When I heard Abba had reunited for a new album after 40 years, I must confess I rolled my eyes. Abba always felt a bit like the marshmallow of popular music—sweet, squishy and synthetic. Even Boney M. had more of an edge. That Euro-Caribbean vocal group out of Germany had lyrics that sounded like lines from bad nursery rhymes—“Ra Ra Rasputin, lover of the Russian queen” and “one way ticket, one way ticket, one way ticket, one way ticket, one way ticket, one way ticket to the blues”. But at least their album covers were a little risqué, with brown skin and body hair on generous display, complemented by skimpy golden underwear and chains.
Abba felt squeaky clean, like freshly laundered whites. At the time I did not know about IKEA, the other great Scandinavian contribution to the world. Looking back, Abba was the IKEA of pop music—clean looks, harmonious lines, user-friendly but lacking heft. Rock critic Robert Christgau once said the “band’s real tradition is the advertising jingle”. One always felt a twinge of guilty pleasure about liking Abba. There just wasn’t anything cool or daring about it. While we looked for hidden drug-laced messages in The Beatles’ Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds or sexual imagery in the Octopus’ Garden, Abba did not personify sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll despite crooning “Gimme, gimme, gimme a man after midnight”. Fernando was about as revolutionary as Abba ever felt: “There was something in the air that night; The stars were bright, Fernando; They were shining there for you and me; For liberty, Fernando”.
Mostly, Abba just felt safe—the pop group you could bring home to dinner. The songs remained stuck in our consciousness, though, like ear worms—Dancing Queen, Mamma Mia, Money, Money, Money. No wonder Mamma Mia became such a hit as a musical. It felt more like a party game than a film. Can you take 18 Abba songs and string them on to a storyline? It was feel-good nostalgia at its most feel-good, although Abba’s Björn Ulvaeus said it was not “recycling” as much as “telling a story on another platform”.
Even nostalgia seems to be the wrong word for Abba. Nostalgia has its roots in the Greek words nostos, meaning return home, and algos, meaning pain. It was coined by a Swiss doctor to describe the acute homesickness, akin to mania, felt by Swiss soldiers. It was characterised by sadness, sleeplessness, loss of appetite and weakness. There is no pain in the Abba nostalgia. It goes down easy, as sweet as a mocktail, even when they are telling us, “The winner takes it all, the loser standing small”.
So did the world really need a Abba in 2021? And even worse, the new songs of Voyage were to be accompanied by hologram versions of Agnetha, Björn, Anni-Frid and Benny. Abba’s fans would have become older, balder, saggier but the singers would be preserved in the eternal sunshine of the spotless band. Hologram Abba would go on tour and have its own concert hall, where the Abbatars would sing and dance as if it was still 1977. It all felt a little creepy, more pre-fab than Ab Fab. Even IKEA furniture is allowed to show wear and tear after a few years. Abba, on the other hand, was promising us, “We have done it all before and now we are back to get some more, you know what I mean, Voulez-vous (aha).”
The problem was Abba always felt too good to be true. The lead members were married to each other; they divorced but in a very civilised Abba way and are all friends now. Jazz Monroe writes in Pitchfork magazine about taking an instinctive dislike to Abba: “When Dancing Queen kicked in, my response was not active resistance but ambient distaste.” Perhaps it was a natural distrust of “these ridiculously efficient Swedes”, crafting song after chart-busting song that was “emotionally precise yet without authorial detail”.
We could see ourselves as Chiquitita, “oh so sad, so quiet”, or feel the drudgery of “just another town, another train” or dream of being Nina, pretty ballerina, with her Friday night secret life as queen of the dancing floor, while the Abba members remained elusive. Their history of family poverty and debilitating shyness was unknown to us, as was the fact that Anni-Frid was ostracised as a “German girl” born out of wedlock to a Norwegian woman and an occupying German soldier. While glimmers of their personal life show up in the songs, unlike The Beatles or The Rolling Stones, Abba was one homogeneous blob—a black box or, rather, a white one, like a block of vanilla ice cream. To this day, I am not sure which A was married to which B. In fact, a New York Times article about the new album comes with a correction at the end that says: “An earlier version of a picture caption with this article misidentified two of Abba’s members. Björn Ulvaeus is at left, not right, and Benny Andersson is at the right, not left.” The confusion is telling. In a sense they were always holograms.
Yet for all their squareness, Abba was a trendsetter. The New York Times profile reminds us that long before the world knew of music videos, Abba was making promotional mini-films for its songs, most of them directed by Lasse Hallström of My Life As A Dog and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape fame. Their 1981 album, The Visitors, was the first commercial release on compact disc. At one time, their management got their Soviet Union royalties paid in oil commodity rights instead of the shaky rouble. And they did it all as a band which did not come from the English-speaking world.
Looking back, I realise there might have been something very plain and suburban about them but then that’s true about much of the world. Abba reassured us that it was okay not to want to rebel. As pop stars, they were low-key and understated. Even now, unlike most stars on the comeback trail, Anni-Frid and Agnetha have stuck to their “no interviews” stance. They have said this album will be their last. And there is that sense of self-deprecating humour. Björn was once part of the band Hootenanny Singers, which he described as “the worst name any band has ever had. It’s just so ugly, possibly beaten only by Abba”.
The danger was the new Abba was going to come out in a post-Abba world, reminding us perhaps that even Abba was not really timeless. Abba was part of a simpler world where the Berlin Wall stood, 9/11 had not happened and Princess Diana was still alive. But surprising as it may seem, 2021 might be a good time for a booster dose of vitamin Abba.
As columnist Paromita Vohra wrote after the first two songs dropped, an “era of snark has culminated in a pandemic”. Now Abba has come, “somewhere between aunties and angels, with one break-up song and one make-up song”, whose “twinkly grooves are perfect for dancing with yourself, convenient in these lonesome times, while dreaming of when we’ll be dancing together again”. That makes me smile.
In a bitterly polarised world bristling with fake news, cancel culture and troll armies, Abba reminds us that being likeable is not somehow a mark of shame. Even when I try to critique Abba, I find myself humming Voulez-Vous and I understand there’s no need to feel embarrassed about liking the simple decency of Abba and “finding comfort together, the way old friends do”.
Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.