Why you should care
Because plain old walking is sooo 3.7 million years ago.
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There’s a little old man in a flat cap doing a sort of grandfatherly shuffle. And it takes me a moment, but then I realize he’s dancing. It’s the kind of happy ambulation you see in very old character actors finally getting lifetime achievement awards after decades of playing second fiddles. “Eurovision!” he tells me, in an indeterminate accent that can’t obscure how happy he is right now. “Eurovision!”
We’re standing at a traffic light together, two strangers in Stockholm, and it is indeed the day of the Eurovision Song Contest. But that’s not what made him happy, at least not directly: It’s the traffic light itself. Because during May’s Eurovision Song Contest, a Europe-wide singing competition that prizes fireballs and holograms and sequined thumbless gloves above any strict definition of musicality, Stockholm was playing Sweden’s greatest hits — through its traffic lights.
A fast song plays for green lights and a relaxed ballad for red lights.
To Americans, Eurovision barely exists, and to many European countries, it’s a little bit embarrassing. They enter, but most people wouldn’t admit to wholehearted fandom in the same way I don’t admit just how much I love trashy and dramatic TV shows set in ballet companies. But in Sweden, Eurovision is the air they breathe — the country’s biggest music stars of all time, ABBA, won the competition in 1974, and Sweden has won six times overall, more than any other country that isn’t Ireland. It was no surprise to me to hear Eurovision songs emanating from the traffic lights, a fast song for green lights and a relaxed ballad for red lights, until I spoke to the man who came up with the idea to put them there.
Håkan Lidbo is an audio artist who’s written two songs for Eurovision, though they didn’t get past Sweden’s national competition and into the Europe-wide final. But more than that, he’s an urban planner. “Usually, sound art is really difficult,” he says. “You can have really weird art and nobody notices. There could be a dinosaur speaking German coming this way, and 50 percent of Swedes wouldn’t even notice.” But everyone notices the 60 Eurovision traffic lights, which are calibrated to respond to traffic noise by getting louder or quieter and are calibrated so that those standing at the other crosswalk on the same corner can’t hear the green-light song (“Heroes,” which won in 2015) drifting over and interfering with their enjoyment of the red-light song (“Euphoria,” the winner in 2012). Lidbo couldn’t get the city to drop its usual traffic-light system for the visually impaired, so you can still hear a series of slow clicks reminding you to stay on the sidewalk, followed by a burst of rapid ones to let you know it’s time to go. But clicks are no fun. Clicks don’t make anyone dance.
By the time you read this and hop on a plane to Stockholm, the lights will likely be gone. Lidbo doesn’t know how long they’ll be left up post-Eurovision, though they were still puttering out their tunes the morning after the contest, singing out loud and clear through the Scandinavian drizzle. He hopes that now that the city knows this will work, they might consider using similar technology to play Yuletide songs at Christmas or national songs on Swedish holidays. Imagine if Stockholm sang all year round, instead of beeps and clicks and “mind the gap.” Imagine if every city in the world did.