5 Abba lovers on why the songs are still pure gold
By Jeremy Gordon
News of Abba’s return with a new album (and stage show starring digital avatars) has the group’s followers talking — so we talked to five of the group’s notable fans. Here are edited excerpts from the interviews.
— Jake Shears, musician and Scissor Sisters singer
There was a four-disc deluxe package called “Thank You for the Music” that I convinced my mom to buy me. We went on a road trip across the country to see my grandma, and those were the only four discs we had in the car. At the time, I knew Abba wasn’t necessarily cool, but it was also sweet because I was with my mom, and it was something we were enjoying together.
When I started making my own music, that’s when I started going back into those classic records. I’d always had this love for music hall and cabaret, which I was latching onto with Abba. My favorite record by them is “The Visitors,” but something like “Head Over Heels” has just got that theatrical high kick. It’s very cinematic; it makes me think of foot lights and red curtains. I was bringing those influences into the electroclash world; we started making a more theatrical rock and taking it into full-on dance clubs.
I hate to generalize, but anywhere there’s pure pop songwriting, I think queer people are going to gravitate toward that. Eurovision is the mecca of gay music lovers. I had a boyfriend of three years; we broke up in the middle of COVID, and I listened to “Knowing Me, Knowing You” probably about a million times. I felt like that song was counseling me. What’s so wonderful about the music is not only the craftsmanship but that it contains adult, complex stories. The songs are about people and situations, and that’s something I love in music.
— Lea DeLaria, actor-comedian who performed as Rosie in the 2017 staging of ‘Mamma Mia!’
Abba was such a big part of pop culture in my youth; not knowing it, I would think I was in a movie about their life, because I was just constantly hearing the soundtrack. The town I grew up in was about 20 miles east of St. Louis, and we would always go to a big gay dance club in East St. Louis called Faces. “Dancing Queen” would come on, and it was all over.
What Abba helps me do is access the joy of my youth. Abba is just one of those things that when I put it on, I’m 16 years old again on a dance floor. It just makes me so happy. I find it interesting that they don’t realize how much they’ve given to pop culture. They’re as much of a permanent resident of pop culture as Ella Fitzgerald or Frank Sinatra or David Bowie. When I saw “Mamma Mia!” on Broadway, everybody’s just so filled with that joy, and I couldn’t wait to be a part of that.
I was at a party on the Fourth of July, where it was 15 gay men and me, and it got to the point in the night where we were inside rather than outside, where everybody wanted to dance. And what do you do? You put on Abba.
— Corey Taylor, Slipknot singer
Growing up in the ’70s, there was such a weird amalgam of music all over the place. I had Elvis; I had Motown; I had weird disco. Through all of that, I remember hearing Abba’s music. It seemed like it was always on, and it was clearly different from everything else. It had this full-spectrum lush production that felt and sounded big. It was only four people, but those songs sounded like there were a thousand people being recorded. The math didn’t add up to me.
“Take a Chance on Me” was always my jam. I love the juxtaposition; the beginning sets the whole tone for the song, with this weird Gregorian monklike chant going on, and all of a sudden the crazy European production kicks in. The modulation in those songs is beautiful; it hooks you in, the way it plays between the major and the minor. I just love the yearning feeling. When you put it on, I’m instantly in a good mood.
If you’re a real lover of music — not just somebody who subscribes to one genre — then you have a great appreciation for songs. And Abba wrote great songs that they executed just completely above the norm. It’s the original earworm; it’s the thing that sneaks in and gets stuck in your head. That’s what appeals to people, even if they don’t really like the band or the genre. Even their B-side stuff is really, really catchy. They were taken from us for such a long time; we didn’t get the chance to burn out on them. It’s like people wishing that the Beatles would get back together.
— Anne Sofie von Otter, mezzo-soprano who recorded ‘I Let the Music Speak,’ an album of Abba covers with Benny Andersson
When they did “Waterloo” on Eurovision, I remember enjoying that and thinking they were fun, but I didn’t buy the records; I sort of went along with the snobs who were saying they weren’t any good, for some stupid reason. I rediscovered them when I went to work in Basel, Switzerland, on my first contract. There was a wonderful record shop where I bought a cassette of “The Visitors,” and I’d lay in my bed feeling quite sorry for myself, listening to it on my Walkman.
The big thing is Benny Andersson’s musicality — his ability to write a melody, his ear for harmonies. He doesn’t lose that there’s an element of folk music, of Nordic music, of Baroque music. He’s a great composer; he knows how to use different voices intertwining and building it up. There’s a great melancholy in everything he writes, and it makes you hurt in that wonderful, nice way. When I was recording with Elvis Costello, he just gave Benny a call. He came to the studio, and I was completely star-struck — almost crying with excitement, which happens quite rarely. I was extremely taken with the situation, because I worshipped him. I still worship him, but maybe less dramatically than I did then.
— Judy Craymer, ‘Mamma Mia!’ creator
I was working for the lyricist Tim Rice as his production assistant, and the first project of his that I worked on was with Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, writing “Chess.” Meeting Benny and Bjorn was an inspiration in itself. I wanted to know more about why they wrote those songs, what was behind those lyrics, what the ingredients of those songs were. That was the fascination for me, because they had a very strong female consciousness — they were songs that women sang, but Benny had written them. Seeing them work in the studio, I could appreciate that they weren’t just pop songs; there was a wonderful mix of hooks and choruses and production, and also they were Swedish, so there was a kind of melancholy. They’re very serious guys; they’re not really the guys that dress up in white, with platform boots. That was very interesting to me.
I was fascinated by the oxygen blast that you get — you go from the melancholy, and always end up on a high. Bjorn’s lyrics had everyday connections and common themes about people, friendship, wrecked romances, a child leaving home for school. That’s why I think the songs have sustained far longer than they ever thought. When I kept pestering them back in the ’80s, they were like: “Oh, Abba’s finished. We’re moving on.” But you don’t have to love Abba to love “Mamma Mia!”; there’s a much younger audience that didn’t know Abba as pop stars or performers. They just know the music. You play this music to a child, and it’s almost soothing.
I‘ve known them for a long time now, and I think they’re still amazed that everybody loves “Dancing Queen” so much and wants to dance to it. It’s a big celebration that they have another album because I met them when they’d split up, and it’s a wonderful circle of life that they’ve come back together again. There’s an Abba song called “The Way Old Friends Do,” and it’s a bit like that kind of closure.