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The Zorn Trials and the Jante Law: On Shining Musically in the Land of Moderation


The term “National Folk Musician” bears a cultural charge and a value, both within folk music Sweden and among the Swedish people in general. But within folk music circles it is also marked by a certain ambivalence, which can take several forms. The Zorn Jury, which distributes the silver badge designed by Anders Zorn and with it the title of National Folk Musician, stands for an old tradition of cultural conservatism among folk music enthusiasts, from which many today wish to distance themselves. At the same time, certain critics charge that musicians who have gained the silver badge tend to abandon social playing. Parallel to this, some who play for the jury feel a certain ambivalence concerning the desire to show themselves superior to others. All of these insecurities can be seen as being in some way related to the Jante Law. Certain insecurities can be interpreted as a direct effect of the Law—“thou shalt not fancy thyself better than we.” Others, especially the skepticism against the jury’s valuation of older folk music generations and traditions over younger ones, can be seen as a standard rejection of it—“The Jante Law has no bearing here.” But paradoxically, the Jury’s encouragement to excellence can also be seen as a similar rejection of the Law. The Zorn badge and Jante Law are thus interactive; they operate with and against each other in several different ways. I argue that this connection builds on these two phenomena both giving expression to a fundamental contradiction in Swedish culture, between the egalitarian ideal on the one hand and real-world hierarchies on the other. The Jante Law builds on an uneven power structure between the young and old, and demands equality by limiting the individual’s ability to express individuality; at the same time it can be inverted by being named, given that the Law was created and is often invoked as an ironic negative. The Zorn Trials, similarly, operate as an arena wherein the debate everybody-can vs. some-people-are-actually-better-than-others can be had, together with several of folk music Sweden’s other internal conflicts—between tradition and innovation, the local and the national, the folk and the popular. And the fact that the Zorn badge and the Jante Law both grant expression to these basic debates might also explain another connection between them—that both have flourished in Sweden so powerfully and for so long.

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