An interview with Sanna Peden, part two

For part one of this interview, click here.

Above: the opening of Eurovision 2007, featuring Lordi.

After Lordi’s 2006 win, the 2007 Eurovision Song Contest was held in Helsinki, and featured an Arctic Circle Video of “Hard Rock Hallelujah.” While researching this interview, I came across a reference to the Finnish myth of Pohjola, “a purely abstract place, the source of evil—a foreboding, forever cold land far in the north.” Is that what the video shows? (The video also flashes the word “Rovaniemi.” What does that mean?)

Pohjola, or the North Land, is a region first introduced in the Finnish national epic Kalevala, an edited collection of folk poetry that became an important symbol of Finnish national identity in the 19th century. The action in the Kalevala is predicated on the opposition of the people of Kalevala and the people of Pohjola, the former lead by the “old and steadfast” shaman Väinämöinen and the latter by its powerful mistress Louhi. Although Louhi is by no means a sympathetic figure, her resilience and resistance of the Kalevalaic heroes’ attacks is admirable. The antagonist of the epic, she still embodies the Finnish characteristic sisu (guts or persistence). Pohjola starts off rich and fertile, but loses its edge over Kalevala after Väinämöinen joins forces with his kinsmen and steals the Sampo, a magical mill that was the source of Pohjola’s wealth.

The subsequent description of Pohjola as a cold and inhospitable place certainly corresponds with the setting of the Lordi video. However, the word “Rovaniemi” equates the mythical North with the real and existent Lapland. Rovaniemi is the capital of Finnish Lapland, and home to both Santa Claus and Mr. Lordi. After the band won Eurovision, the town of Rovaniemi made Mr. Lordi an honorary citizen, and the town’s centre—Sampo square—had its name changed to “Lordi square.” The town’s favourite sons do collaborative work occasionally as well—for example, Santa Claus officially opened Lordi’s horror-themed eatery “Rocktaurant” in Rovaniemi recently. Due to their Lappish origins, Lordi won’t actually do television interviews in Finnish. They worry their regional accents would ruin the illusion—picture Darth Vader sounding slightly Scottish and you get the picture.

Above: Apocalyptica in concert.

Our last band is Apocalyptica. They began as four cellists playing Metallica covers, but now also do their own songs (and play with a drummer). In this particular clip, they seem to be performing at a European sporting event, doing a song that includes no words. This is reminiscent of Lordi’s decision to sing in English for an international audience. For Finnish bands, is the choice of what language to sing in (or whether to include vocals at all) an important one?

Choosing English is a fairly safe option in the sense that most people in Finland do understand English reasonably well, so it doesn’t limit your domestic sales in any way. Also, if you start off singing in English it will be easier to get a record deal overseas, if that’s where your ambitions lie.

There is also a saying that Finns are “bilingually silent”: Finns are generally quite reserved and comfortable with silences, and often choose to just shut up in both official languages, Finnish and Swedish. Watercooler conversations along the lines of “how-is-your-wife-and-oh-isn’t-your-youngest-starting-school-this-year” don’t tend to happen in Finland. Said good morning to your colleagues as you arrived to work? Well, what else do you really need to say to them? Large companies have even organized English-llanguage “small talk” courses so that their employees would feel more comfortable engaging in idle chat with overseas colleagues and clients.

Following on from this, English could be seen as an “easy” language to perform in, as it doesn’t have the same ingrained sense of reserve as Finnish—you don’t have to mean everything with the same intensity in English as you do in Finnish. Apocalyptica, of course, due to their background as classical cellists by default didn’t sing at all—although more recently their albums have featured guest vocalists from bands such as HIM, The Rasmus and Rammstein.

Like the previous two clips, the Apocalyptica one has the letters YLE in the upper right corner, which stands for Yleisradio Oy, Finland’s public broadcaster. My understanding is that YLE operates not one but five national TV channels. To a North American like me, that sounds like a lot for a public broadcaster to offer. I was also struck when reading about Apocalyptica that three of them went to a music university, Sibelius Academy, where tuition is not only free, but students have 24-hour access to rehearsal rooms with grand pianos. Do public institutions play a larger role in Finland’s cultural life than they do in non-European countries?

Public institutions are exceptionally important in Finland, mainly because of a clearly articulated egalitarianism in Finnish society. For example, it would be almost inconceivable for a Finn to accept paying for education—education is and should be free at all levels, and it should be of good quality no matter where one lives. Finland regularly scores at the top of the OECD’s PISA survey on the knowledge levels of 15-year-olds in a variety of subjects. Considering that school starts at age seven in Finland, by age 15 Finns have had up to two years less formal education than, for example, British students, the entirely tax-funded public schools of Finland must be doing something right to close the gap and overtake the competition so quickly. This is perhaps the key difference between Finland and many other countries: public isn’t the option you go for when you can’t afford private; public is world class.

In the case of YLE there are also cultural considerations. Both Finnish and Swedish speaking populations deserve a good range of programming in their own language, but neither language is large enough globally that there would be enough quality commercial programming available in them. Of course, YLE doesn’t only cater for Finnish and Swedish audiences: it also broadcasts news in the indigenous language Sámi and even Latin.

Finland exists next door to Russia, but it has a very different history from Eastern Europe. Not only was Finland the only country bordering the USSR that remained democratic during the Cold War, but in 1956 the Soviets actually ceded Finland a big piece of land. The overall impression I get from watching these videos is that Finnish people are highly creative, very fit and active, and absolute geniuses at designing costumes and disguises. Do traits like these explain Finland’s proud tradition of independence?

First, I’d suggest a correction to the interpretation of “ceded land” in the example you have given. As Finland was considered a “co-belligerent” of Germany at the end of the Second World War, Finland had to pay heavy war reparations to the Soviet Union, including ceding about a tenth of its pre-war land area. Finland also had to lease Porkkala in southern Finland as a naval base to the Soviet Union. The lease was supposed to expire in 1997, but due to a variety of reasons the Soviet Union returned the territory almost forty years ahead of schedule—so the area returned in 1956 was Finnish in the first place. One of the reasons for the early return was the fact that Finland was suitably “Finlandized”: meaning the opinions and reactions of Soviet leaders were pre-empted in Finnish political decision-making. Essentially, Finland was neutral in its foreign policies, but not too neutral. For example, it wasn’t until after the collapse of the Soviet Union that Finland could consider applying for European Union (then European Community) membership: earlier it would have been considered being too West-leaning.

So, the Cold War period certainly involved Finland wearing several “disguises”—such as the Nordic Welfare State Hat, Outpost Of Western Civilization Cape and the genuine bearskin Friendly Neighbour Earmuffs. Finnish history is also dotted with unlikely developments, such as the fact that 19th-century linguistic Finnish nationalism was driven by the largely Swedish-speaking educated elites, so you could say Finns have for a long time had to be able to reinvent themselves and adapt to paradoxical situations. Of course, I wouldn’t want to give all of the credit of Finland’s independence to the nation’s innate talent for pyrotechnics, string instruments and embarrassing dancing—although I’m sure they’ve played their part in international politics over the years as well.

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