There was a dark and stormy time in graduate school when I swayed on the edge of an absolutely cavernous void of remotely articulate ideas for my thesis topic. Both detracting and adding to my existential dread was a fact I state with little pride — I had become obscenely, inexplicably obsessed with the music video for ABBA’s Waterloo, in all its wonderfully terrible glittering shaggy pomp.
Bonaparte’s chiseled face flashed violently before my mind’s eye while trying to stare at literally nothing on the tube, my foot was a-tapping to invisible synthesisers during too many of my waking hours, I should still apologise to my flatmate at the time for clicking replay on Youtube a tasteless number of times. And I nearly went to my advisor with some hazy theoretical babble about high levels of gender equality stitched into the costumes of Björn, Benny, Agnetha and Anni-Frid. Just look at those majestically funky Swedes; two men, two women hardly discernible from one another in their epaulettes and ruffs, their velour jumpsuited, dyed leather fringed, bellbottomed, teased and feathered haired glory.
The agonies of academia will warp most psyches, I suppose. Fortunately, worthier subject matter eventually emerged from the swampy waters of my mind, and my temporary disco-fueled lapse of sanity had no noxious effects on the outcome of my scholarly endeavours. Yet for reasons that are becoming clearer, those images of femininely masculine, masculinely feminine, perky-in-spandex showmanship stuck to the more abstract climes of my memories.
For it was more recently that I found myself on a lazy Saturday morning, the buoyant vinyl sounds of ABBA’s Greatest Hits Volume 2 peppering the stillness of the aforementioned lazing about. Flipping the grooviness from side A to B, I began to realise that the words I was hearing were a great deal different than the androgynous peace and love pictures previously burned into my brain.
For brevity’s sake, and for that of my reputation as not a deluded Colin Firth in Mamma Mia! fangirl, I’ll stick to select titles from the said album and snappy summaries, rather than go on a full-on copy, paste song lyric rampage. Naturally, I recommend everyone have a full-fledged listen for themselves, to potentially prove me wrong and to simply let ABBA soothe away the savagery 2016 has inflicted on all souls. So let’s see.
There’s Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight), or “Please, God, grant me a virile distraction from the heavy confines of my empty life before the break of another day.” Take a Chance on Me, or “I’ll hang in there and still be around to love and care for your broken dreams, once the supply of fresh meat dries up evermore.”
Money, Money, Money: “Oh, hey… it really is a rich man’s world.” Angeleyes: “My personal Adonis had abandoned me, but he looks so fine that, naturally, it’s my bad.”
Dancing Queen: “Anybody could be that guy, so I give my adolescent self to the night.” Does Your Mother Know: “Whoa, little girl, you cannot handle a fellow like me, nor is it age appropriate, but…what’s up?”
Chiquitita: “Poor, wounded sparrow of a woman, what man has done this to you? Now dust yourself off.” The Name of the Game, or *girl forced to asked where this relationship is going*, and, Thank You for the Music: “Indeed, I have my womanly merits, but would be adrift without your supreme talents, Master of Pitch and Rhythm.”
Even the word “abba” traditonally refers to father figures.
Of course, I’m being too categorical, and, of course, others perceive an entirely different poppy siren song. But the thriving not-so-secret weirdo inside me professing publicly to actually enjoy some ABBA from time to time and can still point out some of the creepiness going on here. Granted, ABBA’s discography is a rather whopping one, and I merely picked a handful of their sprightly repertoire based on my most poignant experiences with Sweden’s best-loved non-meatball export. And, to be sure, hits like Knowing Me, Knowing You, Rock Me and Summer Night City, belt out a less patriarchal tune along the lines of “Maybe it’s both our faults, the human libido shall not be denied, so good times all around.” Nevertheless, there’s some rather common themes, more irritating than idiotic repetitive melodies, running through much of the small sampling.
Notably, some serious weirdness went down in the form of two in-group marriages and divorces that wracked the personal life of each quarter of the Nordic foursome. Considering that Benny and Björn wrote most of ABBA’s songs between them, perhaps some sort of frustrated spite against their female bandmates worked its way into their rhetoric — a murkier element of control suggesting that words of heartbreak from the throats of crushed ex-lovers held captive by fame soothed someone’s ego.
Whether rooted in personal vendettas, or the fact that love songs and out-of-love songs sell awfully well, even a cursory glance at ABBA’s modus operandi reveals traces of embedded sentiments, notions of pitiable dependence, historically expressed towards women. Such attitudes seem even odder in the context of ABBA’s escalation to fame during the electrified surge of feminism in the mid-1970s.
Even Waterloo, the infernally catchy anthem that sparked this prattling, sort of plays out as, “Though I have resisted in earnest, your potent manliness has sparked sweeping trans-continental wars within my soul, and I must be yours.”
In faith, I’ll always dig ABBA, and their jolly refrains so of their era and of an alien planet. The moral of this story concerns not so much women’s rights to enjoy boogie nights, but the fact that it is more important now than ever to open each of our senses to all forms of creation; even tacky Eurovison-spawned forms of creation, especially forms of creation that give us particularly guilty pleasure in life.
We must carefully monitor messages seen, heard and felt, to listen to what is said or left unsaid below glossy surfaces meant to entertain. By thinking critically and promoting dialogue around cultural strongholds considered somewhat commonplace and easy, the television comedies and Top 40 countdowns of the masses, loftier ideals of fairness and empathy might just begin to slip easily into the sooty nooks and crannies where they are needed most.