When someone who has really interesting taste tells me I’m wrong in an artistic judgment, I’ve found, it’s smart to listen to them. So when a friend argued that ABBA’s work is much better than I credited, I thought… well, actually I thought “That’s nuts, but she was right about the whole Sagmeister thing, so let’s give this a try anyway.” So I loaded it only my iPhone, and switched it on while working on a report on technology use and distractibility (appropriately enough).
Once you kind of listen past the disco motifs– which make it easy to dismiss what can be some great music, as I discovered a few years ago when I rediscovered the Bee Gees– I started hearing some good stuff. This pretty much goes without saying, but if you wanted one really brilliant example of Europop, this would be it: the way they melded stylistic elements from across the Continent is actually pretty impressive. You might argue that this kind of mixing is inauthentic, but I’m hardly one to defend purity, cultural or otherwise: the world belongs to us hybrids, and perfect examples of cultural forms are only to be found in museums or under the microscope of dissertations. Vibrant culture doesn’t work that way, and there’s no reason balalaikas or pan pipes can’t get along with Moog synthesizers and Stratocasters. (Though it’s interesting that there’s lots of Latin elements, but virtually nothing Celtic, which is now the great World Music Signifier Du Jour. I guess Ireland wasn’t on the musical map in the 1970s the way it is now.)
More surprising to me is that some of the songs are better-written than I remembered. “One of Us” is very nice (I could imagine someone like Charlotte Martin doing a good cover of it, though of course she’d make it sound like Kate Bush had done it first), and “Dancing Queen,” for all its apparent lightness, has a nice build to the chorus, and the lyrics are a bit more provocative than you might expect in a song whose chorus rhymes “seventeen” and “tambourine.” None of it is music that I’d insist on turning off or forwarding through.
On the downside, I think the singing is not very strong at all: neither Agnetha Fältskog nor Anni-Frid Lyngstad had a great range, nor were they especially passionate performers, compared to, say, Christine McVie and Stevie Nicks (to say nothing of the Dixie Chicks). Listening to “S.O.S.” or “The Name of the Game,” I don’t really get a sense of them pouring much of themselves into the song. On the other hand, this may be a misunderstanding on my part: maybe they weren’t ever trying to be Kate Bush or Tori Amos or Amy Winehouse (each of whom in their own way is absolutely distinctive, technically accomplished, and exudes a kind of take-no-prisoners attitude to their work), but succeeded brilliantly at being something else– accessible and well-tuned to each other’s sound. (It also turns out they didn’t hate each other.) We can’t all be Aretha Franklin. Maybe it was amazingly shrewd to not even try.
“Thank You for the Music” suggested something else to me: maybe I shouldn’t listen to ABBA as disco or rock, but something more like theatre music. You’d have a hard time making a Broadway musical using Radiohead, but the way ABBA crafted its songs reminds me more of Les Miserables (or maybe some of the music in Cirque de Soleil, which I hold in pretty high regard) than anything. “Money, Money, Money” might as well have been written for the stage. (No wonder “Mamma Mia” is popular: for a song like “Dancing Queen,” it’s a very short distance from disco to stage– where it always belonged in the first place.
The challenge is that this is music that’s easy to dismiss today, but it doesn’t deserve to be forgotten, any more than 19th century architecture deserved the fate it suffered at the hands of modern critics. In some ways, ABBA may be a bit like Mies van der Rohe’s work or Eisenstein’s “Battleship Potemkin:” well-done, but easy to copy very badly, and tarnished by time and poor imitation. (The distance from “Fernando” to those pan pipe guys whose work was advertised on UHF television stations is not great, but it’s not necessarily ABBA’s fault.) More generally, underneath the disco beats and big hair there was some serious music in that period, and particularly for those of us who grew up with it, it takes some effort to see what was good in it, rather than just what now seems ridiculous. For me, Duran Duran’s best work is still irreplaceable: I defy anyone to listen to “Ordinary World” and not think it’s sublime. The Bee Gees were brilliant songwriters, and their best songs– I think of “Nights on Broadway,” “Fanny Be Tender,” “Run to Me”– are beautifully crafted, passionate, and unforgettable. (The problem is that their sound was SO phenomenally distinctive, it made it hard for them to be copied: the whole falsetto thing was really easy to parody, and easier to ignore. If ABBA was the Mies of 1970s pop, the Bee Gees are Eero Saarinen.)
As someone said, you should never be too cool for your own past— if only because your past, or pieces from it, may turn out to be cooler and more worthwhile than you remember. So the ABBA goes on the kids iPods. And it’ll stay on mine.