Life After ABBA: Post-Ironic Swedish Rock

The Hives
Veni Vidi Vicious

Has the sweep of post-modernity — with its unquenchable thirst for regurgitation, re-releases, and revivals — interred the age of punk and post-punk critical irony to the tombs of rock history? Welcome to the age of post-irony, where tongue-in-cheek revamping of a real or imagined past is simultaneously tempered by straight-faced reverence and earnest referents. Exhibit A: Last Friday in my home town of Lawrence, Kansas, my friends dragged me to a show headlined by Haulin’ Oats, a tribute band to…well, you-know-who. Offering equal parts parody and passion throughout its hour-long haul through those hits of yonder past, the band was never either just parody or just passion, but always both, always at once. What I found even more striking than its loving and deliberate channeling of those p(r)eppy ’80s grooves, those faux-soul vocals, those MTV-tailored threads, and that dance, was the sheer audacity of a group of competent musicians deciding to form a Hall & Oates cover band in the first place. Do these boys have too much time on their hands? Weren’t Hall & Oates one of those bands we always used to love to hate? Wouldn’t such a rock ‘n’ roll camp-trip 20 years ago have been unambiguously laced with cultural scorn and merciless piss-taking?

Welcome to the age of post-irony, where guilty pains and pleasures are played out as collective nostalgia through the warped blur of rose-tinted glasses. Exhibit B: The Darkness’ take on Queen and AC/DC. Exhibit C: The Scissor Sisters’ take on Elton John and disco. Exhibit D: Dinosaur rockers Rush and AC/DC gracing recent covers of Rolling Stone magazine. And for Exhibits E, F, G, H, ad infinitum…see Swedish rock in the post-ABBA era.

Post-ironic Swedish rock emerged from the vacuum left after the demise of ABBA in the early 1980s. Ever since, Swedish popsters (and government officials) have been scheming ways to replicate the cash cow that had — for a decade — constituted the nation’s most remunerative cultural export. The challenge was to craft a band with the hooks and charms of ABBA without showing too many fingerprints betraying the cynicism of that exercise. Post-irony became the aesthetic route of choice, enabling bands to be and act like ABBA, whilst always showing their audience (with a nod and a wink) that they were knowing practitioners in this process. By showing their (un)true colors all could be in on the joke; with no losers in the conspiracy, the winners (artists, audiences, industry, nation) could take it all. From Ace of Base and the Cardigans in the 1990s to Robyn and Basshunter today, Swedish acts have taken that road oft-traveled, using post-ironic humor to undercut or silence critics who might call them out for what they (arguably) really are: creatively-challenged plagiarists who have built then maintained their careers by riding the coattails of rock past.

If ABBA provided the precipitant spark for Swedish post-ironic rock, the initial(ed) ones have more recently been replaced (or accompanied) by other — often more hip-credible — rock sources of inspiration and replication. Indeed, the post-ironic trend has (ironically?) been particularly pervasive within those zones where one might expect higher levels of ground-breaking inventiveness and originality. Alternative and indie Swedish rock bands like the Hives, the Hellacopters, Division of Laura Lee, Sahara Hotnights, the Soundtrack of Our Lives, Peter, Bjorn & John, and the Cardigans have all been name-checked, scrutinized, and celebrated by hipster critical communities the world over in recent years. All post-ironic tricksters to varying degrees, the Hives and the Hellacopters have been especially quintessential purveyors of the form. Their shameless dipping into the garage punk (The Hives) and heavy metal (The Hellacopters) genres registers humor through their over-the-top enthusiasm and passion, as well as straight-faced adulation for their referents through those very same emotions. Paradoxically, there is no way to distinguish the two modes of expression for they inhere within each other. As such, post-irony both is and is not humorous, it might or might not be, or it can be but does not have to be.

Spearheading the contemporary garage rock Swedish invasion are the Hives, a rock-comic ensemble fronted by the charismatic Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist. The band smoldered in the backwaters of Fagersta, Sweden, before exploding onto the international stage with its breakthrough 2000 album, Veni Vidi Vicious. By punning on Julius Caesar’s proclamation “Veni, vidi, vici” (translation: “I came, I saw, I conquered”), the Hives threw down the gauntlet with a premature declaration of rock domination, then backed it up with a raucous collection of two-minute punk nuggets. Employing bluster to blunt any potential charges of post-ironic plagiarism and boasting to shroud their essentially revivalist essence, the Hives made pre-emptive strikes against potential critics and nay-sayers, hailing themselves — despite the evidence — as the “new” rock gods, as the “new” voices with the “new” sounds. That they performed this sleight of hand with such knowing and self-deprecating humor gave them an endearing cheekiness that softened the conceit of their brazen claims.

Boast or superiority humor is hardly a new phenomenon to rock culture, but few bands have shown the Hives’ audacity to pronounce themselves the conquerors of the rock kingdom before their first note has even been aired. Their centerpiece song, “Hate to Say I Told You So”, sees the band substantiating its “title” claim with further statements of swagger. “Do what I want ‘cos I can and if I don’t because I wanna,” Almqvist howls, tongue-twisting (from his cheek) his way into new levels of megalomania. As the opening song on Veni Vidi Vicious, “The Hives — Declare Guerre Nuclearre”, suggested, here was a band unwilling to wait for an invite into the U.S.-U.K. rock enclave. For them, the war had already been won; the other kings were already dead; long live the Hives! Their cartoon renditions of rock egotism suggest a Ramones element to Hives humor, but their distinctive twist of hilarity comes from the fact that this is a Swedish band — not an American one — claiming rights to the rock throne.

The key to the Hives’ comedic grandiosity is located in the excess and exaggeration the band brings to its claims, boasts, and banter. Fantasies of triumph are delivered in a deadpan, straight-man style, thus establishing an affect of authenticity as well as a wry commentary upon it. Their self-importance is both silly and serious, dumb and clever, parody and posture. Incongruous opposites form the foundation of their post-ironic essence: the absurd contrivances of their matching white suits and clichéd rock poses are coupled with performances as intense and raw as Iggy Pop; the band even invented their own mythical behind-the-scenes guru in Randy Fitzsimmons, a non-existent figure who receives songwriting credits. Yet, one listen to their music and such gimmicks become but secondary backdrops to the tight, explosive punk rock harnessed by a well-oiled machine. On “Outsmarted”, the band comes clean to its crafty humor in typically convoluted and bravado fashion with the line, “I used to be the one who never let thought interact one bit with intellectual shit, diversity, and wit.” Meaning: they “used to be” but not any more! For the Hives, the reigning Swedish kings of boast humor, modesty is a characteristic best kept in the memory banks of their past.

Sahara Hotnights

Following in the scorched footsteps of the Hives were fellow compatriots Sahara Hotnights, an all-female combo fronted by Almqvist’s girlfriend, Maria Andersson. Sahara Hotnights inhabited specific U.S. rock traditions in order to both celebrate and satirize them. The Ramones, again, offered the model template, though the Runaways and Suzy Quatro provided the band’s more immediate touchstones. Predictably, the Hotnights were soon tagged as the Swedish Donnas, though their girl-rebel affectations leaned more in the L7 “macho” feminism direction. “Alright Alright (Here’s My Fist, Where’s the Fight?)” and “We’re Not Going Down”, from C’mon Let’s Pretend (1999), gave notice that these were not your typical demure Swedish model-beauties. Yet, the Nights’ “bad girl” persona, being post-ironic in construction, arrived not so much as a copy of an image, but as a copy of past images and imaginings of an image type. They were less “bad girls” than they were girls alluding to a “bad girl” persona previously played out by prior “bad girl” persona bands. Their post-ironic humor was thus more about the tradition of the “type” than it was a caricature of — or play upon — the type itself.

Pre-dating Sahara Hotnights, the Cardigans similarly toyed with Swedish and American stereotypes via their tongue-in-cheek pop constructions. Fronted by the sometimes sexy, sometimes sunny, sometimes sad, but always sarcastic Nina Persson, the Cardigans evoked references to ABBA with their saccharine pop, as in the 1996 hit single “Lovefool”. In reality, though, the band had more in common with American post-ironists Weezer and Blondie, their candy-floss pop and/or sultry excesses always bordering on sarcastic kitsch. Like the Hives and the Hotnights, the Cardigans offered combinations of wit and woe, their serious and sly intentions operating in post-ironic simultaneity. The band’s lounge versions of not one but three Black Sabbath songs, “Changes”, “Iron Man”, and “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath”, each sweetly delivered by the beautiful blonde Persson, reveals a quite striking — if disorienting — line in incongruity humor.

Like post-modernism (and other “posts”), post-irony recognizes an expression that is both intimately connected to the past (i.e. to its post), while being significantly divorced from it. The post-ironic style of humor locates itself between the irony and the pastiche that have been the loci of modern humorist expression. In an age of rock where technology has enabled the downloading of past recordings (either literally or by way of influence) into current sounds, the post-ironist both concedes the act(s) of plagiarism/pastiche involved, while (implicitly or explicitly) commenting upon that recognition and act. The humor resides in the processes of negotiation between past and present: in the how, in the delivery, and in the reception. Whereas an ironist or parodist will invoke the past in order to invert it, mock it, or resist it, and whereas the pastiche artist impassively duplicates the past, the post-ironist does both — differently. As recent Swedish rock shows us, post-irony is about the craft(y) art of pilfering. The post-ironist may be guilty as charged, but (s)he uses a knowing and persuasive humor in his/her defense to lessen those charges. Whether referencing a patented style, stealing a common sound-bite, or covering a past rock icon, the post-ironist does so with reverence, delight, or even complete indifference, perhaps resorting to some slight humor but never to the slights of humor beloved of the traditionally satirist.

The above essay is an outtake from Rebels Wit Attitude, a new book about subversive rock humorists published by PopMatters and Soft Skull Press.