Has it ever been cool to admit to liking ABBA? Typically, if the music of ABBA shows up at all in any positive light, it is tempered by the phrase “guilty pleasure.” Perhaps the reluctance among heterosexual males to admit to enjoying ABBA stems from the fact that, like Barbra Streisand and Judy Garland, ABBA is somewhat of a gay icon. This despite the fact that musicians from Pete Townshend to Kurt Cobain have gone on record as admiring at least certain aspects of the Swedish quartet. Townshend, in particular, gave an incisive analysis of the more profound facets of the band in his observations concerning the autobiographical undertones of a song knowingly titled “Knowing You, Knowing Me.”
ABBA burst onto the global musical scene in the next to last decade where the music pouring forth from FM radio stations all sounded the same. The glossy, perhaps overproduced, but infinitely catchy hooks that sprang forth from the two male musicians and the sex appeal and genuinely impressive vocalizing of the two female members, paved the way for what in retrospect seems like a natural progression toward superstardom. Another facet of the ABBA that cannot be underestimated, especially in terms of their success with strong homosexual component of disco, was the colorful and vivid outfits. Looking back today, the matching outfits worn by both the female and male members of ABBA may seem particularly over the top. Anyone who ever saw Parliament, the Commodores or Earth, Wind and Fire, however, will testify that ABBA was actually rather tame when it came to the clothes they wore on stage.
ABBA took their name from the first letters of the names of the members of the group. (Just think if the Beatles had decided to go that route after jettisoning Pete Best and Stu Sutcliffe; they’d have been known as JPGR. The legendary names in ABBA’s case were: Agnetha Fältskog, Benny Andersson, Björn Ulvaeus, and Anni-Frid Lyngstad, better known simply as Frida.
ABBA may be considered a thing of derision for those unwilling to open their minds, but when you objectively view songs such as “Waterloo”, “Dancin’ Queen”, and “Take a Chance on Me” there is no denying that the two B’s in ABBA were truly gifted musicians, who were able to craft not just immediately catchy three minute pop extravaganzas, but layered those songs with an complexity sorely missing from popular music today. After all, ABBA actually made music themselves; they could play instruments. 75% of the songs that reach the top ten today are made by people who can neither sing nor play an instrument. What the heck happened? Denigrate ABBA if you will, but the next time you listen to a rap song or a boy band, understand that you are listening to artists with less than a tenth of the talent of the Swedish pop sensation.
And the comparison of lyrical complexity is an exercise in futility of fans of rap music or pretty half-naked girl music or boy band music. Can you in your wildest dreams imagine Eminem writing lyrics like ABBA’s in which Napoleon’s surrender at Waterloo is transformed into a metaphor of feminine surrender to the object of her desire?
Yeah, I’d like to see that. (KRS-One, sure…but Eminem?)
ABBA seemed capable of producing a new top ten hit every few months, but as the lyrics of both “Knowing Me, Knowing You” (A-ha!) and “Super Trouper” reveal, the tensions at play in a quartet made up of not just performing artists but romantic entanglements was too much. Over the course of a decade ABBA produced some of the most underestimated pop music of all time. The Broadway musical Mamma Mia has brought awareness of ABBA’s music to new generations, but those write about the group are still almost required to treat them as guilty pleasures. Amazing, considering that many of these same people treat American Idol winners as if they could be enjoyed without guilt.