That Old Feeling: ABBA, Without Apologies

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This makes ABBA sound like a just-slightly hipper version of the Archies, selling nursery rhymes with a heavy beat. I think their music is a little more cunning than that. For today's lesson, class, turn to "Mamma Mia," one of the groups' early hits (1975) and the inspiration for the show now on Broadway. The song may not represent the pinnacle of Benny and Bjorn's ABBA work, but it has musical and lyrical nuances that are as easy to describe as they are to miss.

The piece begins with a xylophoneish clang, like the clock inside the "Peter Pan" crocodile, in a minor key that establishes the emotional tension the female singer will soon enunciate. Then a fuzzy guitar joins in, whining gonadally. Frantic woman, sexy man. The vocal enters with a simple four-line verse. The major chords indicating the forthrightness of the speaker; a synthesized organ emphasizes her childish assurance:

I've been cheated by you
Since I don't know when.
So I made up my mind
It must come to an end.

Then a bridge, vacillating (along with the speaker) between minor and major keys, backed by the tiptoeing xylophone. Now it's not only the ticking of a hormonal game-show clock; it's the skeleton dance of indecision:

Look at me now.
Will I ever learn?
I don't know how.
But I suddenly lose control
There's a fire within my soul

And just as suddenly (on "lose"), the xylophone vanishes, to be replaced by the chugging percussion of an irresistible rock-'n-roll impulse that is released in two orgasm-triggering cymbal smashes:

Just one look and I can hear a bell ring.
One more look and I forget everything.

The chorus ought to explode into an ecstasy of surrender, but the lightly chagrined "Oh-oh" that precedes it warns that the whole song will be an argument between pride and desire. So the drums disappear and the xylophone accompaniment returns:

Mamma mia, here I go again.
My my, how can I resist you?
Mamma mia, does it show again,
My, my, just how much I've missed you?

The second half of the chorus is an admission of defeat, which the music mirrors in a familiar descending chord pattern. Yet the tone is jauntier, more direct, as if the speaker feels relieved to have confessed her desperate need for the cheater who has her under his spell:

Yes, I've been broken-hearted,
Blue since the day we parted.
Why, why did I ever let you go?

The chorus is resolved musically by landing nimbly back on the main chord, and lyrically by blending the frantic and the adoring. The singer, repeating the goofy oaths "Mamma mia" and "My, my," retreats into a kind of poignant infantilism of emotional dependence:

Mamma mia, now I really know
My, my, I could never let you go.

This is not a song above love; the word is never used. This is about obsession and the way it crushes the most resolute will. (Or, if you take to heart a later chorus — "Mamma mia, even if I say/ 'Bye-bye, leave me now or never'/ Mamma mia, it's a game we play/ 'Bye-bye' doesn't mean forever" — it's about emotional theatrics: trying to create the melodrama of leaving and returning, fury and reconciliation, that can keep a long-term affair alive.) Anyway, it's as finely fashioned a number as you'll find in post-Beatles pop. And you can dance to it.

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