Did you ever listen to Swedish rap music? It’s a kind of paradox. A little like Swedish blues. How much is there to moan about in this beautiful country where health care is universal and excellent elder care is a priority; where a year of first-class childcare costs less than a monthly metrocard? It’s a good thing I can’t understand the lyrics because they’d probably be parroting the negativity and anger of American hip-hop, the way Europeans all used to wear our styles, play our music, and consume our toxic TV sitcoms like M&Ms. Maybe. Maybe not.
Because this summer, in Sweden, I noticed a small difference. American music isn’t quite all over the charts the way it used to be. On the national news, violence in Iraq is on the roster, but mostly, besides the emigration of Beckham, there is little mention of the US. In financial news one hears relentlessly how the dollar, day by day, is hitting new lows. Besides always-buoyant sales of Springsteen and Dylan tickets, and the omnipresent CBGBs and Ramones T-shirts, I now observe more of Stockholm in New York than America in Stockholm.
And more than anything, you notice Swedish quality of service. In the metro, in cafes, at petrol stations--- there are young, stylish people doing these low-level jobs with dignity. They are kind, open-faced—happy to help. They do not expect and often will not accept gratuities. Generally there is not this intense competitive drive to make a hedge-fund fortune because success and happiness in these countries has more to do with deep-seated values than a brand-new mansion in the Hamptons. It is still cool to play music and be good. And except for the very insecure nouveau-trendy in Stockholm, dress is casually stylish but not excessive. Besides young Goths, one rarely sees any of the conspicuous make-up which New York women seem to require these days.
I spent a whole evening talking to a quasi-famous aging punk rocker. He does construction during the day-- supports a family, plays music at night. He likes it that way. He talks about socialized medicine, criticizes the American system, understands little its obsession with money. Like many Swedes, he is so great-looking that it hurts…he is completely unaffected, scarcely notices the gorgeous women that lean on his stage…is glad for the 8 month paid paternity-leave he was granted for each of his 3 kids. Was happy to reminisce about the New York scene with me, walked me cordially back to my hotel-room like a gentleman.
My last night I met a tall, long-haired beautiful man with a weathered leather jacket and the air of a woodsman. For his living, this guy paints murals. Not just any murals—he decorates the walls of an old Swedish iron-mine north of the Arctic Circle—miles of them-- 1500 meters below ground, so the miners—in the long, dark, frigid winters, will have beauty and light around them while they work. For this he is paid a stipend by the government. A character out of an unwritten Michael Ondaatje novel. He knew about music, too..about poetry, about art. The Guinness book of records lists the world’s deepest painting as some cave, maybe 1100 meters down. So why not correct them, one of my bandmembers asks? He laughs, nods his head and says in Swedish something like ‘You crazy Americans.’ Tonight I am looking at his work online. He is painting his dream, half a mile beneath the midnight summer sun. Miles to go.
Floors below me, in the tunnels of New York, I pray someone is still risking arrest to spray his version of a dream on some wall. That the dreamers will paint faster and further than the MTA workers hired to remove their work. That all the young, shivering or sweating artists who came here with any dream will not wilt and die in the face of the greed and excess and false gentrification which has become my great city. That lack of acknowledgment will not cause them to pack their few belongings and move on to a place like Sweden. It is tempting.