Ingrid – September 10, 2018
In the summer of 2017, at The Danish Home’s 125th anniversary Tivoli Gardens event, an ABBA tribute band was a much-anticipated part of the entertainment. Even before two female singers in spangly gold halter dresses took the stage, along with their male counterparts, there was a distinct buzz in the air. When the group started in on “Dancing Queen,” everyone sang along. You are the dancing queen, young and sweet, only seventeen. Or seventy…or even seven. Young and old, everyone knows that song!
Just last month, I went with friends to an outdoor bar and grill on the Fox River. What was the entertainment? Another ABBA tribute band. And let’s not forget the two movies and Broadway production of “Mamma Mia!”, featuring not only the title ABBA song, but several other hits from the Swedish foursome. There’s even an ABBA museum in Stockholm!
Why, 46 years after the sparkly pop group formed in 1972, is ABBA still so popular? What does ABBA even mean? Well, that was easy enough to discover; it stands for Agnetha and Björn and Benny and Anni-Frid, the first names of the two formerly married couples in the band.
But why the fondness for the group still prevails was a little tougher to determine. Being the tenacious Danish-American that I am, I decided to find out. But first, I asked my dear friend Farfar at The Danish Home if he likes ABBA. Farfar is 94 years old. I imagined him at the age of 48, curious if he had time or inclination to listen to a new pop sensation from Sweden.
“I remember the girls were pretty,” he said. “And something about Fernando someone or other.” I laughed out loud. Funny what sticks in people’s minds.
“Yes, there’s a song called ‘Fernando,’ Farfar. It’s one of their greatest hits!”
Anyway, back to why ABBA endures. There is a lot of speculation about this on the Internet. First of all, all four members of the group are still alive and well. They even recently returned to the recording studio. But that’s not why they’re still so beloved. Many older rock and pop stars are still among the living and still touring (suburban festivals seem to be magnets for musical has-beens), but few have ABBA’s staying power.
Of the several theories about ABBA’s lasting appeal, the one that seems most reasonable to me comes from Financial Times columnist Peter Aspden: “ABBA’s winning and wholesome ability to mix cultural references was key to what is now their near-unanimous appeal. That was not the case with The Beatles, who became condescending to their earlier, more accessible material and style.”
Others attribute ABBA’s enduring popularity to the unrebellious, universal appeal of their song subjects.
Though ABBA had its heyday long before I was even born, I can appreciate that their music has something for just about everyone. It’s fun (albeit deeply emotional at times, as in “The Winner Takes It All”), danceable, sing-able and definitive of an era that was moving away from the buttoned-up 1960s and into the art of music videos. Their fashion sense was just shy of campy, but their music and style were uncomplicated by irony or self-importance.
I am particularly intrigued by one writer’s attention to the band’s Scandinavian heritage. According to ABBA biographer Carl Magnus Palm, “The key to Abba is their understated Swedishness. Specifically, it’s the importance to their music of Swedish folk songs and of a sound called Schlager, which means ‘hit’ in German.”
Palm concedes that Schlager is not “cool music,” but is the “soundtrack to a million camping holidays and cabaret evenings” and, therefore, millions of people relate to it. He also observes that there’s a melancholy Nordic strain even in ABBA’s most upbeat songs. “There’s a depth to Abba that hints at deep sadness,” which Palm attributes to the fact that all four band members grew up in poverty, had emotionally unavailable parents and struggled with debilitating shyness.
I don’t know Schlager from lager, nor am I certain it’s possible to pin down exactly why ABBA’s music is still so widely played and imitated. Maybe it’s one of those “je ne sais quoi” things that can’t be defined. Whatever it is, I’m inspired to download an ABBA album or two. Their first album, “Ring Ring,” and “Waterloo” from 1974 are top choices, but maybe I’ll just get their greatest hits.
I’m excited to attend this Saturday’s “Cuisine and Corks” annual benefit in The Danish Home’s garden with my roommate Lindsay and her grandfather, my beloved “Farfar.” I’m told there won’t be an ABBA tribute band this time, but there will be a professional Danish chef and live entertainment. Cocktail attire is the dress of the evening. Maybe I’ll wear a spangly, sparkly jumpsuit in homage to ABBA.