The ABBA Experiment
April 7, 1999: Prologue to the experiment:
ABBA, a Swedish quartet starring Agnetha "Anna" Fältskog, Benny Andersson, Bjsrn Ulvaeus and Anni-Frid "Frida" Synni-Lyungstad-Fredriksson-Andersson, was immensely successful during the 1970s and early 1980s, when it churned out one massive smash after another. Nevertheless, the group was widely despised by critics, who rejoiced over its breakup, officially announced in the Swedish press in January, 1983. In the years since then, however, ABBA has been the beneficiary of historical revisionism, with selected fans and reviewers alike claiming that the act set a high-water mark in popular music. The British continue to lead the charge in this regard: A new, all-star version of "Waterloo," which won the Eurovision Song Contest a quarter-century ago this month, is currently in the UK top ten, and Mamma Mia!, a musical based on ABBA tunes, opened last week in the West End theater district. Moreover, the hits collection ABBA Gold is in its 217th week on the English charts and regularly sells in excess of 1 million copies per annum. This trend is represented in this country by two recent events: the appearance of ABBA--A Tribute: The 25th Anniversary Celebration, a CD on which entertainers as disparate as Beach Boy Mike Love and Lemonhead Evan Dando salute the Swedes, and Polydor Records' rerelease of all nine original ABBA albums, from 1973's Ring Ring (made when the act was known as Bjorn, Benny, Agnetha and Frida) to ABBA Live, issued in 1986, three years after the outfit's demise.
Purpose of the experiment:
To determine if ABBA's music has been criminally underrated.
Methodology of the experiment:
In order to immerse myself in all things ABBA, I will listen to the nine ABBA discs consecutively, in chronological order, over the course of a single day. Because interruptions might skew the results, I put a note on my office door ("PLEASE DO NOT DISTURB: ABBA EXPERIMENT IN PROGRESS") and a special message on my voice mail ("This is Mike Roberts from Westword, and today, Wednesday, April 7, I am conducting an experiment involving the band ABBA that will prevent me from returning any phone calls. If there is an emergency on the level of you being on fire, press zero and have someone at the front desk interrupt me. But bear in mind that you could ruin everything"). In addition, there is to be no lunch break, and only the quickest of trips to the water fountain and/or restroom are allowed. No magazines are to be read while answering nature's call, and the tape player must be put on "pause" during any absences to guarantee that not one second of ABBA's work is missed.
Notes from the experiment:
9:21 a.m.: I remove Ring Ring from its jewel box and place it in my boombox--which, for some reason, refuses to play it. I struggle with the machine for two minutes, trying my best not to see this as a bad omen, before placing the CD in my computer's player. It works.
9:23 a.m.: "Ring Ring" kicks off. Agnetha and Frida's jarringly cheerful singing sounds otherworldly, like an extraterrestrial's approximation of a woman's voice. The guitars, drums, keyboards and bass don't seem quite real, either. But the whole thing is undeniably catchy, like a commercial jingle you can get out of your head only by buying the product that's being advertised.
9:41 a.m.: On the unbelievably bubblegummy "Love Isn't Easy (But It Sure Is Hard Enough)," the line "Love isn't just a sensation/Sometimes it gets rough" is followed by the boing of a mallet rapping a kettle drum. I laugh, thinking that maybe this test will be enjoyable after all.
9:44 a.m.: I'm disappointed to discover that "Me and Bobby and Bobby's Brother" isn't about a menage à trois. Obviously, these Euro-minxes are getting to me already.
9:57 a.m.: "Rock 'N Roll Band" has a quasi-distorted guitar that nearly reaches Bay City Rollers intensity, but the lyrics are Hallmark-card sunshiny: "We could have fun together" and "You're gonna feel much better" are as dark as they get. It's dopey, sure, but I can tell that my frown has been turned upside down.
10:00 a.m.: Disc two, Waterloo (from 1974), slides into place, and the title track bounces out, with Agnetha and Frida finding unfathomable joy in Napoleon's greatest defeat. "I feel like I win when I lose!" they declare with exquisite plasticity as the piano chords dance and a saxophone wails (but not too insistently). And then, in two minutes and 43 seconds, it's over--like sex with an especially comely inflatable love doll.
10:07 a.m.: "King Kong Song" features gorilla noises, silly screams and background vocals that go "wamba-wamba-wamba-oooh-oooh-oooh." Have I already started to hallucinate?
10:16 a.m.: Midway through "My Mama" comes a guitar solo that would be reminiscent of Phish if it weren't only seven seconds long. Later, the lyrics "My mama said/'I suppose you'd rather see me dead'/All I wanted in my life/Wanted in my life/La-la-la/La-la-la life!" make me wonder if the singers learned English from the Seventies equivalent of Hooked on Phonics.
10:26 a.m.: Now things are really starting to get weird. In "What About Livingstone," the Nordic four take space travelers to task for not giving enough credit to the explorers who came before them, asking "Wasn't it worth the while/To sail the Nile?" with something almost resembling conviction. I hope Neil Armstrong is ashamed of himself.
10:38 a.m.: The first verse of the disc's last song, "Suzy-Hang-Around," involves a ten-year-old boy who tells a nine-year-old girl to get lost. The second verse finds the girl's mother asking the boy to play nicely with her daughter, but he ignores her. So, does the third verse take place in the future, when the girl is all grown up and the boy wants her to hang around? Well, no--because there is no third verse. What the hell is going on here?
10:41 a.m.: The third CD, ABBA (1975), begins with "Mamma Mia," whose melody becomes a staccato weapon in about one minute flat. If Psycho is remade again, this should be playing during the shower scene.
10:47 a.m.: "Tropical Loveland"--a reggae song as performed by the four whitest people who ever lived. Need I say more?
10:50 a.m.: One of the band's biggest singles, "S.O.S.," perks me up with its combination of classical arpeggios and idiotic words. But it rolls directly into "Man in the Middle"--a funk song as performed by the four whitest people who ever lived. Sending out an S.O.S. suddenly seems like a pretty good idea.
11:02 a.m.: As I'm hammered by the rallying cry "Rock me!/Give me that kick now!/Rock me!/Show me that trick now!/Roll me!/You can do magic!/Bay-bay!" one of my fellow scribes peers in my window to make sure I'm alive. I am--but for how long?
11:07 a.m.: Terrible sign--an instrumental called "Intermezzo I." If these guys start taking themselves seriously, I'm in big trouble.
11:15 a.m.: Disaster hasn't struck yet. In fact, "So Long," a joyous bit of prefabricated power pop that concludes the platter, is both lively and, by Swedish terms, witty. Of course, given that Ingmar Bergman is fairly representative of the country's sense of humor, that's not saying much. But Cries and Whispers cracks me up every time.
11:20 a.m.: The production on disc four, 1976's Arrival, is considerably lusher than that of its predecessors. "Dancing Queen," the second song, is so thick with strings and harmonies and Lord knows what else that it's the equivalent of eating a seven-course dessert after a seven-course meal. No seconds for me, thanks.
11:32 a.m.: "Knowing Me, Knowing You" is the first ABBA song to top the four-minute mark (by one second), but despite one of the decade's ickiest guitar timbres, it earns its length. So, too, does "Money, Money, Money," which follows, but only because its Kurt Weill-meets-the-Archies arrangement is so absurd. Still, the musicians' growing ambition has got me worried.
11:46 a.m.: "Tiger," in which the gals shriek, "Look around the corner/And try not to scream/It's me/I am the tiger!" actually scares me, but not as badly as "Arrival," whose Celtic appropriations sound like the inspiration for the soundtrack to Titanic. Stop pretending you're artists, okay? Just stop it!
11:51 a.m.: They're not stopping it. As I begin to spin 1977's The Album, I glance at the CD's back cover and realize that only two of its nine songs are under four minutes. Worse, a trio of tunes are grouped under the portentous subtitle "3 Scenes From a Mini-Musical." As for cut one, "Eagle," it sports martial rhythms, lyrics about "flying high/Like a bird in the sky" and ostentatious guitar solos that keep the freakin' thing going for nearly six minutes. Good God--what have I gotten myself into?
11:57 a.m.: "Take a Chance on Me"--now, that's more like it. The song shows off contrapuntal vocals that suggest a barbershop quartet populated entirely by automatons, plus a faux-disco beat and coy whispers that I'd describe as coital if these guys didn't seem as if they'd been manufactured in a secret lab at a Volvo plant.
12:06 p.m.: "The Name of the Game" was a notable chart-climber, too, but the shlocky energy that powered ABBA's first few discs has curdled into something considerably sludgier. I stare longingly at the message light on my phone that's been blinking for over two hours now. When chatting with a publicist who just wants to see if I've received a package he sent me (yeah, sure) seems appealing, things must be heading downhill fast.
12:12 p.m.: "Move On" is pure Leo Buscaglia. A narrator declares, "If I explored the heavens/Or if I searched inside/Well, it doesn't really matter/If I can tell myself I've always tried"--and the aforementioned mini-musical isn't just Andrew Lloyd Webber Lite; it's Andrew Lloyd Webber Helium. (Note to aspiring songwriters: Avoid using couplets such as "I'm nothing special/In fact, I'm a bit of bore," from "Thank You for the Music," if they're true.) The concluding chapter of the opus, "I'm a Marionette," makes me think of Styx--which (you may be shocked to learn) I don't enjoy doing.
12:32 p.m.: Upon hearing the first notes of 1979's Voulez-Vous, I realize that I'm more than halfway done: Five CDs down, four to go. But while "As Good as New" is proving that it's not, I realize that time has begun to take its toll. My fine motor control is definitely diminished--I keep knocking things off my desk, then bumping myself when I bend over to pick them up--and my energy is shot. Just sitting suddenly seems exhausting, and even "Voulez-Vous," a full-fledged disco song, fails to get my heart thumping. Does anyone know the phone number for 911?
12:44 p.m.: Getting through "I Have a Dream" would have been a chore for Martin Luther King, so it's no surprise that I have problems, too. I amuse myself by choosing the lachrymose lyrics I hate most. The winner: "If you see the wonder/Of the fairy tale/You can take the future/Even if you fail."
12:56 p.m.: "Does Your Mother Know," with synthesized background vocals and sonics worthy of the Raspberries, temporarily makes me forget about wanting to stab myself with my letter opener, and for that I'm grateful. But the hook to "Chiquitita" doesn't arrive until a minute and forty seconds have passed. In the early years, the song would have practically been over by then.
1:13 p.m.: "Kisses of Fire" is every bit as disposable as the songs in ABBA's first golden shower of hits, and yet it went nowhere in this country. Was ABBA already winding down by this point? More important, am I already past--gulp--the good stuff?
1:17 p.m.: Judging by 1980's Super Trouper, the answer is yes. "Super Trouper" itself sounds as if it would make an ideal date for Mr. Roboto (egad! Another Styx reference!), and "The Winner Takes It All," the last ABBA offering to reach the American Top Ten, is twaddle that even the characters in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert probably didn't like that much.
1:25 p.m.: "On and On and On" contains a line about "respect for human rights." Does that mean the members of ABBA are human? Or are they simply fond of those of us who are?
1:34 p.m.: The pompous synthesizer strains and vocoder stunts at the heart of "Me and I" brings out the restlessness in me. While pacing, I discover that my office is the same size as the solitary-confinement shed where Paul Newman was punished in Cool Hand Luke.
1:55 p.m.: I'm starting to drift. I pay enough attention to know that "Happy New Year" is adult-contemporary drivel, "Lay All Your Love on Me" is disco with an odd gospel touch, and both "The Piper" and the extraordinarily bloated "The Way Old Friends Do" are derived from Celtic music. (What is it about these guys and Ireland? Are they Swedish or aren't they?) But the haze is so thick I can't say more than that. Two more CDs to go; gotta snap out of it.
2:01 p.m.: The song named after 1981's The Visitors sounds like an outtake from Chess (the musical, with a libretto by Tim Rice, that Andersson and Ulvaeus penned a few years later), and so does the next ditty, "Head Over Heels." Obviously, the ABBA four were heading in different directions when they were making this full-length (Benny and Frida divorced around then, two years after Bjsrn and Agnetha had split up) and tried to keep things going for the dough, a la the final days of Sonny and Cher. The fun was gone for them, and it's gone for me, too.
2:09 p.m.: "When All Is Said and Done"--crummy.
2:12 p.m.: "Soldiers"--lousy.
2:16 p.m.: "I Let the Music Speak"--abysmal.
2:22 p.m.: "One of Us"--inexcusable.
2:26 p.m.: "Two for the Price of One"--dreadful.
2:30 p.m.: "Slipping Through My Fingers"--painful.
2:34 p.m.: "Like an Angel Passing Through My Room"--tedious in the extreme. But since it's the last song on the disc, I like it a little more than the others.
2:38 p.m.: Although I feel a powerful need to say howdy to a urinal, I resist the urge. After all, Live is the final CD in the stack, and I don't want to do anything to prevent it from ending as soon as possible. Besides, if I walk away now, I may never come back--so in it goes.
3:03 p.m.: Unlike most studio groups, ABBA was able to reproduce its harmonies in concert with uncanny precision--which further validates my theory that the singers have about as much flesh and blood on their frames as does C-3PO. But didn't anyone ever tell them which of their songs never, ever to perform in public? While declaring "Dancing Queen" and "Take a Chance on Me" to be great tunes would require a grading curve the size of the Grand Coulee Dam, at least they have a certain campy charm. But of the first seven songs here, four of them ("I Have a Dream," "Chiquitita," "Thank You for the Music" and "Two for the Price of One") are wretched on a cosmic scale. To make matters worse, I had to hear them twice in a matter of hours.
3:40 p.m.: Well, it's over, and there's no sense in denying it: I have a headache--a big, booming, cranium-torturing headache--and the main reason is ABBA's apparent belief that bass tones are a waste of time. The band's songs offer up nothing but treble, treble, treble, and after more than six hours of it (topped off by a nine-minute-plus medley of "The Name of the Game" and "Eagle," as well as the ominously titled "On and On and On"), my brain feels like Evander Holyfield's bad ear. It's a lucky thing that the concealed-carry-permit law hasn't passed yet, because if it had, I'd be on the streets right now, looking to bust a cap in the ass of the first Aryan-looking lug I came across.
Conclusions to be drawn from the experiment:
Too large a helping of any performer's music--even a great one--can be annoying: After listening to three straight hours of James Brown several years back, I found myself twitching on the floor as if I'd just been struck by lightning. It's no surprise, then, that the ABBA oeuvre left me with a deep-seated fear of Scandinavians that will probably require years of therapy to overcome. But it also confirmed for me what is arguably the single most important law of pop music: Everything comes back. Laugh if you like, but a quarter-century from now, music stores (or their computer equivalents) will be filled with newly available, meticulously annotated recordings by Britney Spears, 'N Sync and lots of other acts ridiculed in their day but praised to the skies decades later.
When you listen to them, though, don't do it all at once. I don't need that kind of guilt.
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