ou kept ABBA in your closet. You brought them out when alone, allowed them to breathe and sing in your isolation, but muted them with a hand over their mouths if someone knocked on the door. Was that ABBA? What?! Who the fuck is ABBA? Phew. I think they’re gone. That was close. So much sugar, such a strange glamorous rush, but nothing to be shared with others. Either that or you hated them without pause. I can hear some of you snicker.
My own personal history with ABBA is one of late development. I remember driving with friends in my youth, a mixtape on the stereo. It was always “Dancing Queen.” That was ABBA. They were one song. And though we might sing along when together, it was a lark. We didn’t really like that song, right? We just knew how cool we felt to bark at its shimmer in mockery. Or at least we convinced ourselves that’s why we listened. We never bothered to question why that was the only track on the tape we viewed that way. We loved the rest of them; they were in our mutual CD collections. Why ABBA then? Why was that the only band we couldn’t possibly admit to liking? And who made that mixtape anyway? How did they locate that track? This was before the era of track-sharing. Wait a moment. . .
Now, I’m a full-fledged ABBA fiend. I own all of their albums up to Arrival and a singles collection to fill in the spaces thereafter. Why now? Of course, there are reasons, at least socio-culturally speaking. I can quote the resources of reason and logic or I can excuse myself from them and give in to the simple potency of their hooks and candypoppery.
Between the success of 1999’s Mamma Mia! and the multiple techno-ABBA compilations available, it’s clear ABBA has gained a hold on the imagination of today’s youth. They used to be your momma’s band, a flaxen-haired quartet you could only get into when you started to perm your hair. Now, we seem increasingly comfortable with copping to our love. I’ll touch on the larger metasocial reasons I believe lie behind ABBA’s growing popularity amongst the youngsters, but first I’d like to look briefly back at their history. ABBA wasn’t just a disco-band, a fact that tends to get lost by those, who like my former self, know them only for “Dancing Queen” or “Take a Chance on Me.” In fact, they were almost as instrumental at reshaping the flow of pop music as the Beatles or Fleetwood Mac. They pilfered and aped, but there was always the essence of pop beneath. That’s why ABBA is here when so many pop-thieves are gone. They inhaled global music trends, mostly American-borne, and put a velvet pillow underneath their weight. That’s why they capitalized their acronym: largesse, kids.
For our purposes, the ABBA saga begins with “Ring, Ring.” The lead single behind the album of the same name, and the reason for its existence, “Ring Ring” marked the first time ABBA embraced the sixties Wall-of-Sound production techniques that would mark their sound for the better part of a decade. Guided by Michael B. Tretow’s production skills, a collaboration that would work wonders for the band, the song was the band’s first big single. Though it finished third in the Eurovision Song Contest, the multiple guitar parts, cavern-deep drums, and revolving layers of thick haze look back to the golden era of Doo-Wop. With an infectious chorus, and English translation from the Swedish lyrics co-written by Neil Sedaka, “Ring Ring” was the band’s first notification that there might be something here besides four studio-created Nordics.
That same Spector-derived sound can be found in many of the singles from the band’s first three records. “What About Livingstone,” from 1974’s Waterloo, is tongue-in-cheek Ronettes, held together by thick basslines and stabbing rhythm guitar. There’s a Beatlesque element of the music-hall re-envisioned as mock mystery, and the band’s sense of humor gives it its charm. Likewise, “I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do,” included on 1975’s eponymous album, layers its production through multiple sax parts and a crumpled-Kleenex chorus, a lost love-again in the romance of sixties’ girl bands.
Elsewhere on their first three records—a trio that marks the band’s first stages of prominence—ABBA attempted to emulate the heavy swagger of glam rock and the sequined pomp of pop stars like Elton John, admittedly a mere side-step from the Doo-Wop already discussed. As the early seventies progressed, glam was the sound of European youth, especially in the UK and America. ABBA, in their attempts to expand beyond the insular pop markets of Sweden, took notice. Between David Bowie’s development from the hard-hippie-slant of Man Who Sold the World to the elegant songsmithery of Hunky Dory and T-Rex’s post-Electric Warrior expansion into manic alien-soul, glam rock was an open vista. Elton John was situated somewhere in the foam, part glam, part singer-songwriter, part stageshow pageant girl. For the most part, this is where ABBA set their sights. They looked to semi-glam as a means of expanding their audience in the US, the UK, and Australia, a country vulnerable to the pop trends in Europe and one that always proved a big supporter of the band. “Nina, Pretty Ballerina,” for example, is an AM-radio track on the surface, but its jukebox piano and circular bassline, combined with the sound of a false crowd cheering the band on and a sing-song backdrop to the chorus, is the kind of pure sway Elton John was mastering at the same time. It’s joyous, absurd, and transiently hyperbolic.
Opening up their eponymous record of 1975, “Mamma Mia” is electric foxstomp, a healthy rumped swagger of Broadway proportions. Ain’t no fat lady but somebody’s singing this one bold; there’s a reason it was chosen as the title of their hit musical. “Hey, Hey Helen,” the song that follows “Mamma Mia,” is a resounding effort to harden the edges of the band’s sound. Featuring a power-guitar opener that wouldn’t sound out of place on The Slider, it’s all beat and guitar, cleaning up the cacophonous glow of many of their productions to strengthen the song’s muscle. There’s even a Blue Note funk bridge after the first chorus. “Tropical Loveland,” which gave its title and much of its island charms to the Fiery Furnaces’ song “Tropical Iceland,” shows the band invoking the reggae rhythms that pop music figures like Elton John, Paul Simon, and Johnny Nash were busy plundering at the same time. Though they would soon move beyond the genre to varying degrees, even later songs like “Money, Money, Money” and “Why Did It Have to Be Me” illustrate the band’s continued debt to glam rock.
In the same era, the third major touchstone for the band was 70s AM radio pop. In many ways, they formed a template that bands like Fleetwood Mac would take to platinum standards. On their debut record, “Love Isn’t Easy” features the slow-country guitar and jaunty piano parts that would figure in the give-and-take Buckingham/Nicks compositions on both Fleetwood Mac and Rumours. An extra dose of camp is added here, but the melody is practically a template for FM’s formula.
Elsewhere, the classic “Waterloo,” which broke the band in the UK as their first number one and won them the Eurovision Song Contest in 1974 for the first time, relied on Michael B. Tretow’s now-signature production gifts again. The sound was bonier beneath the gloss of Tretow’s production than “Ring Ring,” but ABBA’s bubbly chorus held it together. Anyone who’s ever been in a dentist chair, under the harsh blind of those damn lights, knows this song without knowing it. It’s the keynote to Lite Radio of today.
Likewise, “Suzy-Hang-Around,” a personal favorite, is a musical spin on Nabokov’s Ada or Ardor mellowed to honey. The younger sis is getting in the way as we elbow our way through the pines off-property. Experimentation and sexuality come in gasps and libidinous buds. ABBA, again, configure themselves as shrewdly naïve, hoping they can hide their outré sensualism. Tretow’s dense production brings the heft, hanging the chorus in drifts of “ooooohs” and multi-tracked drums.
But even amongst these three albums there were hints of where the band would go. Almost lost in the middle of Waterloo is “My Mama Said,” featuring the group’s most dancefloor-approved beat to date. Fronted by a slipknot funk bassline and tribal rhythm guitar, it’s as pre-disco disco as Nilsson’s “Jump Into the Fire.” You can hear Donna Summer sliding shoeless to the floor in its sinewed synthtones.
With Arrival, these hints turned into immediacies. Their imagination swelled toward the grandiose, imagined in neon-light and fake smoke. “Dancing Queen” was the first pulse of pink and purple The band’s only number one single in the US, its bombastic Moroder-like choruses and unrelenting beat were confectionary demand, a must-have glimpse into the veneer and inclusive swagger of chic from a band at the polar end of the spectrum. Moroder crams himself into Donna’s Jordaches, Vidal Sassoon slides in the sweat of the neck and spirals down the spine. There are sequins, pulsing and flashing in the gleam, so goddam many sequins. The song also introduces the band’s use of the disco strings that are so synonymous with the genre. A rearranged version of the cut was a standard during U2’s Zoo-TV Tour.
Beside “Dancing Queen,” Arrival introduced the Spanish-flare of “Knowing Me, Knowing You” and the Rocky-Horror synthglam of “Money, Money, Money,” both marketable hits. On the former, the band develops the quiet Spanish guitar stylings that would soon turn “Fernando,” recorded in the same sessions but not included on the first pressings for the album, into a tour de force.
Perhaps as big a cult-hit as “Dancing Queen,” “Fernando” is an altogether different peal of hyperbole. Thumped out in the midst of martial drums and synthetic flute, ABBA dramatizes the flush of your cheeks with what seems, at first, like a syrupy tale of love against revolution. But once they turn the drums loose, and the track begins its upward climb, it becomes absurdly compelling, this blend of Evita balcony-cry and disco twirl. It shouldn’t work, by Christ it’s so ridiculous, but ABBA by now had mastered this teetering sense of pomp.
Of course, the gigantism of Arrival made it exceptionally difficult to follow. Besides the record’s consistency and popularity, ABBA was now Zep-large. In fact, Led Zeppelin recorded In Through the Out Door at the band’s Polar Music Studio, a factoid that can’t help but factor into a new appreciation of that record’s off-kilt sound. With more changes in the global music industry, ABBA again marshaled into a new sound, combining the fullness of Arrival with an increasing reliance on synthesized disco and dance music. “Take a Chance on Me,” the only major single off of 1977’s ABBA: The Album—itself released to coincide with the ABBA: The Movie, another signal of the band’s Beatlesesque size—reverberates through layered chants and multiplied synthlines. Though the single topped the UK charts, the record was a critical flop, viewed correctly as a plea to popularity.
With the release of Voulez-Vous in 1979, ABBA was no longer progressive, but they were still filling albums with some of their best singles. They were a dance-band now, trapped by the simmer and glow of disco but not hemmed in by its repetition. “Chiquitita” is a natural progression from the Flamenco balladry of “Fernando.” Built around a similar chord progression, and a shared sense of sensualistic bombast, it too relies on dance’s treasured restrain-and-release dynamic, a sparked burst of sugary flame and a loveable chorus. “Gimme, Gimme, Gimme (A Man After Midnight)”—a track unreleased until Greatest Hits Vol. 2 that remains perhaps their greatest DJ triumph—is about as sleazy as ABBA ever got, and “I Have a Dream” is another quiet sandsifting lullaby.
In that same vein, “Super Trouper” starts to show the band growing weary, giving in to the coming of the eighties and the tinny production qualities that prevailed. Fittingly, the song opens the tired album of the same name, and though it centers around one of the band’s most dynamic choruses, the limp chimes and staid musical interchanges highlight a band simply following its own footsteps. Seemingly mirrored by the band’s inclusion of “The Winner Takes it All”—an autobiographical commentary (Fleetwood Mac anyone?) on the divorce between one of the band’s long-standing couples, Bjorn Ulvaeus and Agnetha Faltskog—the song marks the end of ABBA as we’d like to remember them.
But that’s the question in the end. How do we remember this band? What grasp does it have on the popular imagination? Why this long historical accounting for these four picture-framed Swedes? Well, I mentioned earlier that ABBA is as pop-cult prominent as they’ve been since the early eighties, and I’m not referring to their waning Broadway play. In a culture encircled by its own peculiar blend of ironic posturing and taste for taste’s sake, ABBA is understandably giant. I’m not speaking for those in Williamsburg (that’s how out of it I am) and the increasingly unlivable post-hip corners of Wicker Park. I’m a voice for the Heartland, always the last to come around and thus the most measurable of climates for a band of such hypnotic but overwhelming riches. ABBA, after all, was always popular amongst the aging, those I-was-theres for the you-were-nots. But now, the youth of America (and the geriatric-youths like the writer) have come aboard. Why?
As I see it, there are three simple reasons, or at least three that can be skinned down to a nice collegiate numerical. The first is perhaps the clearest: America’s renewed vigor for irony. Between synth-pop, disco-punk, and spazz-pop, we’ve fallen for music so ridiculous we’ve forgotten our first attraction. The reactionaries will say there’s no irony involved, it’s simply love and lore and fun, but it’s all become so confused now that nobody seems to realize the roots. America killed irony; every sportscaster confuses coincidence with the larger spiritual tangle of irony. Irony is dead, officially, but it ghosts on in the jiggy pop explosion we get from every ABBA single. How can you listen to “Ring Ring” or “Fernando” and not twinge and twinkle in that secret spot, borne of some bastardized spirit of the giddy and the godawful. When I spoke earlier of my high school car trips to “Dancing Queen,” in part this is what I was after, but it’s only half of the story. The other half is our newly patented approval of such largesse, and it’s one I stand behind one-hundred percent. When Showtime owns the word “queer,” our language is dead. Perhaps the roots of our tastes go with it.
The second signal is the re-emergence of dancing as legitimate entertainment. Not the crowd-forming tendencies of break-dancing, which was always really a fringe movement masquerading as popular enterprise, but the lonely kid with a four-day wife-beater and a beard stalking his cheekbones who’s willing to twist his bony frame. After the sangfroid of the nineties—between grunge, late hair metal, and the academic wordsmithery of the indie scene—there’s a sweat and moan amongst the kids again, its it-stars and no-stars. Madonna just copped a tune from ABBA, more commercial thievery than homage in the end, but it lead to her most critically-endorsed record in years, from Stylus to the Voice. Against this backdrop, ABBA is a godmotherfather both sexual and without sex, a band whose tracks might find apt remodernization in the talents of Royksopp, Justus Kohncke, or Lindstrom and Thomas.
An offshoot of the explanation above is our new affection for meta-pop. In the last two years, records by Annie, Robyn, Rachel Stevens, Girls Aloud, Fannypack, and—to lesser degrees—Kelly Clarkson and Gwen Stefani have dominated blogs and chat-rooms across the nation. Simple pop hooks are the new obtuse: why confuse when you can tap your foot? This was always ABBA’s strength, refusing complex songwriting and prog-lite, trends that faded during the time that ABBA dominated the European charts, for the stark thrill of pop. They knew, perhaps better than any band in history, how to go for the jugular with short, blunt joys. Combine this with our increased taste for the quick fix of singles and you can see why ABBA’s various hits compilations are as prevalent on file-sharing services as MF Doom instrumental boots.
In the end, ABBA is a band beyond context, regardless of any of my attempts to formulize their interest. They choralize exuberant pop hooks that shuffle between eras and the pull of the au courant, a sliding trickery of time Mark Danielewski might admire. Ultimately, that’s why pop music exists; it flattens a round world and smoothes the tangles of rougher timelines. ABBA is as much about now as they were about the shine and dance-glance of ’77, as comfortable in your CD carousel with Ada or Ellen Allien as with Sparks or Moroder.