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The Secret Majesty of ABBA: They Were the Feminine Pop Opera of Their Time

The '70s Swedish superstars were hugely popular yet underappreciated in their era because their subject was the romantic dreams of women.

In the ’70s, you always tended to hear two things about ABBA: that they were most stratospherically successful pop group since the Beatles (which was true); and that musically, they were a shiny bouncy joke — the quintessence of bubble-gum triviality, four smiling Swedish troubadours in space-age polyester disco suits singing happy jingles of ear candy. Not everyone felt that way, of course; the people who bought all those ABBA records clearly dug them. Yet it’s no exaggeration to say that ABBA, in their heyday, were reviled by the mainstream press, and that if you tried to make a case for taking them seriously you’d probably be laughed out of the room.

With ABBA, it went that way for a long time, though to me that’s quite a mind-boggling statement. For whenever I think of ABBA, the following words tend to spring to mind: pure, pop, luscious, irresistible, incandescent. In a way, it comes down to something basic: How do you measure the glory of a melody? A chord? A hook? A harmonic convergence? A great ABBA song like “Super Trouper” or “Dancing Queen” or “SOS” is more than a “catchy” piece of songcraft. It provides a hit of aural-lyrical endorphin, a surge of sublimity. It lifts you to a higher place.

Yet it’s telling that there was such an extreme prejudice against ABBA during the group’s own era. Was it because the ’70s were such a rock-oriented time? Hardly. One of the period’s emblematic figures was Elton John, who for all his glitzy camp flamboyance always commanded credibility. He, along with ABBA, was the great pop machine of the 1970s, yet Elton John churned out songs that were regarded as instant classics, whereas ABBA, for all the group’s chart-topping success, spent decades establishing their prestige in the pop pantheon.

Why is that? The answer, ironically enough, is tied to one of the signature dimensions of ABBA’s power as a group. During the’ 70s, they were the soaring expression of female consciousness in pop music, bridging the gap between the girl groups of the Motown ’60s and the rise of Madonna, who revolutionized the music industry — not to mention the world at large — in the early ’80s. Coming between those two eras, ABBA reigned as the Top 40 bards of feminine romantic desire and heartbreak and betrayal and devotion.

And that, to put it bluntly, is why almost no one took them seriously. Sure, there were potent women voices in the rock landscape of the ’70s, from Joni Mitchell to Donna Summer to Linda Ronstadt. Blondie, to me, was the single greatest band of the new wave, and Heart, at the time, were pioneering the shocking idea that a woman could hold an electric guitar. But it was ABBA, and ABBA alone, who transformed the intricacies of feminine passion and yearning into an ecstatically sustained and larger-than-life pop opera. And the fact that it was grand and pop and feminine made it, at the time, “dismissible.”

None of this occurred to me, as a myopic male, when I was first listening to ABBA, quite casually, in the late ’70s. I owned exactly one of their albums, called “ABBA: The Album,” and would periodically take it out to listen to “Take a Chance On Me” or “The Name of the Game.” (I thought of the rest of the songs as filler.) The music on those tracks was heady and rousing, and I would put the songs on right next to Talking Heads or Supertramp or the Clash or Earth, Wind & Fire, never paying much attention to the lyrics.

The epiphany that turned me into an ABBA junkie didn’t occur until 1992, and it felt almost like an absurd accident. I was watching “Prime Suspect 2,” the second season of the great, dark Helen Mirren Scotland Yard detective series. In this particular episode, a pimp played by David Thewlis was inside a garish mall clothing store, and the music on the sound system — it was in the background, not loud and Scorsese-like but heard distantly, as part of the store’s atmosphere — was “Lay All Your Love On Me.” It was a song I knew but had never really considered or responded to. I mostly thought the lyrics were a bit of a joke, in that Top-40-goes-to-Berlitz-class ABBA way (lay all your love on me? It sounded like a come-on by the “SNL” Wild and Crazy Guys).

But now, as I heard it coming through the tinny speakers of an ugly clothing store on a British TV cop show, I heard…the majesty. The combination of throbbing rhythm and cascading harmony, which now felt like sweet oxygen filling up my soul. And yes, the passion of those lyrics. Lay all your love on me. How could anyone say it more directly? It was so eloquent in its very awkwardness. The erotic connotation of “lay” was an overly obvious double entendre, but it was also the perfect way to turn a romantic song into a sexual song that was still a romantic song. Two men, Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, may have written that lyric, but it was stamped by the singers, Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad, who communicated an ardent desire marked by a glimmering undertone of melancholy. Who cared if it sounded like it was translated from Esperanto? The song, I could now hear, was a woman declaring, Here’s what I want, and (beneath that) here’s how heartbroken I’ll be if I don’t get it. That’s not a message you heard from male rock stars. And ABBA, in its way, made it epic.

The next day, I went to Tower Records and walked to the ABBA section, where I decided to buy their box set. It was a deluxe but idiosyncratic one: a rectangle that contained four CDs, with every song they’d recorded, only displayed with little regard to how the songs had been organized on their albums. Years later, I got the remastered versions of ABBA’s original discs, but this box set, in stripping the songs of “album identity” (it was literally 100 tracks in a row), turned out to be an ideal way to take in the ABBA catalogue. What I now saw is that it was one big sprawling album, a series of confectionary arias adding up to one story. That story was the experience of women in love.

The fact that two men with astro chipmunk haircuts were in charge of the machinery (the songwriting, the producing, even the lyrics), and that two women fronted the group, in both concerts and videos, as dreamy movie-star muses was very much a feature of the time. You might say that Andersson and Ulvaeus maintained the same artistic relationship to their co-stars, Lyngstad and Fältskog (who, at different points, they were married to), that director George Cukor had to the actresses he guided through some of the greatest romantic comedies ever made. In each case, it was the men who controlled the means of production. It was the women who had the voice.

Listening to ABBA today, I’m struck by the curious and magnificent way that their songs have aged. The songs now sound more exploratory and enlightened, more unbridled in their passion, more daring in their navigation of the agonies and ecstasies of love than they did at the time. And that has to do with how the contemporary pop landscape is a far less fearless romantic place than it once was.

Consider how bold, and even reckless, the lyrics of a song like “Mamma Mia!” sound today. Sure, we think of it as a jaunty upbeat mainstream hit, one popular enough to have lent its title to a long-running Broadway smash, the hit Hollywood musical version, and, this weekend, its successful sequel. But just take a look at what “Mamma Mia!” is saying. It’s a song about how the singer insists on remaining with a man who won’t stop fooling around on her, because no matter what she does, no matter how badly she’s been “cheated by you,” she can’t help coming back. She can’t stop herself! It’s all about the feeling that burns inside her:

“Look at me now, will I ever learn?/I don’t know how, but I suddenly lose control/There’s a fire within my soul/Just one look and I can hear a bell ring/One more look and I forget everything…”

These days, we might parse that as a masochistic tale of a compulsive, if not abusive, relationship. Yet does that mean that the lyrics of “Mamma Mia!” simply reflect the out-of-date attitudes of a far-away time? Or does it mean that this is the kind of thing that does (as much as we would like to deny it) sometimes go on, and that a woman’s voice confessing to it right in the middle of a pop song, owning the romantic compulsion of it, is, in its way, a form of empowerment, because it’s a form of naked expression?

Of course, it’s not as if every ABBA song spins around the love version of Stockholm syndrome. The group can, on occasion, serve up songs of desolation (“Knowing Me, Knowing You”), but there are also songs of uncut desire (“Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)”), songs of soul-stirring devotion (“Super Trouper”), songs of joyous surrender (“Waterloo”), songs of tender defeat (“The Winner Takes It All”), songs of wariness (“Under Attack”), songs of reckoning (“SOS”), songs of feminist protest (“Money, Money, Money”), songs of feminist adventure (“Head Over Heels”), songs of nostalgia (“Our Last Summer”), songs of existential bliss (“On and On and On”), and songs of the sheer shivery magic of growing up (“Dancing Queen”). They are songs of women — but if you open your heart and listen, they are really songs of all of us. Deep down, they pose the question that great pop always has. Namely: “Who can live without it, I ask in all honesty? What would life be? Without a song or dance, what are we?”

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