'Mamma Mia!' shows band's staying power

ANOTHER VERDICT IS in indicating the enduring appeal of Abba.

The film “Mamma Mia!” grossed $27.6 million in its opening weekend, and the soundtrack is likely to surpass 85,000 in sales in its second week of release, topping the charts of iTunes and Amazon.

In the U.K. last week, the soundtrack album was the territory’s top seller, the first soundtrack to do so in seven years. “Abba Gold,” the band’s hits collection, reappeared in the U.K. top 10 for the first time in four years, coming in at No. 5. In addition, two Abba songs, “Mamma Mia” and “Dancing Queen,” are back among the top 100 downloads in England.

Yet the question remains: What is it about the music that accounts for its enduring appeal?

Explanation continues to be a near impossibility: Even the Abba-philes quoted in the weeks leading up to the film’s release talked about the band’s success in the 1970s and ’80s as if sales are a sufficient explanation of their endurance, especially overseas.

In the nine years since “Mamma Mia!” premiered in London — and subsequently grossed $2 billion in various stage versions around the world — music observers remain befuddled as to what makes the music of Abba click with listeners of all ages.

It’s not the same as explaining the multigenerational appeal of a particular album like Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours” or Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” or a particular period of a band such as the Rolling Stones or the Who, whose significance in various eras is constantly debated. In Abba’s case it’s not the entire oeuvre or even a single album that’s being analyzed, it’s the hits.

The search for answers to Abba’s appeal leads to many different corners. Interviewed for a recent Chicago Sun-Times article, McGill U. professor Daniel Levitin, author of “This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession,” positions Abba’s appeal in terms of evolutionary biology. “For tens of thousands of years, when we as a species heard music, we heard groups singing it, not an individual and not an individual standing on a stage,” he said. “So the Abba model of the multiple voices is much closer to stimulating these evolutionary echoes of what music really is, fundamentally — closer than, say, Frank Sinatra or Miley Cyrus.”

OK, but that would suggest the local sixth-grade chorus would have million-sellers and there would be considerable clamor for a Mamas and the Papas tuner. I don’t completely buy it.

A theory I have had for a while gets reinforced anytime I see the band’s videos. Abba represents a heavenly place. This is milky white music sung by milky white performers in video settings that alternate between extremes, night and day, cold and heat, etc. It is nonthreatening and elusive; the beats are like no other disco-era tunes, the vocals impossible to duplicate. Robotic and humorless, too, but that lack of emotion was a harbinger of dance music; emotion-riddled music was for the confessional singer-songwriters so popular in the early 1970s, and Abba was able to slightly assimilate some of that sensibility in their early years.

Abba member Benny Andersson produced the film soundtrack using many of the same musicians who appeared on the original tracks and even duplicates synthesizer parts for the film. (Abba’s Polar studio was one of the world’s most advanced facilities in the late ’70s.) Asked at the premiere — as he has been asked for nearly 30 years — why Abba endures, he pointed to Swedish folk music blending in with the usual pop influences of the Beatles, Kinks and Beach Boys. That’s a bit hard to swallow.

Bjorn Ulvaeus explained in the liner notes on Abba’s “Ultimate Collection” that it was important to have catchy titles and songs that involved sounds that people like to make. “Take a Chance on Me,” for example, grew out of his desire to combine T, K and CH sounds. That’s about as good a reason for their success as I have ever heard.

“Mamma Mia!” the stage musical retained the charms of the music within the confines of a rather silly story about a girl on a Greek island trying to figure out who her father was prior to her wedding. There’s an air of benevolence, of wanting to do the right thing, in “Mamma Mia!” and early Abba tunes reek of hippie residue, the idea of extending a hand to help all of our brothers and sisters.

The film should elevate interest in other Abba packages that are already mega-sellers: The original Broadway cast album has sold 1.4 million copies, and “Abba Gold,” a compilation Universal Music created in 1992, is at 4.4 million in the U.S. and 25 million worldwide. Those numbers, in this day and age, are staggering.

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