When my mother and stepfather married, I listened to a lot of the music collection he brought with him. One of them was a tape that he had collected from reel-to-reels from the band Abba. This was in the mid-90’s, before the success of Momma Mia brought Abba’s music to the masses. It was a decade after Chess and after the brief solo careers of the band’s singers, which featured glorious songs like “I Know There’s Something Going On,” aided by Phil Collins, but that is another story, and it was about a decade before the band would be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, thus saving me a blog entry of having to write about how awesome the music of Abba is and how much it deserves to be remembered and enshrined because it was, in fact, viewed as some of the most noteworthy music of its era. Yet although the music of Abba is quite popular with women of a certain age, the fact that I played the music so much for myself during my own teen years suggests it has a lot more to offer than simply being a relic of the 1970’s. It would take some time, though, before I was aware of what it meant to have a life that could be called Abbaesque.
Recently I listened to the entire ABBA Gold album, which is a fantastic greatest hits album, and I was reminded of the depth of the band, and the way that they sang songs that often appeared happy on the outside, with bright synths and peppy vocals, but that were often deeply melancholy when you listened to them. To have an Abbaesque life is a sad fate, to have a bright smile and appear full of cheer but to live a life full of loneliness and deep sadness. It is a sadness I know very well, and one I recognize in the lives of others. I happen to know a few women on the high end of middle-aged who love the song “Dancing Queen” and have actually sung parts of it while I watched, somewhat horrified. For the record, that is the one song of the band I absolutely loathe, mostly for the lyric “Anybody could be that guy,” reflecting a view that people are somewhat interchangeable. This sentiment is one I happen to loathe, and it appears on that song which became their biggest hit by far in the United States, but fortunately the rest of the band’s oeuvre contracts that sentiment with something far deeper and far darker, and it is that body of work I would like to at least ponder today.
What kind of dark matters did ABBA deal with in their songs? Surely their songs were not that dark, right? This is a band that dressed up in silly French costumes in singing “Waterloo” for Eurovision, after all. How dark could they be? Let us look at the tracklist of ABBA Gold for ourselves. “Knowing Me, Knowing You” deals with a broken relationship where communication has entirely broken down and going separate ways seems like the best that they can do. “Take A Chance On Me” is an upbeat number about a person waiting for their beloved to take a chance and overcome their fear of relationships. There’s nothing desperate about that. “Mamma Mia” examines the fate of someone engaging in relationships without a lot of hope of success. “Super Trouper” is a gloomy song about being blinded by the stage lights while being eaten alive by loneliness. “I Have A Dream” is inspirational but melancholy song about overcoming difficulty, and you can believe it. “The Winner Takes It All” could be the theme song of divorce lawyers with its examination of people giving everything they have to defeating the other in court. There’s nothing dark or depressing about that. “Money, Money, Money” is a song about gold-digging and the envious preoccupation with material wealth. “SOS” is a song about a lover crying out for attention and care from her partner. “Chiquitita” is a note of encouragement for someone struggling with hopelessness, coming from a loyal and loving friend. “Fernando” is another Spanish-language sort of song that serves as a nostalgic memory of time spent with Villa. “Voulez Vous” is a Euro-dance song dealing with deception and facing the choice of taking or leaving opportunities that don’t seem all that worthwhile. There’s nothing desperate about “Gimme Gimme Gimme (A Man After Midnight),” nothing at all. “Does Your Mother Know?” features a middle-aged man flirting with underage girls at a dance club. That’s not creepy at all. “One Of Us” turns out to be a song about the deliberate betrayal of a partner in a relationship. “The Name Of The Game” has a person wondering if the other person is as serious about matters as they are. “Thank You For The Music” has the narrator confessing to be a bit of a bore who just happens to have a gift of inspiring others with music. And then we come to the aforementioned silly “Waterloo.” So, rather than finding a lighthearted band in ABBA, we find that its best material is often dark, reflective, and gloomy.
This feeling is not surprising when one thinks about the career of the band and the relationships within the band. ABBA was made up of two couples which ended up divorcing. As might be expected, the turmoil within the band within the relationships led to dark songs about relationship drama, much like a dance pop version of, say, Fleetwood Mac, another band I happen to love. Come to think of it, I have lived a life of notable relationship drama, and the music I have listened to has been about that same subject. Is it a case of art influencing life or life influencing art ? It’s hard to say that I would have liked the songs of ABBA had they not spoken to my life, but having the smile through the hard times while pouring out one’s heart into deep and somewhat dark and confessional works was perhaps not the best use of one’s God given talents for writing and performing. Still, if one’s life is Abbaesque, and my life certainly is, one should at least admit it openly and honestly and make the best of it. Knowing me, knowing you, it’s the best I can do.
 See, for example: