This weird Swedish word explains why Scandinavians don't want to be rich or famous

One of the zaniest thing I’ve learned all year is that one man is behind many of the biggest pop songs of the past 15 years, from hits by the Backstreet Boys to Britney Spears to Taylor Swift.

He’s a long-haired Swede by the name of Max Martin.

“Since U Been Gone,” “Shake It Off,” “Babe One More Time” — all those chart-toppers come from Max Martin and his proteges.

But unless you’re a music nerd, you probably haven’t heard of him.

Blame Jantelagen, a Swedish word that describes a cultural disdain for standing out.

“Martin has thrived in the ghostwriter’s milieu, where the trick is to remain as anonymous as possible, because the public likes to believe that pop artists write their own songs,” writes John Seabrook, author of “The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory.” “That the Swede happens to bring to the table an exceptionally large dollop of Jantelagen, the Scandinavian disdain for individual celebrity, makes him especially well-suited to his vocation.”

One of the zaniest things I discovered last year, when I had the joy of spending eight summer days in Stockholm, was that it’s not cool to be rich in Sweden. It’s gauche, boorish, gaudy, in bad taste, unbecoming. I was told that it’s way better, in Scandinavian eyes, to be like everybody else.

“Jantelagan attempts to ‘keep people in their place’ by discouraging vanity of any kind,” write Christina Robinowitz and Lisa Werner Carr in
Modern-Day Vikings: A Pracical Guide to Interacting with the Swedes.” In Sweden, they explain, there’s a tendency to criticise anybody who’s “too successful.”

The origin of the word itself is strange: it comes from a fictional town called Janata described by Danish author Aksel Sandemose in 1933.

The laws of Janta, as Sandemose described them, were stifling. You shall not believe that you are someone. You shall not believe that you are as good as we are. You shall not believe that you are any wiser than we are.

Robinowitz and Carr, the “Modern Day Vikings” authors, say that while Sandemose might have been writing about Sweden’s more southerly neighbour Denmark, it’s more applicable to today’s Sweden.

In Sweden, bragging and self-promotion just aren’t permitted, they say.

“It is the extreme manifestation of the Swede’s natural tendency toward modesty and equality,” they write. “the idea that being different, particularly if it means being better than others, is not something to boast about.”

So Martin writes the hits. And Ariana, Taylor, and Kelly sing them.

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