…And Why I Don’t Care Who Is In That Sequined Jumpsuit
By Sarah Ruttinger
In a real cliché girls’ night move, my ladies and I went to see an ABBA cover band at the Hollywood Bowl last summer. And at the risk of sounding like some sort of philistine, I have no shame in telling you it was one of the best concerts I’ve been to in a decade. And that’s not just the sangria talking. I did not care in the slightest that I was seeing a tribute act, not the original members. And I know I wasn’t the only one.
As a group of women in their mid-late 20’s, we were somewhat out of place. The other groups in attendance were mostly middle aged, even older than my parents, with a few scattered bachelorette parties and girls night outs. The group in front of us even openly shushed us when we were making too much noise during the opening act (high school bands competing for the ABBA-capella crown.)
As soon as ABBA – The Concert (as these imposters called themselves) hit the stage, all that slipped away. Everyone – young, old, man, woman – was singing and dancing as one. It seemed as if everyone knew every word, which is daunting if you think about how many hits they have and how old the songs are. During “Waterloo” I turned to the man next to me, unable to contain my joy. I grinned and yelled, “Waterloo! I love this song!” and he smiled back, slightly confused, and asked me in a heavy accent, “Are you Swedish?” “No!” I responded, and we gleefully continued belting the chorus back at the stage.
ABBA became famous for winning the 1974 Eurovision contest with their incredible song “Waterloo”. That’s a solid 11 years before I was born. When I told my mom I was getting really into ABBA (after meeting some Mamma Mia! Crazed friends in college) she laughed at me. “Really? Even I don’t think they’re cool,” my mom, the biggest Jimmy Buffet fan of all time, informed me. Granted, I have a hearty appetite for kitschy nostalgia, but that’s not why I love ABBA. I love them because their songs are catchy, delectable earworms. Perfect pop songs.
So sure, I didn’t grow up on ABBA. But I also didn’t grow up with many of my other favorite musicians; David Bowie, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen. And I certainly wouldn’t pay $35 (or more, as many of the 17,000 people in the Hollywood Bowl did) to see a tribute band for any of them. So what is it about ABBA that makes their tribute acts so wildly popular? I know it’s not just me; when the tunes get pumping, it could be anyone in that sequined jumpsuit and we wouldn’t care.
Let’s start with the name. ABBA stands for the members’ names – Agnetha, Benny, Björn and Anni-Frid. (A quick Google search also told me that Abba is a word in the New Testament of the Bible, an intimate word for God or Father. Interesting, for the band that sired a thousand covers and even a hit musical?) Sure, an acronym makes sense, but there’s something about the simplicity – A.B.B.A – that goes beyond just an acronym. There are four people, but it reduces them to just two letters, making them feel interchangeable and generic. It also feels significant that it’s the first in the English language, easily grasped by someone just learning the language (such as themselves.) Building blocks. Something to build more from.
By the time the band broke up in the 1980’s, their star was fading rapidly. They were much derided for their music, outfits, dance moves, and general cheesy aesthetic. But somehow, in 1992 (partially due to the popularity of an early cover band, Bjorn Again – who en opened for Nirvana, and an album of covers, Abba-esque by the band Erasure) the band slowly began to regain recognition. It was also the year that a greatest hits collection, ABBA Gold, was released. It rocketed up the chats in several countries, and subsequently reincarnated a band that had faded into the punch line for a particularly uninteresting joke. The band was back- but not really.It was just the music – not the people.
It seems telling – but not surprising – that their best selling album is a compilation of hit singles. ABBA was always a singles band. Their songs were designed to sell, not be fodder for introspective analysis. The songwriters, Benny and Bjorn, even admitted their English as second language lyrics weren’t carefully penned in the early days – they were simply designed to showcase the women’s voices, another valuable instrument amongst the layers of synthesizers and more traditional instruments. But just because they didn’t make a lyric heavy folk masterpiece, it seems they are deemed terminally uncool. Whereas music snobs would never own a Rolling Stones greatest hits album as their single copy of the band’s music, these same snobs have no problem buying ABBA – Gold instead of Voulez-Vous. The band exists in a world where they can sell millions of albums, in many countries, top the charts numerous times, yet they are somehow not respected. So, unlike other “rock” artists, the fan base does not feel the need to see the real performers. To them, ABBA isn’t a band. It is just a collection of songs – ABBA is ABBA Gold. Or Mamma Mia!The band exists in a world where they can sell millions of albums, in many countries, top the charts numerous times, yet they are somehow not respected. So, unlike other “rock” artists, the fan base does not feel the need to see the real performers. To them, ABBA isn’t a band. It is just a collection of songs – ABBA is ABBA Gold. Or Mamma Mia!
Benny once said about the song “Money Money Money”, “I imagine someone else doing it, not necessarily us, someone standing on a platform, singing these lyrics.” With Mamma Mia!, they finally got their wish. The musical was produced for the first time on the London stage in 1999. “With Mamma Mia! Benny and Bjorn created and controlled their very own ABBA tribute band.” (Vincentelli, Elizabeth “33 1/3 ABBA Gold”). It’s a chicken or the egg scenario – was Mamma Mia! So successful because the world was already used to ABBA tribute bands? Or are ABBA covers successful because in our mind, we see Meryl Streep and Colin Firth singing the songs?
Despite the sheer audacity of their wardrobes, ABBA has always had somewhat of a visibility problem. The band members always kept a relatively low profile. Unlike the couples of say, Fleetwood Mac, Agnetha/Bjorn and Benny/Frida did not air any dirty laundry in public. They kept their relationships, divorces, and lives after the band broke up quite private. “You don’t really know who the ABBA members are as persons. They are perhaps perceived as somewhat anonymous providers excellent pop music, and not so much as ‘artists’.” (Carl Magnus Palm).
With many of our favorite musicians, the music and the musicians are inextricably linked. Not so, with ABBA. With ABBA, I hear S.O.S. and I think white, spandex, bell- bottoms, dancing and divas – I don’t think Agnetha, Bjorn, Benny, or Frida. The magic of ABBA is being surrounded by people who are as immersed in the music as I am, without judgment. Loving ABBA fan is not about being an encyclopedia of music knowledge. It’s not exclusive or elitist. The songs are available to be consumed in a variety of ways – on the original albums or any number of Greatest Hits collections, as well as in movies or musicals or – thank God for it – Mamma Mia!
Sarah is a 28 year old Kentucky girl living in a California world… at least that’s how Facebook defines her. She prefers to be known as a lover of dogs, outfits, and the written word. She lives on library books, Dominos pizza, and the inspiration that comes from being always on the cusp of something unexpected.
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