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Not a four-letter word

[Originally published 1992 |
Updated here 1999.06.20

It was perhaps inevitable that Queer in Your Ear should turn its attention to ABBA. Yes, we've all been programmed to think there has been an ABBA revival underway lately. But we think for ourselves, don't we? We are homosexualists, and honey, if anyone knows ABBA, we do. We were fans from day one. We've followed ABBA through its entire career and into its members' various solo-project purgatories; they've always been close to our conscious minds, with their umlaut-equipped, echt-Swedish names ready to be dropped at a moment's notice; we've played their albums off and on for 15 years.

Well, if that sums up your own ABBA history, then you're a few steps ahead of me, let me tell you. I listened almost exclusively to classical music through my formative years. I refused to listen to the local Top 40 radio station, thus sleeping through nearly the entire ABBA phenomenon when it was in full swing. As elsewhere (loyal readers will of course be rooting me on in my adult-onset bicycling), I only clued into ABBA when I was already all growed up, as it were. This means I missed the collect-everything-with-that-magical-acronym-on-it fandom phase, but in compensation it means I don't look at ABBA as some kind of cherished nugget of childhood.

I confess: I love ABBA because they're fun. Fun, I say. ABBA songs are so gloriously orderly and deceptively simple. The quality of Agnetha Fjältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad's vocals (let's not talk about the songs the boys sang) and the soaringly clean but layered production synesthetically evoke ice-cold milkshakes and gliding across skating rinks and rounding a nordic mountain pass in a Saab. When I hear an ABBA song, I have to stop myself from doing what I actually did at a bar in New York once – throw up my arms and lip-synch and transplant myself into a fleeting world of unsullied pop pleasure. Some boys are driven to these manifestations of incipient drag-queenery by the Supremes and girl groups of their ilk, but I'll take a quartet of Swedes every time. (Besides, I don't look anything like Diana Ross – wouldn't, even in a gown.)

And with the benefit of a few years' exposure to the machinations of the music industry, I now see the pleasure ABBA provides as that of a pop archetype. ABBA was last wildly popular ensemble with some kind of purity (innocence, even), the final band to rule the world before the onset of a joy-withering pop self-awareness. ABBA flourished just before people like you and me came to be labelled as consumers buying musical "product," just before the desire for fame became a central reason to form a pop group, just before the debased imagery of early music video really hit, just before neoconservatves lionized wholesome ABBA-esque pop harmonies as some kind of bunker against the putatively depraved and smutty onslaught of pop culture.

This does not mean that ABBA lived on some cultural or semiotic island. There is, in fact, a deee-liteful subcurrent of pop self-reference in ABBA: Some songs are actually about the pop-music experience. "Dancing Queen" talks of nightclubbing: "Friday night and the lights are low/Looking out for a place to go/Where they play the right music." (Morrissey, of course, would later paint a more despairing picture of this in "How Soon is Now?": "There's a club, if you'd like to go/You could meet somebody who really loves you.") "Super Trouper" evokes the rigours of touring (with a troupe, mind): "I was sick and tired of everything/When I called you last night from Glasgow... Super Trouper, beams are going to blind me, but I won't feel blue/Like I always do/'Cause somewhere in the crowd there's you." "Thank You for the Music" thanks us for the music. I find I am mightily charmed by this metapop.

And there is, of course, the sentimental and nostalgic element. ABBA jerks my tears in "Chiquitita." The aforesaid New York spectacle of dancing queens led to an intially pleasant but ultimately desiccating and belittling affair, and I know a certain someone who foolishly failed to "Take a Chance On Me."

The most apt symbol to write between "ABBA" and "pop music" is an equals sign. PolyGram just up and rereleased all the ABBA albums. Go treat yourself and buy one per month or something.