Music News

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.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts