This probably isn’t an ABBA song most of you know. It’s from their very last album of the same name as the track itself. In fact, The Visitors was the very first album released commercially on CD. It’s a bizarre sort of track that betrays a group on the precipice of collapse, trying to embrace a new decade’s new sounds, with mixed success. I have a soft spot in my heart for this track, but it’s easy to see why most people didn’t/don’t. Quite frankly, it’s an odd song.
But I wanted to write a little more broadly about ABBA. I grew up listening to ABBA, so my bias will shine through, but I don’t think ABBA get enough credit. Or rather, they’re not given any credit. For a band that is among the best selling of all time — we’re talking AC/DC, Queen, Whitney Houston territory — there is a curious lack of respect for ABBA among the general public. You look at other artists in this rarefied air — Michael Jackson, The Beatles, AC/DC, Queen — and it’s easy to identify how these artists were special, what they brought to music that we hadn’t heard or seen or felt before. Not ABBA, though. Seriously, google reaction to their induction in to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Whatever you might think of the appropriateness of the venue, the sheer vitriol the band inspires from a certain crowd is bizarre.
You might argue that it’s because there isn’t anything special about ABBA. It’s a vanilla group of Swedes who made some good ditties that everyone forgot about a decade later. But I think it’s something more serious than that: ABBA is a pop group for women. Or at least, that’s how it’s portrayed. ABBA gets no respect from the writers of Rolling Stone because all they hear are vacuous lyrics set to uninteresting rhythms. But if you listen to their lyrics, they’re no better, or worse, than those of Elvis or Michael Jackson. Rather, they sound worse because they’re not sung by husky, masculine, textured voices of character, or backed by bass and electric guitars. This sounds like bubblegum music, and so it must be dismissed. I would take ABBA’s vocals over those of Led Zeppelin any day. Plus, a good melody is a good melody is a good melody, no matter if it’s courtesy of a symphony or a Stratocaster or the Swedes.
I submit that ABBA is — for better or for worse, though I’m firmly in the for better camp — one of the defining bands of the 20th century. A decade before the 80s, they set the stage for that decade’s pop revolution, full of synthesizer hooks and ethereal vocals. They were among the first groups to do what we would call music videos now — they just sort of stood and sang, but they anticipated video killing the radio star. And despite what you may think, they were genuinely interested in experimenting. Their sound changes dramatically from Ring, Ring in 1973 to The Visitors in 1981 — at times, it’s harder and rock-like, and other times it’s soft, ballad-y work. Taken as a whole, ABBA’s discography is eclectic but singular: it’s always ABBA, even when it’s not what you think ABBA should sound like. In that way, they presage people like Prince and Lady Gaga who maintain a personal style as they blend and bend genres of pop.
You should respect ABBA more. That is all. (I kinda ran out of steam here at the end. I’m tired and it’s a Friday night…)