Beat (both Darude) and Freestyler (Bomfunk MC’s) hit the European charts and, what is more, the British top five – something no Finn had ever managed before. Much of the credit for both these success stories goes to Jaakko “JS16” Salovaara, the wizard producer regarded as something of the Goldfinger of Finnish dance music whose presence can be sensed behind all three.

To be honest, neither Darude nor Bomfunk MC’s will go down in history. As their subsequent, less successful releases have shown, they are just one of a long line of nine-day wonders. Even so, they are the first Finns in what is in a way an illustrious line and well demonstrate just how far Finland has travelled since the late 1980s, when it was commonly thought that the electric guitar was the beginning and end of all pop. Maybe the homogeneity of the late 1980s was in fact the perfect springboard for the electronic music that burst into full commercial yet anarchistic flower as the century drew to a close.


Machine trailblazers

Even before the rapid success of Darude and Bomfunk MC’s, many Finnish artists had been ploughing their own machine furrow in the 19905. For more than a decade Jimi Tenor, who now lives in Barcelona, has been mixing jazz, funk and techno in a way that has won him international cult status.

Another group that has been causing a stir since the early 1990s with its bleak instrumental minimalism is Pan Sonic, which has just released a new 4-CD album. Pepe DeLuxé made it into a commercial for Levi’s jeans with their exuberant sound, and DJ Slow looks set on an equally impressive career since breaking away from the band.

There is thus no shortage of names worth mentioning: trance-oriented DJ Orkidea, house man Jori Hulkkonen, the dub & electro collective Giant Robot, the publicity-shy Vladislav Delay, the nujazz mood-setting Nuspirit Helsinki, the homespun And The Lefthanded, the weird and wonderful Texas Faggott…

Most of these names will not be found in the charts, any more than they belong to the national mainstream, but then that applies to many leading names on the international electronic scene: they are at their best when they blend with the undergrowth, hiding in the wings, stirring up an undercurrent and fertilising pop music as a whole. The annual Koneisto festival enjoys a wider international reputation than any Finnish rock festival; that surely says something about the standard of Finnish electronic music!


Artistic growing pains

Considering the significance of techno / rave to youth culture as a whole in the 1990s, the rise of electronic music in Finland cannot be regarded as surprising. Yet few would have guessed the way hip hop would sweep across Finland in the first years of this century. Whereas rap in Finnish had remained more or less the exclusive domain of just a few bands with a sense of humour throughout the previous decade, the high-street record shops were suddenly heaving with youngsters in baggy pants and caps all bursting to have their say and to say it in the way familiar from black rhythm music: rap.

Although the breakthrough of rap in Finnish has been commercially impressive, it has not been spared artistic growing pains. Grafting themes familiar from black culture (such as protesting against social oppression, describing gang life, heaping scorn on other rap artists, glamourising the life of the gangster, and chauvinism) onto the Finnish syntax and cultural climate has resulted in some unintentionally comic features, but the sales figures and steady flow of rap on the radio prove that the genre has found an audience. In a category all of his own is Pikku G, only 16 when he made his breakthrough: a debut album that sold a phenomenal 120,000 copies, to the vast astonishment of all.

Hip hop, if anything, may well be the genre of the future here in Finland. It is probably only a question of time before the fertile soil throws up the handful of lyricists needed to produce the hip hop discs that have not yet been released but that people will still be listening to in fifty years’ time.


Sailing the mainstream under their own steam — pop & rock

Like it or not, globalism has hit Finnish pop & rock as well. Although the majority of the most popular artists still sing in Finnish, some have proved in the past five years that it is indeed possible to qualify for precious metal discs with lyrics in English. The reason for this is the generation shift in rock. In the latter half of the 1980s, the local radio stations and music channels began churning out international pop almost non-stop.

A whole generation thus grew up to its beat, and this generation has acquired an ear for the rules to which pop & rock intended for export must conform, its bland clichés and natural ease.

The Finnish pop group, The Rasmus, best known to the international community at least crystallises everything it takes to forge ahead in the world: catchy melodies, gritty guitars, a distinct, easily commercialised image, plus a Swedish following that, for the time being at least, is better able to discriminate between a local comet and an international star.

Following slowly but surely in the wake of The Rasmus are a host of artists already established in Finland but still seeking to make a name for themselves abroad. The Crash has transformed itself from a Brit-pop outfit to an intrepid hit ticket oozing kitsch and sentiment; Kemopetrol has travelled from trip hop towards a more organic but equally commercial pop idiom, and Killer’s streamlined pop—rock is being helped along by the boyish charisma of vocal artiste Siiri Nordin. 22-Pistepirkko has more miles on the clock, having fearlessly changed gear from garage rock to electronic pop in a way that has guaranteed it a worldwide cult following.


Obsessed with lyrics…

The product development of pop fit for the international charts has nevertheless been a long and tortuous process. This has partly been due to the Finnish obsession for lyrics: all the Finnish pop & rock bands that have gradually built up a following have in practice done so with the help of clever lyrics, whether their bricks and mortar have been traditional Finnish masculine melancholy (Eppu Normaali), a mythical mode borrowed from the national epic, the Kalevala (CMX), tragicomic everyday dramas (Zen Cafe, Anssi Kela) or simply smart play on words. The band with little to say, or plenty to say but in the wrong language – English – has thus not travelled very far in Finland. And the band that cannot win an audience at home is unlikely to get very far abroad.


…but blessed with dynamic women

Another healthy trend in Finnish pop music over the past few years has been the rise of the fairer sex. Such solo artists as Jonna Tervomaa and Maija Vilkkumaa have provided a welcome antidote to all the macho, gloom-and-doom vocalists and lyricists. There are also girl bands to cater for every taste, from basic rock (Thee Ultra Bimboos) to post-grunge (Bitch Alert), and poprock (Tiktak) to pure chart music (Gimmel).

The ideal pop & rock recipe would be a mixture of international knowhow with the ability to spot the potential hit and a good pinch of Finnish seasoning. It is pointless for Finns to do American R&B or Brit-pop with a Cockney accent: it would mean carrying coals to Newcastle. The attempts at supranational music too often end up sounding homeless and flavourless. The Swedes have managed to strike a balance, for Swedish pop music has long sounded both global yet Swedish. It is thus no doubt just a question of time before the Finns hit on the right formula.


Life is heavy

The most striking feature of Finnish rock is the dominance of metal. Whereas elsewhere in the world heavy metal often carries only a marginal status or suspect image, in Finland it has always occupied a very special niche. There are several shops in Helsinki devoted almost exclusively to heavy metal; it gets far and away more radio hours than in the parts of Europe that favour a lighter brand of music, and the wealth of Metallica T-shirts that meet the eye in any Finnish town may well lead one to believe that the band is gigging just round the corner. The phenomenon is self-perpetuating: because there is a lot of metal in the air, it is constantly reaching new ears and attracting more fans.

Whereas concerts by megastars are relatively few and far between in other branches of pop music, almost all the top international metal stars visit Finland with astonishing regularity. It is therefore only logical that the biggest rock success story here to date verges on heavy metal. HIM, led by the charismatic Ville Valo, a guy more androgynous than the ordinary metal macho, has created a musical style of his own, love metal, combining the banks of guitars and the force associated with heavy metal with beautiful, romantic melodies that also appeal to a feminine audience. The fact that HIM have sold more than 2.5 million discs worldwide is surely proof that the formula works.


Bridge builders

Almost as well known outside Finland are such names as Apocalyptica and Nightwish, both of which have come up with blueprints for what look like impossible bridges between metal and classical music. Consisting of music college graduates, Apocalyptica do heavy rock on four cellos, whereas Nightwish, led by opera-trained Tarja Turunen, bear out the claim that opera was, in its heyday, the metal of the times.

In a class all of its own is the metal in Finnish that has gained widespread popularity in recent years and proved that weighty music can be a brilliant medium for the expression of weighty matters. The astoundingly popular Timo Rautiainen & Trio Niskalaukaus present moralist metal taking a serious stand on such issues as alcoholism, domestic violence, environmental disasters and the ravages of war. The fact that Rautiainen’s records nevertheless sell in their thousands and can be heard on the radio is a good reflection of the Finnish mentality. What is more, Rautiainen has translated some of his numbers into German rather than English.

By now, the real metal fan will no doubt be complaining that all the bands mentioned so far have merely mixed heavy rock with some other style and do not therefore represent the genre at its purest. In this they are, of course, right. On the other hand, Finland is so choc-a-bloc with traditional metal bands that it would be impossible to start listing them. Whether we look at thrash metal, death metal or black metal, there are so many exportable musicians peering through their lanky locks and moodily strumming their guitars that some would not necessarily be missed if they never came home after their next gig abroad. So whatever fans of the trendiest music may say, heavy metal is an integral feature of the Finnish soulscape.


Original but pragmatic

The biggest Finnish export asset of all times has, however, always been the nation’s innate idiosyncrasy. The history of Finnish rock is teeming with stories of peculiar whims and of bands born on the spur of the moment that have nevertheless attracted an audience, often in quarters where they least expected it, abroad.

The source of the creative streak has often been a sort of quirky pragmatism. Since it is difficult in a small country to earn a fortune from making music, there is no point compromising, because the rewards are any case going to be small. It is therefore logical to do just as one pleases.

This has been the philosophy of, say, the Leningrad Cowboys – whose unicorn quiffs have become their international trademark – appearing in the films of Aki Kaurismaki and with the Red Army Choir. Or The Shouters, a “choir” led by Petri Sirviö made up not of singers but of a few dozen men declaiming the most varied of texts at the tops of their voices. Or the Cleaning Women, whose men-dressed-up-as-women play pop on vacuum cleaners and the like. Or Eläkeläiset (The Pensioners), who dress as old folk and sing Finnish versions of world rock classics. Or Laika & The Cosmonauts, who play instrumental surf in a way that is utterly Finnish. Do I need to go on?

The Finns’ fearless innovation, their refusal to plump for the easy option — seeing that there is in fact no easy option — has, of course, also been a hallmark of many of the bands that “take themselves seriously”, such as HIM, Apocalyptica and 22-Pistepirkko. International interests should not therefore be allowed to elbow out the native streak in the jostle for the charts.

Like many other countries, Finland in the past few years has been plagued by pop stars hatched by TV programmes: flash-in-the-pans chosen according to the lowest common denominator whose battery-produced pop has dominated the radio channels. Such music could not be more lacking in originality, performed by wannabe stars who have watched too much Music Television and produced by cynical, middle-aged musical philistines. But this poxy epidemic is sure to pass before long without leaving any lasting scars. What is more, it is easy to see beneath the spots that the patient —Finnish pop — is actually in the best of health. It is already able to express itself in a language others can understand and to stand firmly on its own two feet — feet that will in time carry it far.


Translation: Susan Sinisalo

Photo: The Rasmus at Provinssirock festival in 2003.


This article was first published in FMQ 3/2004, and is now republished with the kind permission of the author.