ABBA - WTF?*
* Photo could be a low res of an ABBA tribute band. Care factor minimal.
Today I want to address a question that has never been satisfactorily answered for me. A riddle which for 40 years has sat at the heart of Australian history and culture and never been solved, one of those enigmas which seems to exist in plain view but nobody jumps up and down and points at it and says.
“WTF! Can’t you see that? Aren’t you intrigued? Don’t you want to have this at least partly explained?”
The conundrum is this.
Why since the 1970s does ABBA have such a special central place in the Australian psyche? Kids who were only born this century and 80+ grandmothers all know ABBA. Not only know them but also love them. WHY? WHY? WHY?
Now I acknowledge I am not a big fan but I can appreciate well-written chartbusters as much as anyone. And ABBA did write some. But not all ABBA songs were as fantastic as Dancing Queen; some were pretty naff and corny.
They were generally not great to dance to either but boy you could sing along. But even if they were all as good as Billy Jean, I Want To Hold Your Hand, January, Torn and Firework rolled up together somehow as some huge earworm pop song perfection, it still would not explain the longevity, the breadth and depth of ABBA’s appeal in Australia.
We embraced them first, we embraced them hard and we have never ever let them go. But Why?
The girls were good-looking but not awesome, there were plenty of other tempting singers around and anyway ABBA are most fondly regarded by the female Australian anyway. The boys were hardly sex symbols so that doesn’t explain it.
Young men were far less taken up by the ABBA rapture and why would we?
We already had our idols in the rock firmament - Bowie, Stones, Pink Floyd, Led Zep and just reaching their early majesty with a band name not a million miles removed, Australia’s own AC/DC. There are bugger all guitar solos in ABBA but it’s the brides who pick the songs at weddings.
Clearly they were talented musicians, the girls were fine singers but what was it that sent our island nation gaga and continues to linger on to this day.
This has been driving me crazy for years, pricking at my mind from time to time when I hear a ABBA tune or see a piccie of the fab four in their dorky stage clothes. I just watched Muriel’s Wedding again with my daughter. It is one of Australia's best ever films and the one two punch of the two scenes at the resort where Rhonda tells Tania to stick her drink then the movie quick cuts to her and Muriel doing their talent night scene to Dancing Queen is rightly iconic.
So after that I had a bit of a think and I have an answer to the ABBA fascination that is burrowed deep into the Australian psyche like a Vietnam holiday hookworm.
There is actually more than one reason and first of all we need to go back to 1975 when we tried ABBA for the first time and like our first taste of Mexican at Montezuma’s, Pedro's, Pepe's, [insert Mexican name cliché here] we were quickly smitten. No doubt ABC’s TV show Countdown played a key role in getting ABBA huge in Australia but that is more of a HOW than a WHY.
ABBA first went top 40 in Australia in 1975 and for the final time in 1980 but the big years were 1977, 78, 79. There was a lot of turmoil in Australia in those years - cultural turmoil, National political stoushes between the Whitlam and Fraser governments, high unemployment and interest rates. The country that had felt mature enough to break from the past and leave home with Gough Whitlam was finding being a young adult a bit tough.
Who could blame it if it got a little sooky and needed the music version of Mum’s mac and cheese? In ABBA they got it.
And if you were a schoolgirl wanting to dream as Muriel Heslop so clearly did about a brightly coloured, costumed future where your true love wishes could come true what better songs than ABBA’s to sing with your friends?
Their huge Australian tour of 77 led to saturation and, like too much Mac and Cheese, a case of bloat and although their talent for melody lived on the slide had begun.
But that was only the first ABBA hit.
By the 1990s we were all nostalgic for the 70s again and thanks to clever use of the hits in Priscilla and Muriel’s Wedding a whole new gay audience were engaged and the older one reminded.
And seeing pop really does eat itself and post modernism loves the recycling and reworking of 70s culture since then we have had the Mama Mia movie and musical, countless radio plays on retro radio stations and innumerable repackaging and greatest hit collections. Even the rise of IKEA and Scandinavian Noir remind Australia again and again of Sweden’s first big export.
There is even an ABBA song on the Three Billboards Outside Hibbing, Missouri soundtrack for shit’s sake.
And so just in time before they can fade from memory like other big 70s stars e.g. Bay City Rollers, Elton John, The Eagles there is always something there to remind us like last year’s 40th Anniversary compilation repackaging.
Personally I still don’t get it but I’m glad I have thought this over and I feel a lot better that I have what seems like a rational explanation. Now if someone can explain the strange and endless appeal of John Farnham to me another great mystery will be solved.
My favourite ABBA songs in order.
1. Dancing Queen – pop song brilliance
3. Take A Chance on me
Sorry I can’t do this anymore.
Don’t even ask for any of Farnsie’s best, there are none.