The Independent’s journalism is supported by our readers. When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn commission.

How Abba triumphed in the face of musical snobbery

They have the power to command our attention like few other groups on the planet

Andrew Naughtie
Friday 27 May 2022 09:54
Comments

ABBA Voyage: Concert Trailer

Which was more magical: the sight of four astonishingly lifelike avatars unleashed upon what by all accounts seems to have been a genuinely stunned crowd – or the sight of the four ageing humans they represent hauling themselves onto the same stage, visibly emotional, for their first curtain call in decades?

As is always the case with ABBA, your answer probably depends on what you’re prepared to admit about yourself.

My mother has explained to me more than once that for her Beatles-raised generation, it was utterly, utterly taboo to admit you liked ABBA – and yet, everyone knew that everyone knew that “Dancing Queen” was a work of brilliance. Forty-five years after that song was unleashed, we celebrate it for the masterpiece it is.

I, meanwhile, have a theory: all of us, however composed, contented or stony, have someone that we think of when we hear “The Winner Takes It All”. (I know who mine is. They don’t.) The most expertly passive-aggressive song written in modern times, its lyrics betray a stubborn tin ear for English idioms. Perhaps the mix is a little top-heavy, Agnetha Faltskog’s vibrato at the end a smidgen too wide, the EQ on the keyboard parts a little tinny. But that song has a power like few others, a power that affects more of us more deeply than some might admit.

And it was at the end of last year that ABBA put our emotions and our paranoid determination to stay cool on the line once again. Suddenly, after four years of quiet rumblings, all four of them were back in business together, not with some weak-smile Loose Women-interview-slot compilation album but ten all-new tracks, one or two of them as good as anything they’ve ever done, and a full-blown digital reincarnation.

The build-up obviously felt like a decade given the canyon-like interval of 2020, but the impact was stunning in its own right: these four septuagenarians hadn’t released an album in 40 years, and yet they still have a power to command our attention unlike almost any other act on Earth.

Plus ça change indeed. How did this frankly odd, endlessly mocked group survive four decades of silence – and how did they triumph over the opposition?

In the UK at least, the peak of ABBA’s success came at the same time as the rise of the Sex Pistols. Agnetha, Bjorn, Benny and Anni-Frid were together one pole in the commercial-subversive dialectic of Seventies pop and punk, a contest of raw pleasure versus unimaginative cynicism. But viewed from four-and-half decades’ distance by someone who didn’t sit through it, it’s clear which side ABBA were always on.

The real triumph of British punk, meanwhile, was to convince more than a few of us that if you enjoyed something specifically created with enjoyment in mind, you were being exploited and tricked, and that paying for seven inches of rage was an act of defiance in the face of brainless commercialism. (That “Pretty Vacant” is well-known to have been inspired by “SOS” only throws the absurdity into sharper relief.)

ABBA have been recognised as the masters of pop excellence because finally, at last, the absurd political pressure of musical snobbery is finally off. And they aren’t the only beneficiaries of this relatively new acceptance of the validity of mass appeal. Look at the endurance of Queen, whom the NME’s raving Eeyore Dave Marsh once described as “the first truly fascist rock band”. Look at the almost despotic dominance of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, the Stonehenge of soft rock. Look at the evolution of Eurovision from annual black-tie freakshow into joyous pan-continental mythmaking machine. Pop-rock silliness and its simple pleasures win us over, and keep winning.

At the other end of the scale, what do the Sex Pistols mean today that they didn’t mean in 1977? It’s not just that anti-commercial adolescent rebellion is a cliche; it’s that punk’s relationship to its audience isn’t ultimately all that different from pop’s, except that pop doesn’t lay claim to much more than pleasure for pleasure’s sake. Anything else – the joy, the sorrow, the guilt, the pride – has to reside in us first to be awakened.

That logic will never change, and today’s launch is the proof. Four decades after their last album, ABBA are back, apparently for no particular reason besides being up for it, and the world has shown up to watch. Meanwhile, four decades after “God Save The Queen”, 60 per cent of people in the UK think we should keep the monarchy even after two of its most popular members have fled in despair and the Queen has spent millions of pounds pay her son’s settlement in a sex trafficking lawsuit.

It makes perfect sense that ABBA chose London for their new show. Like it or not, we are in the end a nation of pragmatic monarchists who like to bounce around, sing along, and feel butterflies in our stomachs. Whatever we told ourselves by getting the Sex Pistols to No 1 on the silver jubilee (despite the BBC’s machinations) was, it turned out, a lie.

To paraphrase George Orwell: cynicism is sincerity. Subversion is assent. Anger is contentment. The peak of British punk is now the stuff of a Danny Boyle-helmed TV drama that John Lyndon himself has called an act of theft and a “middle-class fantasy” – and meanwhile, ABBA are back because we want them back.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

By clicking ‘Create my account’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in