May 13, 2001

BY JIM DEROGATIS pop music critic



"Dancing Queen.'' ''Waterloo.'' ''Fernando.'' ''Mamma Mia.''


In recent years, the music of ABBA has been almost as inescapable as it was during the platinum pop group's heyday in the late '70s. The songs above all appeared on the soundtrack to ''Muriel's Wedding'' in 1994. That same year, ''Mamma Mia'' also featured prominently in ''The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.''


In 1992, Erasure recorded an album of covers called ''ABBA-esque.'' The following year, Swedish chart-toppers Ace of Base made no bones about their allegiance to their nation's pop forebears. Last year, yet another Swedish group called the A-Teens released ''The ABBA Generation,'' an album that attempted to update ABBA tunes in the style of Max Martin-produced teenpoppers Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys.


Though ABBA itself has been inactive since 1982--despite a standing offer of a billion dollars for the group to reunite--tribute bands like Australia's Bjorn Again and England's FABBA routinely play to sold-out houses whenever they tour.


Now comes ''Mamma Mia!'' the musical, a comedy about a wedding (wonder where they got that idea?) penned by ABBA's Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus and featuring 22 of their old group's most beloved songs. A smash hit since its opening in London in the spring of '99, the production is coming to Chicago en route to Broadway, starting an eight-week run at the Cadillac Palace Theatre on Friday.


The only other recent revival that comes close to approaching the level of ABBA mania is the renewed fascination with another best-selling pop group from the same era, the Carpenters. Examining the similarities between the two sheds light on our obsessions with both.


Both groups were critically reviled in their day because of their mass popularity and their ''goody-goody images,'' though clear-eyed examinations of the music reveals significant merits, and we now know that there was much more to the stories of both bands than their carefully worded press releases and airbrushed publicity photos ever indicated.


In both cases, the often absurd and easily parodied optimism of the music and the lyrics was paired with a certain undeniable sadness in the singers' deliveries, adding depth to what at first appear to be the shallowest of pop trifles.


Finally, both bands epitomized their times, conjuring ''the '70s'' and all that signifies as thoroughly as the Beatles' ''I Wanna Hold Your Hand'' evokes 1964 or Nirvana's ''Smells Like Teen Spirit'' summons images of 1992. (Kurt Cobain was a major ABBA fan, by the way, and the group once tapped Bjorn Again as an opening act.)


Simple nostalgia is by far the least interesting aspect of the current ABBA avalanche. Far more intriguing are the other aspects of the band's legacy.


ABBA: The Music


It's much easier to appreciate ABBA's merits if one avoids the actual albums--efforts such as the 1973 debut ''Ring Ring'' and 1979's ''Voulez-Vous'' are bogged down by too much flaccid filler--in favor of 1992's incredible ''ABBA Gold'' (Polydor), a 19-song collection on which every tune is an irresistibly sweet and addicting pop confection.


Well aware of the classical canon, Andersson and Ulvaeus tended toward baroque arrangements heavy on the strings, tympani, and grand piano. But they paired these classical touches with repetitive, anthemic, insanely catchy bubblegum-pop hooks and a relentlessly driving 4/4 disco beat.


Working in their famous state of the art studio, Polar, ABBA stretched the emerging technologies of multi-track recording and analogue synthesizers to their limits. Digital recording has since become the norm, but it can be too perfect: Max Martin's productions have a harsh sheen that erases all traces of human idiosyncrasy and personality. ABBA aimed for machine-like precision and perfection, but it could never completely mask the souls behind the machines--namely female vocalists Agnetha Faltskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad.


The combination of sophistication and simplicity in the songwriting and the production created the perfect backdrop for these powerful, brassy, and very human voices, which often betray their roots in musical theater. Alternating leads with carefully crafted unison and harmony parts, the women of ABBA created a sound that is often imitated but rarely matched. Even at their cheesiest--the staged whispers (''Shhhh!'') or the great, heaving signs of ''A-ha!'' that permeate the band's singles--the magnetic power of the voices draws the listener in.


As for what the words those singers are delivering, debate continues over the group's lyrics: Were they so nursery-rhyme simplistic (and occasionally downright dumb) because the Swedes were writing in a language other than their native tongue? Or was there actually brilliance amid the inanity?


Current fans who are drawn to the band as camp would take the latter position: ''Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)'' can sound like an anthem of sexual liberation and empowerment after last call at gay and straight bars alike, and ''Waterloo'' could be defended for its use of an historic confrontation as allegorical precedent for a disintegrating relationship (''My, my! At Waterloo Napoleon did surrender/Oh yeah! And I have met my destiny in quite a similar way/The history book on the shelf/Is always repeating itself'').


On the other hand, it's hard to defend in any way, shape or form couplets such as ''In my dreams, I have a plan/If I got me a wealthy man/I wouldn't have to work at all/I'd have myself a ball'' (''Money Money Money'') or ''Super Trooper lights are gonna find me/Shining like the sun/Smiling, having fun/Feeling like a number one'' (''Super Trooper''). Sometimes dumb is simply dumb. But as any student of pop history can you tell, it can still be endearing. (''Sugar Sugar'' or ''Yummy Yummy,'' anyone?)


ABBA: The Image


A case can be made for ABBA as the true pioneers of music videos, via the dozens of short films that the group made for purposes of spreading its pop success around the globe. The best of these have been collected in a companion video to the ''Greatest Hits'' CD, and they are truly something to behold.


Sporting outfits and hairdos that would seem outlandish at a drag costume ball, the band members posed, emoted and lip-synched in one unbelievably cheesy setting after another (a snow-covered mountaintop! the sad aftermath of a New Year's Eve party! a bullfighting ring!), facing each other in soft-focus splendor, and dividing and dissolving into split-screen pairings a la the opening of ''The Brady Bunch.''


Imagine Bergman on acid shooting videos for MTV. (And yes, they are really are that insane.)


The videos and the copious color photos collected in picture books such as ABBA to Mamma Mia!: The Official Book and ABBA: The Book go a long way toward explaining another key element of ABBA's appeal--the carnal allure. The band members were almost always photographed in the same sort of gently blurry high-color contrast that characterized the shot-on-film porn movies of the same era, the better to highlight the girls' trademark powder-blue eye shadow and contrasting blonde and reddish-brunette manes while obscuring the hopelessly flabby physiques and putzy countenances of the boys.


In many ways, ABBA was the musical answer to the ''Swedish Erotica'' series--about which little else needs to be said in family publication.


The knowledge that behind the scenes the group was comprised of two jet-setting couples who certainly seemed to be having a jolly good time in the era of swinging and letting it all hang out has to have resonated among fans at the time. Conscious or not, it is still part of ABBA's appeal today--though post-AIDS, recollections of the sexual revolution have taken on an almost tragic veneer, best displayed in films such as ''The Ice Storm'' and ''Boogie Nights.''


Much of the fun of listening to ABBA circa 2001 is trying to hear the hidden messages and veiled digs that the women are trying to send the men as their marriages crumble. It's like the catchier European version of Fleetwood Mac's ''Rumors.''


The ultimate proof that the chemistry and interaction of the four members was key to the group's success is that none of the tribute bands or covers has ever contained quite the magic that the originals held. Nor have the members of the group ever matched the commercial or artistic success on their own that they once shared together.


Post-ABBA, Faltskog has made little worthwhile music. She's best known for her 1997 autobiography, As I Am: ABBA Before and Beyond, and a series of failed romances, including the psychiatrist she was dating while her marriage was falling apart and the police sergeant assigned to protect her after a kidnapping threat.


Lyngstad did better, recording a strong solo album called ''Something's Going On'' with Phil Collins in 1982. She has since retired and devoted herself to campaigning for environmental causes.


Andersson and Ulvaeus have made several attempts to transfer the pop successes of their ABBA career into the music theater, including their 1986 collaboration with lyricist Tim Rice on ''Chess'' and ''Mamma Mia!'' Fans have indulged and supported them, while simultaneously making it clear that the music of ABBA is still the reason they care.


Like many pop veterans, they members of ABBA are in the melancholy position of simultaneously wanting to disavow and distance themselves from the accomplishments of the past while knowing that those accomplishments are the only reason anyone cares.


''I hope that people halfway into the first act start forgetting these are ABBA songs,'' Ulvaeus told the Los Angeles Times when ''Mamma Mia!'' opened there in February.


Sorry, Bjorn, ol' buddy, but folks are never going to forget--nor should they.



'Mamma Mia!'




May 18-July 8

Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph


(312) 904-1400




May 13, 2001








Spring 1970: Swedish folk-rock veterans Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus form a songwriting team.


Autumn 1970: Andersson and Ulvaeus perform for the first time with singers Agnetha Faltskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad. The name ''ABBA'' comes from the first letters in the member's first names.


July 1971: Andersson and Faltskog marry.


Autumn 1972: ABBA releases its first single, ''Ring Ring,'' co-written by Andersson and Ulvaeus with manager and frequent collaborator Stig Anderson.


April 1974:''Waterloo'' wins the prestigious Eurovision song contest and becomes ABBA's first No. 1 hit in the U.K.


January 1976: ''Mamma Mia'' is the group's second No. 1 hit in Britain.


June 1976: ABBA performs ''Dancing Queen'' at the King of Sweden's wedding. The song hits No. 1 in the U.S., the only ABBA single to reach that position here.


November 1977: As ''The Name Of The Game'' becomes the band's sixth No. 1 hit in the U.K., the group undertakes its first world tour.


February 1978: ''ABBA--The Movie'' is released, chronicling a reporter's attempt to interview the biggest band in the world.


October 1978: A couple for years, Ulvaeus and Lyngstad finally marry.


December 1978: Andersson and Faltskog separate.


November 1979: The group does its second and last world tour.


1980: ABBA scores hits with ''The Winner Takes It All'' and ''Super Trooper.''


1981-82: Andersson and Faltskog having split as well, activity slowly peters off until the group finally officially breaks up.