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‘ABBA’ 50-Year Retrospective: Thank You for the Music

Björn & Benny, Agnetha & Anni-Frid of Swedish pop group ABBA.
Björn & Benny, Agnetha & Anni-Frid of Swedish pop group ABBA. By Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
By Arielle C. Frommer, Contributing Writer

So rarely does a band come along that is so extraordinary that it becomes something wholly greater than itself. After 50 years of chart-topping albums, world tours, and an enduring fanbase, ABBA is no longer just a team of creative people, but a sensation, driven by a vision that has transcended a genre or era.

This year, the timeless phenomenon that is ABBA is returning to the music scene and the stage with their latest album, “Voyage.” Their new songs and high-tech virtual revival concert have been almost a half-century in the making.

The group’s genesis can be traced back to 1966 in Sweden, when musicians Björn Ulvaenus and Benny Andersson met and began songwriting together. The pair became regular collaborators, and by the spring of 1969, both men had met the women who would become their wives and the other half of ABBA: Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad. Anderrson and Ulvaenus sensed early on that they had stumbled onto something special, and that spark eventually grew into the quartet that became ABBA — an acronym of the members’ names.

Their first major milestone was in 1972, when their song “People Need Love” garnered a small following in Sweden. Emboldened by their mild success, the group entered another song, “Ring Ring,” into a Swedish musical festival. That song became a major hit in Sweden and several other European countries, and the next year their single “Waterloo” carried them all the way to Eurovision finals, culminating in an triumphant win for ABBA and their first chance to shine on the world stage. The song, which describes the battle of Waterloo as a metaphor for a romantic relationship, contains the key elements that would come to characterize ABBA songs — a charming spin on a romantic theme infused with joy and nostalgia, all to the tune of chorusing harmonies and jazz and disco-inspired instrumentation.

Their next album, 18 months later, was a resounding success, with hits like “SOS” and “Mamma Mia” reaching worldwide fame. And yes, that’s the same “Mamma Mia” of Meryl Streep and Amanda Seyfried renown. The actresses star in the 2008 movie version of the hugely popular “Mamma Mia!” musical that premiered in 1999 and incorporated ABBA songs into its soundtrack and story.

By 1976, the world was caught up in ABBA fever, and the group had asserted themselves as one of the largest pop phenomena of the era. Songs like “Fernando” and “Dancing Queen” were immediate hits, with the latter being the only ABBA song to ever achieve Number 1 on a US chart. “Dancing Queen” is the quintessential ABBA Song, released as they were rising to global stardom. The song itself is full of youthful bliss echoed through the effervescent melodies. The song paints a spirited and vivacious scene through its lyrical verses as it crescendos to a jubilant chorus: “You are the dancing queen / Young and sweet / Only 17.” Perhaps the song itself represents ABBA’s own coming-of-age experience. The group was still finding their voice and their place in the music scene, but their success was unquestionable and they were the world’s stars.

Their fourth album, “Arrival,” featured songs like “Knowing Me, Knowing You” and “Money, Money, Money.” The album is heavily inspired by the disco era it hails from, with spectacular musical effects that add a sense of drama and passion to each song. In this album, ABBA explored a greater breadth of subject matter, and their songs encompass themes of love, friendship, memories, regret, and many more on the spectrum of human emotion. The colorful harmonies and upbeat background tracks imbue their songs with a sense of carefree exuberance that has become a signature part of ABBA music.

In 1978, the group came to the U.S. for a promotional campaign, producing iconic songs like “Summer Night City” and “Chititiqua” and another album, “Voulez Vous.” While several of their songs had already achieved success in America, this year truly launched ABBA into worldwide stardom.

Their next single, “Gimme Gimme Gimme (A Man After Midnight),” released in the fall of 1979, was hugely successful as well, prompting ABBA to go on tour in the U.S. and Canada. The song is an exemplary representation of their musical brilliance, with all the hallmarks of an ABBA bop — a jazzy beat that climaxes in a catchy chorus, layered vocals singing about romance, and a hint of longing juxtaposed with a lively tune.

Over the next decade, the band churned out hit after hit, with albums like “Super Trouper” and “The Visitors” containing a more mature and diverse filmography that still had the same key ABBA elements of joy and nostalgia amid the rich instrumentation popularized by their era. By 1982, both couples had split up, and the band felt it was time to move on.

One of their last songs, “The Day Before You Came” (1982), conveys the band’s growth while still harkening back to their past era. The tinge of melancholy present in many of their songs is brought to the forefront in this lyrical ballad. The song is firmly in the minor key, and vocals and music are infused with a wistful, bittersweet tone. This song is more introspective than the rest, as it perhaps represented a point when ABBA themselves were reflecting on their place in the musical canon and coming to terms with the fact that their lives were forever different after their worldwide success.

The golden era of ABBA may have passed, but their music and influence lives on. In the 1990s, they released a compilation album “ABBA Gold,” which has remained on the UK Official Albums Chart ever since, making it the longest-running album of all time to feature on a Top 100 list. In 2010, ABBA was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a rightful spot for the band.

The band that “captured the hearts of people around the world,” according to the official ABBA website, returns this year with new music and an all-new virtual show. Their new discography includes instant classics like “I Still Have Faith in You” and “Ode To Freedom,” capturing the essence of their band’s history through the rich and textured melodies and the synergism of the vocals and instrumentation.

It takes courage to jump back into the limelight, especially with ABBA being one of the most famous musical groups of all time. With the whole world watching, fans old and new have welcomed their music with open arms.

Their new music is more mature and complex, and the vocals provided by the talented Fältskog and Lyngstad are deeper and richer. Yet the songs still capture the essence of what made ABBA music great. For example, “Don’t Shut Me Down” features measured verses full of reminiscing lyrics that build to a radiant chorus infused with pleasure and pathos.

This last album is a satisfying conclusion to their long and successful career. ABBA took us on a wonderful musical journey, and their farewell album, tinged with bittersweet joy at a musical life well-lived, is a soulful and magnificent ending.

ABBA truly has become a band for all times and all people. Their music, infused with a sense of genuine lightness and spirit with an occasional note of melancholy, harkens back to a past age, conjuring up some of that beloved nostalgia for the disco era of the ‘70s and ‘80s, but it also feels timeless and ever relevant. The music itself is simply good, too, featuring complex melodies, clever lyrics, skillful instrumentation, and talented vocals.

On the radio, in films, on TikTok, in college parties, and even in my own collection of vinyls, ABBA features prominently. With this farewell album concluding a fabulous discography, ABBA has truly made an eternal impression on the world. Thank you for the music, ABBA. You will be remembered.

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