The music of famous Swedish band ABBA is brilliantly crafted. The melodies are memorable and enticing. The inventive harmonies are some of the best within the pop genre. The singing of Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad is imbued with both a sing-along quality and a sharp edge that invests many of the songs with an improbable, icy expressiveness.
It is all very musically impressive, and the band’s worldwide success is at one level entirely explicable. Yet ABBA, at least to this writer, is awful – and not just because of the hideous costumes and wooden dance moves.
There is something intensely horrifying about their output, although identifying exactly what that is can be a little elusive. What we do know is that Countdown host Molly Meldrum, who is credited with popularising the Swedes, has a lot to answer for. But we knew that already.
The problem may be the lyrics, which sound very much like they were not written by native English speakers (which was pretty much the case). They have some of the appeal of Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose complete inability to act produces a memorable anti-acting that is strangely diverting. ABBA’s lyrics have such an Arnie-like quality. For example:
Anybody could be that guy
Night is young and the music’s high
With a bit of rock music, everything is fine
You’re in the mood for a dance.
And when you get the chance
You are the Dancing Queen
Young and sweet, only seventeen.
Pop lyrics are routinely banal and are there for their sonic qualities rather than anything approximating a meaning. But even given this, ABBA’s lyrics are execrable. Yes, they were accurately aimed at the right teenage demographic (and later, by accident, the gay demographic), but they reach an Olympian level of triteness.
Perhaps, just as we laugh at Arnie’s monotone performances, we find ABBA’s anti-lyrics amusing. Or perhaps we would prefer to have never heard them in the first place.
A second reason to really dislike ABBA is their leaden rhythmic sense. Pop music usually has some connection with the blues, and thus some semblance of swing. But not ABBA. Their performances had, at best, a campfire, sing-a-long lilt. Any groove was conspicuous by its absence.
Again, the parallels with Arnie are irresistible. Just as Arnie produced anti-acting, ABBA produced anti-swing.
True, there is no law that says pop music must have particular rhythmic characteristics. But, as Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder showed, powerful grooves are what takes the music to another level, lends it greater expressiveness and occasionally even a touch of the profound. What ABBA provided instead was a Scandinavian pastiche, which has always sounded like a bad attempt to manipulate the listeners.
Such manipulativeness is ultimately the greatest problem with ABBA. There is no doubt about the melodic and harmonic talent of the songwriters, Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson. The main reason there was so much craft in what they did is that they treated song writing as a full-time job, just as Burt Bacharach, Carole King, Neil Sedaka and Neil
Diamond did at New York’s famous Brill Building in the 1960s.
Frida and Agnetha looked arresting, possessed powerful voices and sang together with great intuition. When cover bands, or performers in musicals based on ABBA songs, attempt to imitate them, it quickly becomes a reminder of how well the originals sang.
It all added up to a great “package”, as marketing people like to say.
And that is why it is so unlikable. Usually, the “package” is created after the fact. A singer, or band, is discovered by music executives, and then strategies are devised to market them. The marketing methods are crucial to any subsequent success, but there was usually something authentic to begin with that can still be detected despite the selling gloss.
But with ABBA, all that is evident are the techniques of manipulation, albeit with a certain Scandinavian dagginess. They are not alone in this; the Spice Girls and the sequence of British boy bands, for example, are solely marketing creations. But usually these inventions fade away and are forgotten (Buck’s Fizz, an American version of that marketing trick, was an apt name for the process).
ABBA, however, are still with us. Their exceptional success is a reminder that there should be much more to music than just musical craft.
David James is a Melbourne writer and musician.