(December 14, 2019). As Swedish musical acts go, many knowledgeable American fans can run off a list of maybe three or four performers who’ve made enough of an impact to get mentions.
Typically, the list would sound something like this: first ABBA, and then everybody else.
Well, the best known and most successful of “everybody else” is Roxette, the duo who formed in the Swedish city of Halmstad in the 1980s and consisted of singer/songwriter/musicians Marie Fredriksson and Per Gessle.
Sadly, Fredriksson died on December 9 in Djursholm, Sweden after a valiant 17-year-long battle with brain cancer. She was 61.
Roxette exploded to worldwide fame in 1989 with “The Look,” a jangly-guitar/synth-driven pop tune featuring both Fredriksson and Gessle on vocals. After being brought back to the states from Sweden by an exchange student from Minnesota, the record quickly climbed to No. 1 in the US and dozens of other countries, including Australia, New Zealand, Italy, Finland, Germany, Norway, Spain and Switzerland.
That unlikely stroke of luck for “The Look” – a song discovered by a student in a foreign country who convinced his local top-40 radio station back home to give it a shot – led to Roxette’s US record deal with EMI America, a relationship that would later prove to be a blessing and a curse for the duo.
“The Look” was the first of six top-10 singles in the US for the duo, with all six reaching the top two positions on the Hot 100, including four No. 1s.
An interim single, “Dressed for Success,” followed “The Look” In summer 1989 and peaked at No. 14 on the American chart.
The second No. 1 was the mid-tempo power-rock ballad, “Listen to Your Heart,” a song that holds the distinction of being the first to top the Billboard Hot 100 without a vinyl 7-inch single release. Instead, the tune, which showcased Fredriksson in a solo lead role, made its mark solely via cassette-single availability.
Marie Fredriksson gave a powerful vocal performance on “Listen to Your Heart,” a melodramatic one that clearly took the song over the top. It established her as a premier pop vocalist of the late-‘80s and early ‘90s, a fact that the duo would exploit on future single choices like “Dangerous” and “It Must Have Been Love.”
On “Dangerous,” another jangly, uptempo pop number from the duo’s début international release Look Sharp!, Fredriksson alternated leads with Gessle, with Per opening each verse before Marie took over to set up the chorus. Marie made the song her own, however, with a solo vocal during the final chorus – a performance that helped make hers the voice that people began to most identify with the duo.
“Dangerous,” the followup single to “Listen,” climbed the Hot 100 beginning in December 1989 and rose to No. 2 the following March, with Janet Jackson’s “Escapade” firmly entrenched at No. 1. Roxette, who had previously toppled Janet when “Listen to Your Heart” displaced “Miss You Much” from the top in November ‘89, was unable to repeat history with “Dangerous,” which had to settle for runner-up status.
The band would return to No. 1 with their next single, one that would become their biggest.
Ironically, it was a song that had been released two years earlier as a Christmas tune before Roxette gained international fame. “It Must Have Been Love (Christmas for the Broken-Hearted)” was refashioned in 1990 for the movie Pretty Woman starring Julia Roberts and Richard Gere.
“It Must Have Been Love” – sans the Christmas line – again featured Fredriksson in a powerful solo vocal turn and topped not only the American charts, but those of several other countries as well, thus continuing Roxette’s immense international popularity at the time.
In its climb to No. 1 here, “It Must Have Been Love” had no problems jumping past songs in the top ten by the duo’s then-recent chart nemesis Janet Jackson (and her hit “Alright”) and the band Heart (“All I Wanna Do Is Make Love To You”), a group to which Roxette was beginning to draw comparisons because of their mutual penchant for chord-heavy, power-rock ballads and the transcendental vocal performances of Fredriksson, which were reminiscent of those by Heart’s leader Ann Wilson.
The chart run of “Love” was so enduring – 25 weeks on the Hot 100 – that it ranked as the second-biggest single on Billboard’s year-end recap for 1990, placing only behind Wilson Phillips’ “Hold On,” which spent fewer weeks at No. 1 but had an equally lengthy chart run.
The huge success of “It Must Have Been Love” in 1990 paved the way for even more success in 1991 with Roxette’s next album, Joyride, and its first two singles.
“Joyride” was the lead-off single, one that recreated the feel of their first No. 1, “The Look,” from two years earlier. It spent a week at the top in May ‘91 before EMI followed it with yet another power ballad featuring Fredriksson, the song “Fading Like a Flower (Every Time You Leave).”
With the duo’s longtime producer Clarence Öfwerman borrowing heavily from the same formula that gave Roxette its first two No. 1 singles, “Fading Like a Flower” was to “Joyride” what the ballad “Listen to Your Heart” had been to the uptempo “The Look,” with both “Joyride” and “The Look” featuring (mostly) Per Gessle’s vocals and heavy doses of his electric guitar, while “Listen to Your Heart” and “Fading” showcased the best that Marie Fredriksson had to offer vocally – on records that could easily have been billed as solo efforts by her.
Except, unlike “Listen to Your Heart” before it, “Fading” stopped short of the top of the chart when it peaked at No. 2 in August’91 behind the 7-week No. 1 juggernaut that was Bryan Adams’ “Everything I Do (I Do It For You).”
There was certainly no shame in being No. 2 behind the song that would ultimately rank as the biggest hit of the year, besides Roxette had amassed six No. 1 or No. 2 singles over the 28-month span beginning in April 1989, tying them with Janet Jackson for the most in that period.
But “Fading” would mark the beginning of the end of the phenomenal American success Roxette had enjoyed the previous two-and-a-half years. The next two singles from the Joyride album would peter out in the 30s, with “Spending My Time” reaching No. 32 and “Church of Your Heart” stopping at No. 36.
Several things conspired to cause Roxette’s chart demise in America. First was the advent of grunge rock and the growing popularity of R&B and hip-hop music in late 1991 and throughout the 1990s.
Second was a Billboard chart methodology change in November 1991 that adopted the use of point-of-sale technology and actual radio airplay data that more accurately reflected the popularity of grunge and hip-hop. Billboard’s prior use of manual lists provided by record stores and radio stations, which took into account rank but not actual sales and airplay, had mostly favored safe pop music – including the type of ‘80s synth/guitar pop that Roxette made.
The third change – and perhaps the one that was most devastating for the duo – was a change in leadership at EMI, which resulted in less promotion as Roxette clearly had become a lower priority for the label as the ‘90s wore on.
While their songs were still catchy and of great quality as pop songs went, Roxette’s musical style hadn’t changed much with the times, which is not a bad thing if you’re in it for the art and not for the money. But that clearly wasn’t going to fly in the edgier 1990s, particularly in the middle part of the decade before pop made a later comeback via boy bands and teen starlets like Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera.
While Roxette experienced label woes and diminishing sales here in America, their international success continued with award-winning, chart-topping songs and albums in their home country and in Europe. Songs like 1992’s “How Do You Do!,” from their album Tourism, topped the charts in Norway and Spain, while 1994’s “Sleeping in My Car,” from Crash! Boom! Bang! returned the band to No. 1 in their native Sweden.
That song, “Sleeping,” would become Roxette’s last Hot 100 chart entry here in America, reaching No. 50 on the Hot 100 in July 1994.
An all-but-forgotten entity here in the states, Roxette would continue to tour and release albums abroad into the new millennium. Things didn’t slow down significantly until their first major setback in September 2002, when Fredriksson collapsed at her home and suffered a concussion, which revealed the first occurrence of a brain tumor.
She underwent successful tumor-removal surgery and rehabilitation, but her touring and recording with Roxette would be affected, as she would not record another album with Per Gessle until 2011 (although she did record several solo projects in that time – something both she and Gessle had also done before Roxette’s success began two decades earlier).
In all, Roxette released three studio albums in the 2010s, the last of which was 2016’s Good Karma, an album that unfortunately did not return the band to the top of the charts in the many countries where they’d scaled the highest of heights previously.
But the band remained active right up until the end, when Marie Fredriksson’s declining health finally dictated that she stop touring.
In 2016, she released the following statement announcing her retirement from the road: “Sadly, now my touring days are over and I want to take this opportunity to thank our wonderful fans that (have) followed us on our long and winding journey.”
Her Roxette partner Per Gessle added: “The joyride on the road is over now – but we sure had fun, didn’t we?”
As Sweden’s second-biggest band internationally, Roxette appropriately bridged the period between their home country’s biggest musical export – the ‘70s group ABBA – and their third-biggest – the similarly composed ‘90s band Ace of Base – each of those comprised of two women and two men.
It could thus be said that Sweden knows how to produce unisex bands as each of its three most successful acts were equal parts men and women.
In further credit to Roxette, it could also be stated that they accomplished with two people what each of the other two – ABBA and Ace of Base – took four to do: achieve worldwide success with phenomenal record sales and a discography that will be fondly remembered for a long time.
Marie Fredriksson is the first member of any of those acts to pass this life, but her contributions to the world’s musical tapestry through Roxette’s memorable song catalogue cannot be denied, and she will certainly be missed.
R.I.P. Gun-Marie Fredriksson (May 30, 1958 – December 9, 2019)
DJRob is a freelance blogger who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter @djrobblog.
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