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Effing and dazzling: why Swedes use blue language on Melfest

You could realistically expect that about three and a half million people in Sweden will be tuned into SVT 1, the main television channel of the Swedish public broadcaster.

We are halfway through this year’s Melodifestivalen, the competition where most of the 28 songs dominate the charts each spring and the winner will represent the nation in the Eurovision Song Contest.

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One of the most famous names in tonight’s third heat is Linda Bengtzing.

For many, Linda Bengtzing is simply Melodifestivalen. This year’s performance marks her eighth in the competition, the record for the most diverse editions of Melodifestivalen in which a solo artist has participated, and even at 47 years old, she’s known for her insanely energetic stage performances.

But even more distinctive than Linda’s looks is the music she always brings to Melodifestivalen – schlager† This most Swedish of music genres in modern times follows every cliché of Eurovision music, including a clap rhythm and sing-along chorus, all wrapped up in that oh-so-classic pop song structure, complete with a major change to round it out.

Linda’s song this year is a great example of the genre. called ‘Fyrfaldigt hooray!’ (literally a ‘Fourfold Hooray’, referring to the traditional “Hurrah! Hooray! Hooray! Hooray!” Swedes give in celebration or at events such as birthdays), Linda describes the song as “a celebration that we exist, and that we have made it the party of all parties” with the lyrics saying that the artist “can’t wait anymore, let me go – I’m going to do what I want.”

ALSO READ: Dirty mouth Sweden enrages English-speaking Eurovision fans

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This rebelliousness and desire to have fun culminates in the second verse – with Linda determined that no one will stop her search. However, this is the point where suddenly five words of English appear, as Linda continues singing as she raises a finger and says, “I don’t give a shit.”

These lyrics, Linda explained, are best translated into Swedish as “jag bryr mig inte– I don’t care – and the song and lyrics are all about braving hard times in the past.

“It’s like I have the right to say that now because I’m so damn old and have been doing this for so long. I can say that, I ain’t got time for you because you’re taking my energy and this shit to do the gigs that gave my soul. Or someone who says for the hundredth time, “Can you sing, oh, are you kidding?”. I don’t have time for this.

“I think the respect for the pandemic has been real and a struggle and of course I put all my personal stuff aside, but I really fucking want to throw it away.”

ALSO READ: Why do the #%!s swear so much in English?

No turning point in Sweden

It is easy to understand that this choice of English phrase will resonate with many native English speakers who watch the show.

In many countries, such language would be protected until after the watershed – a term for the time when shows using such profanity would be allowed to air freely. These catchments apply in the late evening, in theory when children are in bed.

While Melodifestivalen has a target audience from 3 to 99 years old, Swedish television is not bound by any broadcasting restrictions.

One could argue that Linda’s song and message is a powerful use of swearing – “I don’t give a shit” is sung not to one person in particular, but to the situations life has had.

However, this is not the only use of vulgar language in this third heat of Melodifestivalen. One of the co-hosts this week is comedian Johanna Nordström. After the seven competing songs are performed, she performs an interval act singing her childhood memories, and during this song, she yells “fuck you” to her former school class.

Johanna Nordstrom. Photo: Annika Berglund / SVT

This isn’t the first time Swedish television has seen English swear words creep into their programming. In 2013, the country hosted the 58th edition of the Eurovision Song Contest from Malmö, where the host was described as #milf in the show’s script.

Four years later, in 2017, there were criticisms from many native English speakers in Sweden of the use of the word ‘fuck’ in Melodifestivalen. That year there were two f-word songs, including eventual winner Robin Bengtsson’s “I Can’t Go On,” used the word fuck and an opening act called ‘Melo-fucking-difestivalen’

In that year, the Swedish public broadcaster SVT a large number of complaints from both native speakers of English and Sweden for the choice of the vulgar language, fueling public debate on whether such language has a place in the public eye here in Sweden.

Melodifestivalen’s project manager Anette Helenius made this comment about the inclusion of curses in this year’s 2022 edition.

“Melodifestivalen is not just a show for families and children. Melodifestivalen is for anyone between the ages of three and ninety-nine. We reserve the right to the songwriters to have any artistic expression. As long as it’s not illegal to swear, we won’t censor the lyrics.”

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A special Swedish phenomenon

There is a clear juxtaposition of the Swedish liberal use of swearing compared to those Eurovision Song Contest rules. Since that show is subject to stricter rules for entries that conflict with language, entries must be free of profanity, with Robin Bengtsson changing his use of “fucking” to “freaking” that year.

At this point, it makes sense to look across the Baltic to Latvia. Last week Latvia made its own selection for the Eurovision Song Contest and selected the eclectic pop song ‘Eat Your Salad’.

The lyrics were censored on that show, with the viral TikTok opening line “Instead of meat I eat veggies and pussy,” that last word being dropped in the live performance, and the chorus hinting at “being green is sexy like f. ..”, without using the English language.

Why would a Latvian audience censor such words and a Swedish audience not? You might assume it should be the other way around, because Sweden is a nation in the top 10 for English proficiency worldwide

Kristy Beers Fägersten, professor of English linguistics at Södertörns Högskola, suggests that this is a special Swedish phenomenon.

“English swear words are used by Swedes with impunity: they are allowed to swear, but there are little to no social consequences or formal sanctions. There is also a certain pleasure in getting away with using English in a way that the native speakers are not free to do so.

“In Sweden, swearing is the proverbial having cake and eating it too.”

The liberal use of swearing in English that is spreading Swedish society may have many roots. Part of that could be that television shows and radio hits don’t have their own censorship.

Another could be Sweden’s generally relaxed working attitude, known for its flatter organizational structures in companiesmeaning that language between employees can be less formal.

Another factor is probably that in particular those terms “fuck” and “shit” are often used here in the same way as they are in the English language. By contrast, Swedish swear words, Kristy Beers Fägersten explains, are more for when Sweden”wanting to express an emotional response

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Finding the Swedish Limit

Once again, a Melodifestivalen show is going to test the cultural boundaries within the international community living here with the use of curses. There is no denying that it is common in everyday Swedish today to use the English swear words for emphasis – and that their meaning is less strong than in the native languages ​​of English-speaking countries.

But where would the Swedish border be? Speaking to other journalists in the press room of the Avicii Arena for tonight’s third Melodifestivalen hit, the general consensus was that words describing vulgar parts of the body (like “pussy” above) would push a socially acceptable line.

The history of Melodifestivalen has seen creative solutions to this, however, After Dark’s 2007 entry ‘(Åh) När Ni Tar Saken i Egna Händer’ (literally (Oh) When you take things into your own hands) uses ambiguities to make suggestive mentions of masturbation.

Also the composition Melodifestivalen from 1975 ‘Ska Vi Plocka Körsbär i Min Trädgård?’ (Shall We Pick Cherries In My Garden?), voted into the official Melodifestivalen Hall of Fame in 2020, is full of buckets of sexual innuendo, without any explicit mention.

But even Saturday night’s show, with “fuck” and “shit” thrown around like no problem, has a very obvious moment of censorship. Before Linda Bengtzing sings the line “I don’t give a shit,” she raises a finger.

Her index finger.

Linda explains that this is her choreography. While she wants to raise her middle finger to the audience, Linda doesn’t because it’s a “family show”.

As a native English speaker, it may seem irrational at first glance that there is self-censorship of physical swearing but not language. But this example here provides a snapshot of where Swedish culture is today.

Definitely Melodifestivalen, the country’s biggest TV show, is a space where vulgarity and rudeness have no place. However, here in Sweden today, that still doesn’t apply to the most common swear words in the English language. Culturally, those words are nowhere near the magnitude of the gravitas they have elsewhere in the world.

I’ll leave the question of whether this is the right approach from SVT’s Melodifestivalen production team to you as readers. You could argue it’s culturally insensitive to first language speakers, but then again, as a show for Sweden today, the reflection of the society it portrays is perfectly accurate.

The only advice is that if these words bother you and you’re watching the show with family tonight, note that Linda Bengtzing is acting as number six, and the interval act with Johanna comes after number seven.

Ben Robertson covers Melodifestivalen 2022 for ESC Insight

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