Yeah, I know. You’re looking at this, wondering why some metalhead with an unhealthy fixation on horror movies is writing about ABBA. Because you can’t listen to Darkthrone all the time, that’s why.
To preface this, let me say up front that I’m not being ironic when I talk about ABBA. I’ve never understood the whole “liking something in an ironic way” thing. I understand liking something despite its perceived faults, or even appreciating something’s wrong turns or imperfections as part of the whole. But how can you like something in a non-genuine way? I don’t get it. The act is dishonest from any angle: not liking the subject itself, but liking how you can make yourself feel superior to that subject. It’s self-absorption masquerading as actual joy. But people like ABBA in that way, like the band is some sideshow freak to be pointed at and laughed about. THESE PEOPLE ARE IDIOTS.
In addition, I have never gotten the whole “I don’t like pop music” thing. I mean, there’s plenty of pop music out there that I don’t like. I can’t stand Justin Bieber or Katy Perry because their music comes across as cynical and calculated. Despite the talent that either might possess, their music feels like an obvious cash grab designed expressly to siphon money from people. It lacks humanity. It lacks the touch of the personal. It (among other things) is what separates the Beatles from Herman’s Hermits, say. Sinatra from Como. Elvis from Fabian.
With that said, though, even if there was no real personal investment in ABBA’s music, there’s still a whole hell of a lot to appreciate. ABBA composed some of the most immaculately-crafted pop songs ever committed to wax. In their heyday, Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus were untouchable monsters when it came to creating the ultimate in catchy earworms, with a string of hits and international successes that most artists only dream about. But without the conviction of the group’s primary vocalists, Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad, there would be little difference between ABBA and any given generic Euro-pop act. Despite lyrics which often belie being written by people for whom English is a second language, they sell the hell out of what they’re singing.
But the thing that gets me about ABBA is that they mastered the art of the bittersweet. It’s easy to pick up on the melancholic aspects of songs like “Knowing Me, Knowing You,” “I Have a Dream,” “Chiquitita” or “When All Is Said or Done,” but even their most upbeat tracks have an undercurrent of sadness or loss that cuts through the sunny optimism that most people associate with them. “Eagle,” which is a song about stretching one’s wings and soaring like the titular creature, is constructed as a dream—stating explicitly that the singer can’t do this in her waking life, but can only escape and commune with her avian pals in the dreaming. “Dancing Queen” is about a young girl who goes from man to man in a seeming futile search for the right guy, and who appears to only have this one thing in her life: those days when she can take to the dance floor. And it’s not a given that she even has that – it’s only when she “gets the chance” that she is the Dancing Queen. “S.O.S.” is about longing for a person who is no longer there, framed as a cry for help in a life-or-death situation. “Take a Chance on Me” is about trying to get the attention of some guy who has unlimited options—the person singing doesn’t have that freedom, and she’s willing to take any spare moment they guy has. To come around when his other girlfriends have gone home, to essentially be his go-to booty call in order to be with him, self-respect and self-worth be damned. And almost all of their songs are framed in terms of winning and losing—losing a battle in “Waterloo,” the zero-sum competition of “One of Us,” losing in the game of life (against gods whose minds are “as cold as ice”) in “The Winner Takes It All” or in a game of fortune in “Money, Money, Money.” And the songs aren’t afraid to take compositional detours into minor keys or darker musical turns to emphasize the senses of nostalgia or longing present in the lyrics. Some might rightly attribute all of this to the ongoing struggles in the relationships of Benny and Anni-Frid as well as Björn and Agnetha. Some might also attribute it to the Swedish concept of lagom. Lagom, which has no real English translation, essentially is a rejection of too much of anything—that the perfect amount of anything is just enough. “Enough is as good as a feast.” And that there should be perfect amounts in life of both laughter and sadness. It’s that balance of the perfect amounts of laughter and sadness that drives the music of ABBA and fuels its complexity.
Pick up a copy of ABBA Gold and get back to me. If you haven’t gone apeshit and picked up all of their albums (there’s only 8 of them, for chrissakes, and they’re all amazing), I understand. But I’ll be looking at you with suspicion from now on. You’re on notice, people.
Now that that’s out of the way, I’ll be back to my regularly scheduled reviews and what-have-you about more typical subjects (metal, movies maybe) next go-round.