Thursday, August 07, 2008

abbalutely fabbalous

WARNING: This is a big long post about ABBA.

Those of you who read my blog without the aid of Google Reader may have noticed recently that the song of the moment has been plenty ABBA heavy lately. This can obviously be blamed on the recent release of the Streep/Bond movie Mamma-Mia!

I've said this before and I'll say it again: I didn't really care too much for the movie. I'm only a little surprised that I saw it, which is weird considering I didn't really care too much for the play when I saw it. I knew I wouldn't enjoy it, but the fact remains that the movie contains ABBA songs and I just had to see how they were performed (three of them were pretty good). I would have changed the story a lot. Perhaps half of it should have been a flashback. Maybe mix in a few more story elements of people meeting for the first time, since that seems to be what plenty of ABBA songs are actually about. Anyway, the fact is, I can't officially recommend the movie because I just don't feel I could get invested in the story that they shoe-horned around the songs.

Yeah, so my complaints were complaints I already knew for certainty I'd have. But I just had to see the songs performed. The Hollywood geniuses opened Mamma-Mia! opposite The Dark Knight in an astounding move of counter-programming. I'm one of few people who had to see both. After our Mamma-Mia! run, our movie group discussed our favorite numbers. They were surprised to learn that "The Winner Takes it All" wasn't actually my third favorite song in the movie, it's my third favorite song period (although elsewhere in the blog I've referred to it as my second-favorite). Strangely, it may have also been only my third favorite in the movie as well.

Anyway, the point is, the movie got me ABBA-pumped. I wasn't fulfilled with what I got from the film, so I got my cravings in by Netflixing ABBA: The Definitive Collection. It was a smart move on my part. Other Netflixers recommended this particular title because it contains more videos than the other ABBA dvds. They're all in order too, so I was able to see the band unfold and then crumple up. Ultimately, the story contained on ABBA: The Definitive Collection is a more interesting story than the one in Mamma-Mia!

From the very beginning they wrote perfect pop songs. Lots of people my age don't take pop songs very seriously, especially considering how inauthentic pop tends to be. That's understandable. It's hard to create pop song with mass-appeal and heart like I feel ABBA did constantly. I maintain that it's harder to do than create a rock song with the same parameters (and even harder for a ballad).

ABBA began in Sweden near start of the '70s and was composed of two couples: Björn Ulvaeus & Agnetha Fältskog, and Benny Andersson & Anni-Frid (Frida) Lyngstad. I've always gotten confused about who's who in the band. All four of them seem to not discriminate with whom they frolic with in the videos, so I've also had a hard time figuring out who belongs with whom. Because of all the confusion, I composed this little explanatory picture.

Björn Ulvaeus is the smiley guitary guy who is sometimes a dead-ringer for Nigel Tufnel of Spinal Tap. His buddy, Benny Andersson is usually seen hitting the awesome keyboard riffs of songs like "Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)" and "Money Money Money." He's a jolly bearded guy who reminds me of a cool college professor you may have had. Anni-Frid Lyngstad seems like a woman that James Bond may have loved only to have her betray him. My favorite of the bunch is the other singer, Agnetha Fältskog. Unappealing name, aside, she's nothing short of radiant in the videos. I think she knew English less than the rest of the band, but by the way she eyes and smiles at the camera, I'd never guess that she's ever had a problem communicating.

The songs started innocently enough. Maybe innocent isn't a very good word. "Waterloo," their first super hit is only about the intense blossoming of a new romance, but with lyrics like
I tried to hold you back but you were stronger
Oh yeah, and now it seems my only hope is giving up the fight
And how could I ever refuse
I feel like I win when I lose
It's a wonder the song wasn't banned for being a little "too friendly."

"Ring Ring" is another innocent, almost teen-agery song about flirting really. "Mamma Mia" the actual song continues in the "submitting to love" vein (even if it is in the midst of infidelity).
Mamma mia, here I go again
My my, how can I resist you?

If you own ABBA: Gold You've probably never heard "Bang-A-Boomerang," which is mediocre ABBA, but still new ABBA.

By song six on the collection, ABBA completes their gushy phase with the treacly "I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do I Do."

Then the band switches it up. Suddenly love isn't as important. "Money, Money, Money" contemplates on the idea that relationships are simply about financial security. "Knowing Me, Knowing You" is the band's first big breakup song. This is a huge moment. Watch in the video how the girls show off unflattering still frames of their non-plussed faces rather than exuberant ones. They'll do the same thing in future videos (see "When All is Said and Done" nearly at the end of the collection).

It's important to note that both ABBA couples eventually fell apart. They continued the band even after the heartbreaking happened.

I think it's around this time that things really got to be problematic. Songs from this period such as "Take A Chance On Me" take on a new meaning when they may be about saving what's nearly lost instead of trying something new.

From there it gets weird. They seem to go through a country phase with "Eagle" and "One Man, One Woman" (man, there are a lot of commas in ABBA's song titles) as if country music is an essential part of failed relationships.

From there they go to the disco nightlife scene. The songs are still about being out and having a good time (as the videos show), but there's less of a sense of intimacy (Summer Night City"). Songs here also include "Does Your Mother Know," a tune opposite of "Waterloo" in which the guy actually avoids statutory charges.
I can see what you want
But you seem pretty young to be searching for that kind of fun
So maybe I'm not the one
Now you're so cute, I like your style
And I know what you mean when you give me a flash of that smile
But girl you're only a child
Then there's "Voulez-Vous." No idea what that one's about.

Finally there's "Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)." What could be a more obvious declaration of unfulfillment?

After all of this... the concession. "The Winner Takes It All" is pretty much a song about giving up. After all the happiness and sunshine and pure pop delight, ABBA puts out one of the saddest songs I've ever heard. The great Agnetha belts this particular one.

At the end of it all, we get to the current Song of the Moment: "The Day Before You Came," which sounds absolutely numb if anything. The song is about thinking back to before a major relationship. The melancholy sound may be because of sadness, or it may be that it's just hard to remember what life was like for the band members before ABBA. They'd spent half their lives in relationships that were successful only professionally.

So anyway, after "The Day Before You Came," ABBA understandably broke up in every sense. Since they were so successful, some hotshot investors actually cobbled together ONE BILLION DOLLARS to offer the band to tour again. Apparently, the band politely declined. You'd think everybody had their price and a billion dollars would be hundreds of millions beyond that price. I used to think ABBA were way too cool to go out again and they wanted to be remembered at the top rather than a bunch of old touring has-beens. Now I think there are some things that may be just too painful to revisit, no matter how much money is involved.

Frida went on to some mild solo stuff. The boys worked on a couple of musicals together, one of them being Chess which has the song "One Night in Bangkok." Agnetha did a little bit of solo stuff, then removed herself completely from the public for 15 years.

So yeah. Mamma-Mia! wasn't as good as the story on ABBA: The Definitive Collection. If you want to watch another ABBA movie, I recommend the Toni Collette movie Muriel's Wedding. It's a great movie about friendship lasting even past failed relationships and has the great line: "Since I've met you... my life is as good as an ABBA song. It's as good as 'Dancing Queen.'"

Still, I'm soooo glad Mamma-Mia! happened. Otherwise I wouldn't have read the following line on Wikipedia just now:

In July 2008, Fältskog arrived at the Swedish premiere of the film version of Mamma Mia! with former colleague Anni-frid Lyngstad and movie star Meryl Streep. The three danced in front of thousands of fans before joining the film's other stars and Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus on the Hotel balcony for the first photograph of all four ABBA members together in 22 years.


Blogger Maria said...

Wow- I don't think you realize how interesting it is that you just posted about that. I can explain later.

Thanks for posting all the videos. I've never taken the time to search for them myself. The video for "Money, Money, Money" is just as awesome as I imagined in my mind. Also, I think the girls look the most amazing in "Knowing Me, Knowing You".

Abba makes me happy and sad all at once. A lot of people don't understand Abba- it makes me sad for them because that means they've never been in love.

August 07, 2008 8:46 AM  
Blogger Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...

I adored the musical (saw it a few weeks ago) because its corniness works within the staginess of musicals. I can't imagine that the movie would be anything but terrible.

BTW/ THere is a hilarious review of the movie by Anthony Lane in the New Yorker (two weeks ago maybe?)

August 07, 2008 9:40 PM  

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