That Old Feeling: ABBA, Without Apologies

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The Onion had it just right. A headline in the first post-Sept. 11 issue of the online satirical newspaper read: "A Shattered Nation Longs To Care About Stupid Bullshit Again." Enough weight-of-the-world news; let's get back to fuming over Gary Condit, worrying about Mariah Carey, laughing along with the comedy stylings of the young Seann William Scott. We need a profound dose of the superficial. And, as if in answer to a nation's prayer, "Mamma Mia!" has just arrived on Broadway. What could be more innocently mindless than a stage musical whose sole claim to popularity is its plundering of the song catalog of the blondest, blandest, whiter-than-whitest quartet in pop-rock history? Some would call it stupid bullshit set to music.

ABBA — two girls and two guys, three Swedes and a German-Norwegian — carry so much plastic baggage that it may be hard to listen to their music without cultural baffles. The men, Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, wrote and played the songs; the women, blond Agnetha Faltskog and brunette Anni-Frid (Frida) Lyngstad, sang them. The foursome looked like dolls, dressed in polyester; and Bjorn, who wore a bizarre pomp for way too long, went through a bad hair year. They lacked the "depth" of post-Beatles pop stars, which is to say they didn't pretend to be miserable. Instead, like a lot of other Scandinavians, they pretended to be happy. If critics cut them up and threw them in the ABBA-ttoir, it's because the group committed the ultimate sin of omission in that serioso time: they had no social or political subtext.

Then there was the dreaded disco phase, in which they were fellow travelers. You can see the impulse in some middle-range ABBA songs, like "Voulez-vous" and "Lay All Your Love On Me" could be categorized as disco (though the first has likably honking saxes and the second soon veers into one of Andersson's favorite forms, the anthem). Skeptics ignored the obvious musical connections — to the Beatles (in songcraft), the Mamas and the Papas (power harmonics) and Phil Spector (fuzzy, funky production values) — and saw ABBA as disco at its BeeGee-est and most egregious. When rock fans cried, "Death to disco," they were backhandedly calling for the group's ABBA-lition.

The group didn't seem to care. They just did what they did: wrote, sang, played, toured. And they did it with enough skill, or calculation, to sell more records than anybody in the '70s. From April 4, 1974, when they won the Eurovision Song Contest with "Waterloo," until their breakup in 1982, they saw nine of their singles go to #1 on the U.K. charts; 20 singles landed in the top 10. The group was huge throughout Europe and in Australia. In the U.S. they hit #1 with "Dancing Queen" and had three other top-10 hits, though no ABBA album made the top 10. In Britain, nine of their albums, including several Greatest Hits compilations, went to #1.

Their influence lingered through the 80s, though no one matched them as pop-songmeisters. If they had few successors, they had plenty of acolytes. At least five shows based on ABBA songs have played in London. Bjorn Again, an Australian "tribute" band, has toured 42 countries with its ABBA-reviated show; formed in 1988, it has now been together three years longer than the group they imitate. But someone must want to see the real thing: a while back, the four ABBA-riginals were offered $1 billion for a reunion concert tour. It could have been a back-payment for being the last pop group to create a body of musical work that was both of its time and beyond it.

I have none of the standard excuses for liking ABBA. The songs didn't mean much to me when they were new; the first ABBA album I bought was "ABBA Gold," long after they'd broken up. Unlike those hitting 30, I didn't teethe on their music. Unlike some older folks, I didn't do coke in at Studio 54 while "Waterloo" was piped over the P.A. system. I didn't have anonymous sex in a bath house to the pulse of "Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)." And although I can sympathize with the nostalgia some gays feel for a group that provided background music for the '70s — the one decade when gays were robustly out of the closet and not yet in the hospital — I am not and never have been a dancing queen.

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