When I gave a positive review to the ABBAtars that were introduced in the music video the excellent new ABBA single “I Still Have Faith In You,” I received an unfriendly comment from someone who thought it was ridiculous that elderly people like the group would pretend to be young like they were in the 1970’s when they were relatively youthful stars in the midst of their peak period of popularity. The more I thought about it, though, the more it made sense to me. Since it is something that I have not heard other people comment about in length, and since it is part of a larger trend among legacy acts that have similarly sought a return to pop success on the mainstream charts in the United States (and other countries), I thought it would be worth explaining why this is not something worth getting upset over and why it actually makes sense from a variety of perspectives.
Let us frame our discussion by talking at least a little bit about the ubiquity of children playing pretend. One of the ways that children prepare for adulthood is by pretending to be adults in one role or responsibility or another. It is not hard to understand and appreciate why it is that young people would want to try out being older and prepare themselves as best as they are able to it for imagination. It is hard for people who are not old to understand why it is that those on the other side of the aging and maturity spectrum would want to do the same thing in reverse, though. For those who have experienced the ravages of aging, and especially the difficulty of aging when one is a popular musician, it is worth examining why this is an obviously worthwhile decision for people in the position of the four members of ABBA.
How is it that one stays a popular artist? The obvious answer is that one makes pop music, but in practicality that is often not enough. Those who know anything about how the music charts work in the United States know that the placement of songs on the mainstream charts depend on three metrics: streaming, radio, and sales, in order of their average importance to a song’s placement, all other things being equal. It is radio that presents the biggest obstacle to aging artists, because most radio stations will generally assume that mainstream contemporary hit radio audiences want music by younger artists. While there are a few artists who are able to get hits on pop radio into their 40’s, this is relatively rare, and it is extremely difficult to continue this into one’s 50’s and beyond. The members of ABBA were born in the 1940’s, and were already on the older side of pop superstardom by the time that they broke up in the early 1980’s when they were in their mid 30’s, much less being in their mid 70’s as is the case now.
Knowing, therefore, that age is a major barrier to continued success as a popular musician, how is it that an act can transcend these limitations. Let us look at two recent cases, that of ABBA and that of Elton John. Elton John recently had his first Hot 100 entry since 1999 with the song “Cold Heart,” which is the leadoff single to a new album that is to be released relatively soon. Similarly, ABBA has had a great deal of success globally with their new double-A single “I Still Have Faith In You/Don’t Shut Me Down,” and if it charts on the Billboard Hot 100 it would be the first song of theirs to do so since June of 1982, when Visitors slid off the chart. In both cases, therefore, we are dealing with acts that have not had pop success in quite some time. How is it that both artists have sought to circumvent that?
Well, Elton John did several things. For one, he created a mashup of sorts made up of lyrics from three of his songs, “Sacrifice,” “Rocket Man (I Think It’s Gonna Be A Long, Long Time),” and “Kiss The Bride,” and had the song sung as a duet between himself and contemporary pop star Dua Lipa. In addition to that, he made an animated music video that portrays him in his 1970’s getup with Dua Lipa animated in her contemporary dance pop fashion, thus presenting himself in a younger guise alongside a current star who is much younger than he is but in the same general lane of pop music. ABBA’s solution is both similar and different, and worth comparing. Both “I Still Have Faith In You” and “Don’t Shut Me Down” fit in the established lane that the group had during its heyday, both because they reference the band’s personal lives and because they have the same kind of sound–not surprising because the songs were written and performed and produced by the same people, with a high degree of continuity that one would expect, even after a long layoff. In addition, the ABBAtars can be said to be a type of animation that presents the group as younger artists. It is noteworthy, though, that ABBA neither made a collage out of their existing body of work to create a “new” song nor did they add a collaboration with a contemporary artist to make them seem more hip.
We are left with the conclusion that ABBA’s decision was one made with a full interest in artistic authenticity and integrity, and their recent interviews make it clear the level of involvement they had in the creation of their ABBAtars as part of the upcoming virtual tour of their music that is to help support their first new album in nearly 40 years, Voyage. Why is this a sensible thing and even a good thing. Let us briefly give the reasons. We have already commented that pop radio tends to reject new music by old artists, and having music videos that portray an act as being youthful are one way of circumventing the gatekeeping that tends to reject new music by older people. At the very least we would expect ABBA to be welcome on Adult Contemporary stations and possibly even Hot AC stations, and perhaps even mainstream pop stations, with the right promotion. Second, let us note that ABBA’s core fans, those who were fans of theirs in the 1970’s, might wish to imagine themselves young again like the group has imagined themselves. Similarly, those younger fans who have become fond of the group’s music, and those who might potentially be new fans as a result of their current music, would find the group more relatable in their younger form than as they are in their 70’s.
Thus playing pretend by having youthful avatars presenting their music before the world rather than showing their actual and far older selves serves a variety of interests, in placing their music alongside their far earlier work without making it seem like too large of a break, circumventing the limitations in the promotion and popularity of material by older musicians, and in creating a visual illusion that suits their own desires to feel younger, the similar desires of their similarly aged core fans, and also fosters relatability with younger fans who might be distanced by the sight of ABBA as elderly artists making pop music. We might wish these unpleasant aspects of reality are not so, but at least in my mind it is far better to indirectly overcome unpleasant realities than to waste one’s goodwill and energy tilting against windmills and alienating those who might be fans and supporters under the right circumstances. You are, of course, free to disagree.