How Abba triumphed in the face of musical snobbery - GulfToday

How Abba triumphed in the face of musical snobbery


Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus.

Andrew Naughtie, The Independent

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, a Swedish pop group formed in Stockholm in 1972 by Agnetha Faltskog, Bjorn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson, and Anni-Frid Lyngstad, 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?

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.

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