Thank You for the Music: Unpacking ABBA's Everlasting Appeal
More than most decades, the ’70s produced loads of bizarre cultural artifacts that don’t make sense if you weren’t alive at the time. What was the deal with leisure suits, “Disco Duck,” and the Ford Pinto? And why was the whole world green, brown, and orange? One byproduct of the decade that doesn’t fall into the “you had to be there” category, however, is ABBA. Their music is eternal.
During the band's initial run, from 1972 to 1982, the Swedish foursome cultivated a pristine, distinctly Scandinavian style of pop built on luxurious harmonies, layered instrumentation, secretly dark lyrics, and hooks galore. Hits like “Waterloo,” “Dancing Queen,” and “Mamma Mia” arrived like glistening ice sculptures, making ABBA big in America, gigantic in Europe, and absolute gods in Australia. It helped that the group was comprised of two married couples in satin costumes who lived on their own little island in Stockholm. ABBA was practically a fairytale.
The saga could have very well ended in 1982, when ABBA stepped away from the spotlight. But the years that followed brought an avalanche of ABBA-related content, most notably a mega-selling greatest hits album and a blockbuster jukebox musical that spawned two feature films. Then, in 2021, the unthinkable happened: ABBA dropped a reunion album, which they opted to promote via a state-of-the-art digital concert experience. Every time it looks like ABBA might fade away, another generation of fans joins the party and has the time of their lives.
Björn for Greatness
ABBA isn’t an exotic Swedish word referring to bittersweet melodies or sequin jumpsuits. It’s an acronym for the four members of the group: Agnetha Fältskog, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson, and Anni-Frid Lyngstad, all of whom were successful musicians long before they formally joined forces in 1972.
Ulvaeus, a guitarist, made his name in the early ’60s as a member of the folk group The Hootenanny Singers. Around the same time, Andersson became the keyboardist for the popular Swedish rock band The Hep Stars. The aspiring songwriters crossed paths midway through the decade and discovered a natural chemistry. In 1970, they released a joint album called Lycka. It featured backing vocals from both Björn and Benny’s girlfriends, Fältskog and Lyngstad, respectively.
Fältskog, a platinum blonde with a gorgeous soprano voice, was already a major Swedish pop star with a number of hit singles to her credit. Lyngstad, a brunette with a sultry mezzo-soprano, was also a well known singer who had won a national talent contest in 1967 and placed fourth two years later in a competition to represent Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest. The ladies began performing with Ulvaeus and Andersson in 1970, doing a cabaret act featuring other people’s songs. It wasn’t very good, and the quartet soon realized they should focus on original material.
In 1972, the foursome released the single “People Need Love,” which was credited to Björn & Benny, Agnetha & Anni-Frid. The following year, they ditched that clunky name in favor of ABBA, an acronym that also happened to be the name of a Swedish fish factory. “We had to ask permission and the factory said, ‘OK, as long as you don’t make us feel ashamed for what you’re doing,’” Fältskog told Billboard in 1988. “I think we did a good job.”
ABBA scored big at home with 1973’s “Ring Ring”—a third-place finisher at the Swedish preliminaries for Eurovision—and broke out internationally a year later with “Waterloo,” a ridiculously catchy glam-pop curio that uses Napoleon’s legendary 1815 military defeat as a metaphor for love. “Waterloo” took first place at Eurovision—a huge deal at the time—and subsequently conquered the globe, reaching No. 6 in America and topping the charts in the United Kingdom.
As the decade progressed, ABBA achieved unprecedented success for a rock group from a non-English-speaking country. In America—a place ABBA never truly cracked, given their aversion to touring—the band managed to produce 14 Top 40 hits, including the No. 1 smash “Dancing Queen.” In the United Kingdom, ABBA notched 19 Top 10 hits—nine of which reached No. 1. But no country connected with ABBA quite like Australia. When the group toured there in 1977, it was like Beatlemania—only bigger.
But the good times wouldn’t last. In 1979, Ulvaeus and Fältskog announced their divorce. (The split inspired another hit for the band, the devastating “The Winner Takes It All.”) Andersson and Lyngstad met the same fate in 1981, the year ABBA released The Visitors, their eighth and seemingly final album. When ABBA took an indefinite hiatus in 1982, they couldn’t have predicted the goodwill they’d garner over the next several decades.
ABBA from the Ashes
The first sign that ABBA might have a second life came in 1983, when the fairytale-themed children’s musical ABBAcadabra debuted on French television. Less than a decade later, in 1992, ABBA enjoyed two more major wins: the release of both Abba-esque, a chart-topping tribute EP by the British synth-pop duo Erasure, and ABBA Gold, a greatest-hits package that truly satisfied a market need. The collection has sold more than 30 million copies worldwide and become one of the biggest albums of all time. (The early ’90s also gave us Ace of Base, a co-ed Swedish four-piece whose good looks and deceptively bubbly songs led to frequent ABBA comparisons.)
In 1996, the celebrated Australian indie films Muriel’s Wedding and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert both featured ABBA music. While the group had largely been dismissed by critics during their heyday, ABBA was suddenly cool. In 1999, the Swedish teen pop group A-Teens struck gold with The ABBA Generation, an album of reworked ABBA classics. That same year, Mamma Mia!, a musical based on the band's toe-tapping songs, opened in London. Created with input from Björn and Benny, Mamma Mia! has raked in more than $4 billion in the more than 20 years since.
A show that massive was bound to get a big-screen adaptation and, sure enough, 2008 brought a Hollywood version of Mamma Mia! starring Meryl Streep, Colin Firth, Christine Baranski, and Pierce Brosnan, among others. By and large, critics weren’t impressed—New York Magazine likened Brosnan’s singing to the sounds of a water buffalo—but the film made enough money to warrant a 2018 sequel, naturally titled Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again. Included in the ensemble cast was Cher, who capitalized on the film with Dancing Queen, an album of ABBA covers.
Clearly, ABBA’s earning potential wasn’t contingent on them being an active band. For years, they turned down ridiculous sums of money to reunite. This made it all the more exciting when ABBA returned in 2021 with Voyage, their first album in 40 years. The LP earned largely positive reviews and set the stage for a 2022 concert residency in London featuring special digital avatars— Abbatars, if you will—that present the four septuagenarian ABBA members as their younger selves.
Thank You For the Music
Why would anyone pay real money to see a virtual ABBA gig in 2022, nearly 50 years after “Waterloo”? For the same reason they lined up for Mamma Mia! or streamed Gold for the zillionth time: the music.
At its core, the ABBA phenomenon has always been about the group’s strange and wondrous mix of American rock ’n’ roll (including Beach Boys harmonies and Phil Spector “wall of sound” production) and uniquely European sounds, such as Italian balladry and the schmaltzy German “Schlager” music that has long been popular in Sweden. ABBA filtered these and other influences into disco, rock, synth-pop, and even theatrical ballads inspired by the Mexican Revolution. All of it wound up sounding like ABBA.
As many critics have pointed out, ABBA’s perky melodies mask a sense of melancholy peculiar to Sweden, a country that doesn’t see the sun for six months a year. “There’s this contrast of dark and light,” musicologist Nate Sloan said in an ABBA-centric episode of the podcast Switched On Pop. “You think of it as this band where everything is super positive and happy, but there’s actually some real currents of darkness here.” This is evident in songs like “Mamma Mia,” “SOS,” “The Day Before You Came,” and of course “The Winner Takes It All.”
That duality—like the hooks, the harmonies, the sonic richness, and, yes, the outfits—goes a long way toward explaining the enduring power of ABBA’s music. But it doesn’t tell the whole story. Even Björn isn’t really sure why ABBA continues to touch people decade after decade. “Millions of people happened to have the same taste as Benny and me and the girls,” he said in 2017. “That’s the only way I can see it.”