While occasionally liking the odd pop tune, even at the best of times I’m not really a fan of that music genre. But there is one group I always despised and always will: Abba. For me they are the lowlife of popular music, and I never understood how even halfway intelligent people could include them under the rubric of their favourites. It also baffled me at first how anyone could be so moronic to write a musical about them, but quick second thoughts let me to the conclusion that this genre too shouldn’t really provide any cause for surprise. Today I finally found someone who shares my disgust: Neil McCormick, whose London Telegraph article was published in the Sydney Morning Herald – I feel almost grateful.
Cheesy disco pop with clod-hopping rhythms – and no style.
I do, I do, I do, I do, I do not like Abba
August 6, 2008
With the Swedish stars riding high, Neil McCormick has a confession: he loathes them.
It is the greatest hits album that will not die. Abba Gold is riding high in the charts again: No. 1 on the UK album chart and No. 4 in Australia.
This time, it is largely due to Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnan slumming it with a cast of British thespians in the feelgood (but only because it is braindead) movie Mamma Mia!, adapted from the long-running musical. The film’s soundtrack is No. 1 on the Australian albums chart.
Abba are inescapable. Not content with making my teenage years a misery, this jumped-up Swedish cruise-ship combo are apparently determined to ruin my middle age.
I hate Abba. I hated them first time around, when their cheesy disco pop with its clod-hopping rhythms and banal, repetitive, linguistically challenged choruses made them singalong family favourites. And I hate them even more now, when the flattening effect of nostalgia has lent a spurious retro-credibility to their formulaic Euro drivel.
People talk about Abba as if they were on a par with the Beatles, when all they did was grab one little corner of the Fab Four’s harmonic oeuvre and pillage it for all it was worth. Sure, Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson knew how to craft a pop song. The verses are catchy, the bridges prepare us for lift-off, the choruses are relentless and everything falls neatly in the right place.
But they were musical one-trick ponies: the Ramones for squares, a spandex Status Quo. Just because they created hooklines so insistent it would take invasive surgery to remove them from your cranium does not make them classic songwriters. By that criterion, the folks behind the Crazy Frog ringtone would be geniuses.
Rather than being a Swedish Lennon and McCartney, Bjorn and Benny were just an earlier incarnation of Stock, Aitken and Waterman, making ersatz teenypop unredeemed by wit, emotion or imagination.
Everything that is contrived and corny about pop is to be found in Abba. As song titles such as Money, Money, Money, and (surely you remember this one) I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do suggest, the prosaic appeal of repetition was the most potent weapon in Abba’s limited armoury.
So it is perhaps self-evident that the same musical signatures would be endlessly recycled: perky piano descents, toy-box organ sounds, staccato keyboard hooks and gimmicky backing vocals (a phrase like “Take a Chance” can become “Teka cheka-cha-chance” and “Super Trouper” metamorphose into “Supa-pa True-pa-pa”).
Then there were all those market-expanding, pan-European catchphrase choruses (Voulez-vous, Mamma mia, Chiquitita), cod-American English lyrics (Abba songs are full of unconvincingly pronounced “chicks” and “babys”) and the kind of bizarre phraseology that comes from writing in a foreign tongue (in Winner Takes It All the loser at a metaphorical card game announces that she has “no more ace to play”).
English was not Abba’s first language, but I remain to be convinced it was even their second; their lyrics are full of words included only because they rhyme. Has any song used a reference to “Glasgow” less convincingly than Super Trouper, where it is shoehorned in just to rhyme with “last show”? Bjorn once confessed that he would sit up all night struggling to write, then take whatever scribbles he had managed to note down into the studio, just to prove he had been doing some work.
He expected rejection by his band mates “but actually, they didn’t care”. This was the kind of quality control that led to songs like Bang A Boomerang with its couplet “Dum-be-dum-dum, be-dum-be-dum-dum/Love is a tune you hum-de-hum-hum”.
But you cannot pin Abba’s gaucheness just on lyrical shortcomings. Anyone who still wants to argue their pop genius obviously hasn’t heard Abba’s medley of Pick A Bale of Cotton, On Top Of Old Smokey and Midnight Special. This is the stuff of variety shows, which is where Abba truly belong.
Pop music has always been about style as much as content – and Abba had no style at all. The girls were not without their charms, but behind them lurked Tweedledum and Tweedledee, two plump, beardy guys in dungarees. Even as a hormonal teen- age boy, I figured any woman attracted to a buffoon in a romper suit deserved pity, not admiration.
The one thing I have been able to begrudgingly admire about Abba has been their refusal to re-form. No amount of money could lure them back into the dressing-up box. But it turns out there is no need for them to embarrass themselves – for their evil work is being carried on by others.
And so we end up with Mamma Mia!, the laziest kind of musical entertainment ever devised: take a bunch of pop hits and cobble a spurious story around them.
It is not a musical at all – it is a karaoke event, a place for people to revel shamelessly in the bad taste of their youth. Abba are the perfect band for such a cynically contrived misadventure: trite and simplistic, and with a musical range that goes all the way from A to B and back again. To paraphrase the lyrics of a well-known Eurovision song, it is like history repeating itself.