How Ace of Base's 'The Sign' Kickstarted the Swedish Pop Machine
As part of Billboard's celebration of the 60th anniversary of our Hot 100 chart this week, we're taking a deeper look at some of the biggest artists and singles in the chart's history. Here, we revisit Ace of Base’s “The Sign,” which finished at No. 65 in our all-time Hot 100 singles ranking.
In Ace of Base’s 1994 hit “The Sign,” vocalists Jenny and Linn Berggren sing about rebounding from a bad relationship so dramatically that their lives are practically cleaved in two: pre-breakup and post-breakup, before and after they saw the sign. The song itself had a similar bisecting effect on music history. “The Sign” led pop into a new era, putting Sweden on the map as a credible hitmaking hub, pushing electronic production closer to the forefront of popular music and helping ignite a collaborative approach to songwriting that has become an industry standard.
According to writer John Seabrook, whose The Song Machine chronicles the history of the modern pop songwriting system, “The Sign” crucially linked three people: Denniz Pop, the track’s producer and the co-founder of Sweden’s legendary Cheiron Studios; Clive Davis, who broke Ace of Base stateside and helped make “The Sign” a chart-topper here; and Clive Calder, the Jive Records founder who later sent some of his acts, like Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears, to Stockholm to work with Denniz Pop’s crew. “A Swedish hit factory for U.S. and British artists had never happened before,” says Seabrook. “ ‘The Sign’ really was the sign that that could happen.”
One of Denniz Pop’s protégés at Cheiron was Max Martin. “When ‘The Sign’ was being produced, Max was a gopher, getting coffee,” says Seabrook. Martin would go on to write and produce 22 No. 1s on the Billboard Hot 100 -- the third-most in history after Paul McCartney and John Lennon -- and his career trajectory would have a ripple effect on the rest of pop. While Martin himself isn’t credited on any of the Hot 100’s all-time top 100 songs, his track record as a hitmaker means that several artists on the list (Usher, Bryan Adams, Adele) have worked with him at some point. He’s also responsible for career-defining smashes from Taylor Swift and Katy Perry, respectively Nos. 24 and 25 on the list of the 100 biggest artists of all time.
He’s present, too, through the writer-producers he mentored, including fellow Swede Shellback, who co-produced Maroon 5’s “Moves Like Jagger” featuring Christina Aguilera (No. 75 on the songs list) and Dr. Luke, who co-produced Kesha’s “TiK ToK” (No. 61). In the mid to late 2000s, Martin and Luke ushered in a wave of guitar-driven anthems for P!nk (No. 49 on the artists list) and Kelly Clarkson (No. 81).
Listening to “The Sign” now, there’s nothing that hints at what was to come -- no musical trail of bread crumbs connecting a goofy quartet to today’s top pop stars. Denniz Pop died in 1998 at the age of 35 from stomach cancer; following a few more top 20 hits, Ace of Base dropped off the Hot 100 that year. Yet the impact of what “The Sign” set in motion is undeniable. “That’s what hits often are,” says Seabrook. “Certain combinations of people come together almost accidentally and also at the right time.” The Berggren sisters told us as much: “The Sign” works in mysterious ways.