Hej fra Söder Sverige,
You may find it difficult to swallow, but in Stockholm there is a museum dedicated to the Abba phenomenon. I believe the museum’s catchphrase is: “Become the fifth member”. We have resisted temptation to go there but its existence has rekindled a recurring wonderment of mine ie. how did Abba achieve such stupendous success in the English-speaking world?
the pop industry
Some might argue that Volvo, Husqvarna and Brigit Bardot (and Bjorn Borg?) penetrated the English-speaking markets, so why not a pop group? That’s a very different type of market they were trying to crack. The pop industry has such a fickle target audience. Success in the pop industry is much more formulaic. Knowing the formula is only a very small component of the overall quest.
Abba faced some obstacles peculiar to non-English speakers. Their accent was noticeable – even when they were singing – at a time when accents were not de rigeur. The piano was not at that time a commonly-used medium of melody. Most importantly, they were not of the English-speaking milieu, so they had a disadvantage in attempting to find the particular resonance which allows success in such an ephemeral market. But they most assuredly cracked the market.
criteria for success
Let me develop my thesis on this weighty topic. Pop songs need to measure up to a known set of criteria. They usually need an instantly recognisable opening, a catchy chorus and lyrics in English. The exceptions like Abigail’s “Je T’aime” and Plastic Bertrand’s frantic dance number of about the same time only serve to prove the rule, I would argue.
Song lyrics don’t need to make pithy observations about the human condition but they do have to mean something. Added to this, another prerequisite to commercial success in the pop music sphere is that each offering has to be sufficiently different from its predecessor whilst being instantly recognisable and attributable.
Abba were from Sweden, where – at that time – few people spoke English, let alone understood the nuance of the English-speaking pop music genre. Yet they managed to break through in spectacular style. Whilst they never passed comment on profound topics, they composed lyrics sufficiently oblique to cause the average teeny bopper to suspect that they had some latent poetic meaning eg. “ . . . finally facing my Waterloo . . .”. They said things that were suitably enigmatic such as “I feel like I win when I lose.” They even passed judgement on capitalism: “It’s a rich man’s world.” They included references to abstract concepts: “for you and me, for liberty”. This last necessity evokes the impression of thinking at a higher level, something everybody aspires to and secretly admires.
Above all, Abba were never – as far as I can remember – reduced to the banal Molly Meldrum-style interview. I never heard them grappling with questions like, “How did you feel when Fernando went to number one with a bullet?” That was a smart marketing tactic because it didn’t obliterate the big advantage they had: mystique.
My thesis is: Abba were successful because they 1) never pretended to be serious musicians; 2) always looked to be having fun; 3) had a very telegenic front pair (at a time when film clips were beginning to sell records); 4) the lyrics were either sufficiently vague or blatantly playful (“you are the dancing queen, young and sweet; only seventeen . . . oo yeah”); 5) they appeared on the scene just when female teenagers had money to spend (I don’t think boys were buying their singles); 6) they represented a tantalising insight into another culture just when the modern era of globalisation was taking off; and 7) the vocalists could actually hold a note and sing in harmony. They were certainly more organic than anything Malcolm McLaren ever conjured, and that fact went down well (8).
I haven’t had the advantage of visiting the Abba museum but I dare say very few of you have either. Many of you, dear readers, will have lived through the era, too, so you are just as qualified on the subject as I am.
Open for discussion.
P.S. Marten from Stöde in Central Sweden tells me that every day one of the former members of Abba rings the museum and if you, a member of the paying public, happen to be walking past the telephone at the time you can answer it and chat to the hallowed celebrity.