The music of Finland: An interview with Sanna Peden

There are now two kinds of people in the world: those who have seen Gregorius on Youtube and those who have not. Those who have know that the Finnish singer’s version of “YMCA” was the breakout viral video of the summer, when it was watched by over a million people online. For a few weeks in August, it seemed that every time we turned on our computer someone had sent us a link to the same hilarious cover song. Interest in Finland’s favourite son grew so strong, that a Finnish newspaper eventually tracked down the singer to share details of his current life.

Although other investigations into Gregorius were soon to follow, many questions still remain. Questions about those outfits and the dancing primarily, but also about Finland itself. Was Gregorius somehow cool there? Were Finns in on the joke? Did they deliberately time the release of the clip to follow on the heels of Lordi’s triumph at Eurovision 2006? What is it with Finland and costume bands generally?

To answer these and other questions, we spoke to Nordic-studies academic Sanna Peden (née Kankaanpää), currently affiliated with the University of Western Australia in Perth, Western Austalia. A PhD student in European studies, Peden has lectured on Nordic and European identity, and has recently written for Siirtolaisuus-Migration Quarterly and WiderScreen.

Warning: this interview contains references to Nordic people in leather pants.

UPDATE: The Gregorius clip below has been removed from Youtube because of a copyright claim by Can’t Stop Productions (who own the rights to Village People songs, and clearly have no sense of humour). If anyone notices it return, I encourage them to leave the url in a comment, so I can repost it. Until then, the video is available at the following (Finnish-language) site. (Note that Mac users may need to download the clip and open it with Windows Media Player.)

Above: Gregorius performing “NMKY.”

Let’s start with the name. Does Gregorius have any special meaning in Finland? Also, the singer and dancers’ outfits have the same colours as Sweden’s flag. How would that go over with a Finnish audience? Could they accidentally start a war?

Gregorius is a spectacularly pompous and papal name. Although the name was translated into English as “Gregory,” in Finnish it remained aloof from the general population in its original Latin form. As far as the outfits go, I doubt war was ever in the cards (keep in mind the video has no reference to ice hockey!).

Wearing Swedish colours in the music video for a gay anthem actually panders towards a popular stereotype held dear by many Finns: the belief that all Swedish men are gay, or at the very least effeminate. The singing isn’t exactly impressive, and the dancing is (let’s face it) rather embarrassing—so cloaking a feeble, decidedly non-masculine performance in Swedish colours was perhaps intended as joke about the Swedes at the time.

Gregorius is performing a “dance and exercise” version of YMCA. In Canada during the 1970s, public service announcements said the average 30-year-old Canadian was in the same physical shape as the average 60-year old Swede. This left Canadians of my generation with a strong impression of Nordic people as extremely physically fit. Is that true of Finns? Is “dance and exercise” a popular activity there?

Finns are among the most physically active people in Europe. “Dance and exercise” as such is not very popular these days, but other somewhat quirky sports such as pole walking and Finnish baseball do their bit to improve the fitness of the population.

A comment I read about this video said that it was hard to out-gay the Village People, but that Gregorius had found a way. This would seem to confirm the reputation Nordic countries have for being very progressive on issues regarding sexuality. On the other hand, unlike the Village People, everybody in Gregorius is (very) white, and Nordic countries also have a reputation for being less open to immigration. Are Nordic countries still working through their feelings about diversity issues?

Considering homosexuality was not decriminalized in Finland until 1971, and the homosexual references in the performance are “othered” and constructed as Swedish, I would perhaps argue that the video itself wasn’t intended to display a progressive approach to sexual minorities. However, sexual preference is considered a personal matter in the Nordic countries, so while the GLBTI population still needs to campaign for equal rights in some areas, in everyday life homosexuality is afforded equal repression and silence to heterosexuality.

Laku-Pekka, aka Licorice Pekka.

Racism is also an issue in Nordic society, perhaps because many people find it hard to acknowledge the racism inherent in some of their own perceptions. For example, last year the Finnish confectionary company Fazer decided to redesign its wrappers to better suit an international market. One of the designs selected for modernization was that of Fazer’s popular licorice. Since the 1920s the licorice had been marketed with the Laku-Pekka (Licorice Pekka) character, a golliwogesque black figure with thick red lips and wide white eyes. News of the decision was met with public outcry, as people could not see how the image could be considered racist—if black people are black, and licorice is black, then what could possibly be wrong with placing a picture of a black person on a black product? Some people even considered the character to be a symbol of Finnish open-mindedness, that Laku-Pekka represented black people being included in the Finnish community. A common element to many of the comments opposing Fazer’s decision was the idea that the picture couldn’t possibly be racist, because we are not racist: some people acknowledged that the image could maybe be offensive in America, but certainly not in Finland.

The episode demonstrated that while most Finns may not have anything against other ethnic groups, there is also very little understanding of how other ethnic groups “fit” into Finnish society, and how they can or should be represented.

Let’s turn now to Lordi, who won the 2006 Eurovision Song Contest with “Hard Rock Hallelujah.” Eurovision and European music more generally have long been associated with uncool synth-pop. But the Nordic countries are something of an exception, due to Scandinavian Death Metal and other forms of heavy rock. Is it accurate to view the Nordic countries as having their own cultural identity, one that sets them off from the rest of Europe?

Definitely. The five Nordic countries—Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden—have their differences, but there is also a sense of Nordicness and a long common history that unites them. In my favourite quote about Nordic identity the academic Uffe Østergård describes Norden, or the Nordic countries, as “something non-European, non-Catholic, anti-Rome, anti-imperialist, non-colonial, non-exploitative, peaceful, small, and social democratic”—basically, Norden renounces power and doesn’t try to keep up with the Joneses. The licorice debate definitely draws from this conceptualization of the Norden—since we by definition aren’t responsible for colonialism, for example, we can’t possibly carry the baggage of colonialism, either.

As the Nordic countries are quite homogenous culturally, the strong welfare state and the influence of state churches have lead to conformity being the norm in Nordic societies. The Nordic penchant for metal and heavy rock is partly an expression of the frustration with this conformism. It also helps living in one of the only regions in the world where the climate lets you get away with head-to-toe black leather all year round.

Religious leaders in Finland objected to Lordi representing their country in Eurovision, no doubt because Lordi’s music and appearance invert traditional Christian tropes. For example, the lead singer says, “I got horns on my head/ My fangs are sharp/ And my eyes are red/ Not quite an angel” right before eight-foot Satan wings burst out from his back. In their own way, Gregorius would also seem critical of Christianity: they sing an anthem of gay life while sporting the logo of a Christian men’s organization. Can you tell us a bit about religion in Finland? What makes people want to denounce it in song?

Between 80 and 90 per cent of the Finnish population are members of the Lutheran church, but only a very small minority actually attend weekly church services or consider themselves religious. Church ceremonies, however, are ingrained in society, and everyone is expected to have a christening, a confirmation, a church wedding and a religious burial. It’s a very peculiar arrangement: practically everyone is socialized into the formal aspects of religion, but faith itself is considered an intensely personal matter that people prefer not to talk—or hear— about, similar to sexual orientation. For example, it is rare for politicians to make references to religion or God, and many people choose church weddings for their traditions or beautiful surrounds rather than religious devotion.

Although there is definitely space in Finnish society for questioning the pervasive nature of the state church, I don’t think either of the videos denounces religion as such. The religious organization/gay anthem dichotomy in “NMKY” is present in the Village People original as well, and you could say Gregorius’s version simply translates the irony into Finnish, taking a swipe at the Swedes along the way. The “Hard Rock Hallelujah” quote you gave continues with “or the one that fell,” countering any satanic suggestions. Lordi’s lead singer, Tomi Putaansuu or Mr. Lordi, has been quite adamant in asserting Lordi’s music is simply entertainment, much like any other music—or horror movies. Incidentally, Putaansuu married his long-term girlfriend soon after the Eurovision victory . . . in a church, or course.

For part two of this interview, click here.


9 thoughts on “The music of Finland: An interview with Sanna Peden

  1. There are many misapprehensions in Peden’s comments on Gregorius. After all, the clip is derived from a 1979 comedy sketch show. We recognize meanings that are different from the intentions of its writers and performers. And this bunch do not wear colours of Sweden’s flag – it’s blue and yellow.

  2. Isn’t the text on the shirts blue? The video seems to have been taken down by YouTube, so I can’t check for sure at the moment.

    I’ll be the first to admit my knowledge of Gregorius is limited, and that authorial intent can be a very difficult thing to establish (particularly thirty years down the track). For this reason my responses are mainly speculative: since the performance was not intended seriously* at the time, then what could it have been a joke about? Despite these caveats, I do still stand by my point on the othering present in the performance: Gregorius’ take on the gay anthem is much weaker compared to the Village People’s, and while the performers may not be dressed head to toe in blue and yellow, the outfits certainly allude to Swedishness.

    *Mari Pajala mentions the confusion over this point in her related “embarrassing-Finnish-YouTube-hits”- post over at In Media Res:

  3. Yes, that text is blue. Perhaps you can see the video here:

    And “Gregorius’s” interview here:

    It seems that they wanted to ridicule certain things considered American, or commercial. That’s hard to get now, but I happen to remember the tone of the show and the time.

    There are many good points behind the link you provided, and I’m not saying you are completely wrong in your interpretations.

  4. I don’t think copyright applies to renditions of songs. Can’t stop productions might be over reaching their power. As long as it’s not for commercial use, anyone can sing any song they want from the shower to a camera as long as it’s for entertainment. Anyway, I need to get some more cardio into my workouts and I came across a fun one on youtube called danceX it seems like an easy to follow dance exercise workout has anyone tried it?

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