ABBA was never just a giddy pop band. Well, it was, too—a passable imitation of a giddy pop band, but that was the least of it.
They were sorcerers of sound and sentiment, who brought the human heart to life in a certain way at a certain moment by arranging twelve notes in particularly beguiling sequences, but mostly by resonating with the Zeitgeist of their time, which is to say the aftermath of the 1960s, otherwise “the 70s.” But then, as they came to grief on the icebergs of their disintegrating internal romances, coincidentally or otherwise, pop simultaneously seemed to begin to come to an end, vacating our heads, leaving them echoing with dislocated hooklines and strange jangly noises. For a long time, a “new story” appeared to be indicated but has failed to form itself. The “solution” may now be at hand.
ABBA, the greatest pop band of the 1970s—perhaps the greatest pop band, full stop—is reuniting after four decades. Yet the four figures on stage will not be the embodied entities we know as Agnetha, Anni-Frid, Björn, and Benny, all now in their seventies. Rather, they will be their “digital selves,” as Benny puts it: the avatars of ABBA (or “ABBAtars,” as they have inevitably been dubbed). In May 2022, holograms of the four band members' thirty-something incarnations—ABBA in its prime, digitally reconstituted using performance-capture from recent sessions with the band members in 2021—will perform a series of concerts at the “ABBA Arena,” a purpose-built venue at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London. It is the stuff of wild sci-fi imaginings. What will appear in London will not be “ABBA now” or “ABBA then” but both/and: ABBA always, an immortal ABBA. Is this a problem? No and yes.
On the one hand, no; it’s only pop, after all! But the “yes” part of the answer cannot be erased. We live in undemocratic times. Crucial matters concerning not merely our future conditions, but even our future natures are being decided over our heads. It would be ominous and dastardly if a much-loved pop band were to take us painlessly to the next stage. Might it be icily observed that there is no sneakier way of normalizing transhumanism than taking an ancient pop band in the exit lounge of life and making them the first arrivals in the pantheon of Eternity?
ABBA made music for sweethearts (with added sugar). When we were youngsters we almost always heard them in the same conditions: from the back seat of the car of an older couple who was giving us a lift to a dance. The couple always asked you what you thought of ABBA and the answer was always, by definition, non-committal. We liked ABBA but never said so, for to do so was to admit something about yourself that you wished to hide. We liked them in secret, longed to hear them as though by happenstance, on somebody else’s four-track. ABBA was guilty of being “commercial.” They might have come from a “progressive” country, but they were not themselves, in any sense whatsoever, “progressive.” They were pure pop—pop so pure it made you dizzy with its sweetness, and turned you into a sugar addict within a few bumps and saccharine bars.
In a fascinating article, Johan Hakelius discusses the Swedish pop explosion of the 1990s, when Sweden became the third most important pop-producing country in the world. “The roots of it,” he writes, “lie in the 1970s and the Swedish love of manufacturing. . . . Swedish pop is as reliable as a Swiss watch. It does everything it’s supposed to, but it rarely, if ever, changes any basic parameters.”
Hakelius writes that once he asked Björn Ulvaeus, one quarter of ABBA, how much unpublished material from his ABBA days remained in his bottom drawer. “None,” came the answer. “I want everything to be perfect. If it was, we recorded it. If it wasn’t, there was no point in keeping it.”
That, posits Hakelius, is the reasoning of an engineer, not an artist. Why keep a dud prototype? The triumph of Swedish pop, he suggests, is not a triumph for the creative spirit, but a triumph of Swedish engineering. It’s a bit of a cheap shot as well as an interesting thought. The second-best kinds of songs are always highly engineered; the best make it seem like they’re not.
In 1972, the year ABBA was formed, an English journalist named Roland Huntford published The New Totalitarians, in which he exposed the underbelly of Swedish “progressivism”: a near century as a one-party state under the Social Democrats, featuring crude anti-family policies and rampant state incursion into citizens' intimate lives. Huntford described a country governed by corporatism, in which personal freedoms and ambition had been sacrificed to political ideas that read on the page better than they play out in reality. “Modern Sweden,” Huntford declared, “has fulfilled Huxley’s specifications for the new totalitarianism. A centralised administration rules people who love their servitude.”
In this equation, ABBA functioned as both antidote and accomplice. In a 1999 TV documentary about the band, Anni-Frid recalled that ABBA received a lot of criticism from the Swedish press due to its non-involvement in politics of any kind. Yet there is a kind of odd symbiosis between the band and its nation; ABBA served to impose a gracing aspect on an otherwise dour picture. In his 2014 book, The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia, Michael Booth expresses puzzlement at the recurring trope whereby Swedes pronounce themselves the “happiest people in the world.” The reason is straightforward: This is how they are told to regard themselves by the state-directed media, responsible for bolstering Swedish self-esteem. ABBA has fulfilled something like the same function in speaking to the whole world.
Huntford had attempted to parse the paradoxes of Sweden’s apparently contradictory combinations of progressivism and post-patriarchal paternalism, prudishness and sexual liberation. It was a mistake, he decided, to say that the Swedes were particularly freewheeling or emancipated. Since the 1960s Sweden pushed sexual emancipation as though an element of economic policy, but as Huntford observed, sexual license, like the preceding obscurantism, was culturally and politically motivated. Freedom was not the point. The state became concerned with personal morality as a weapon of social change. “The English,” he observed, “are no less sexually liberated. But what distinguishes Sweden is that morality has become the concern of the government, where elsewhere it is something independent, growing out of changes in society.”
Sex became a safety valve for releasing built-up tensions wrought by the high-control society. The energies that might have gone into political dissent went into sexual adventuring. In every other area, freedom had been supplanted by the requirements of the collective. But eventually even sexual freedom began to atrophy. As Huntford observed: “By eradicating ritual and taboo, the excitement has been dissipated, and the function of sex as a surrogate for political tension therefore handicapped.”
Correcting this became a function of culture. In some ways ABBA's emergence might be seen as a (perhaps) unconscious urge to superimpose romance on what had become the clinical functionality of sex. In Sweden, Huntford noted, control and distribution of culture was remarkably centralized. The state provided most of it, and was seen to do so. “In music, the State is sole impresario, and private concert agencies are illegal.”
In such a schema, ABBA, wittingly or otherwise, would have been invaluable to Sweden and its government as the progressive revolution approached its zenith. The band projected a smiling, exultant face and emanations under different headings of exuberance and well-being—a good-looking foursome comprising two smiling happy couples singing songs to intoxicate the world’s sweethearts with the idea that love was easy and fun, even if a little throwaway.
It is notable that the patterns discernible in Sweden in the 1970s have now become commonplace in Europe and America, with the COVID operation increasingly an accelerant. People are told what to think, and otherwise not encouraged to. The state knows best, especially about the citizens’ most intimate affairs.
Booth tries to drill into the conundrum of Swedish hyper-collectivism/hyper-individualism. In Sweden, self-sufficiency and autonomy is all; debt of any kind, be it emotional, a favor, or a borrowed fiver, is avoided at all cost. Booth cites historian Henrik Berggren seeking to refute the idea that Sweden is anti-individualist. On the contrary, Berggren claims, by making people dependent on the state but independent of other humans, the Swedish system liberates the individual in ways that conventional democratic-capitalist societies do not. Sweden's “statist individualism” creates love without ulterior motives. “Wives don't stick around because their husband keeps the joint bank account pin code in a locked drawer in his desk, and husbands don't hold their tongues because their wife's father owns the mill. Authentic love and friendship is possible only between individuals who are independent and equal.”
So Booth asks, eyebrow raised, are the Social Democrats in effect “über cupids”? He gives the idea a half-moment’s thought before binning it.
Everything I read about the Swedish Social Democratic government of the last century suggested an organisation that was driven by one single, overarching goal: to sever the traditional, some would say natural, ties between its citizens, be they those that bound children to their parents, workers to their employers, wives to their husbands, or the elderly to their families. Instead, individuals were encouraged . . . to “take their place in the collective” . . . and become dependent on the government.
In a country steeped in dullness, full of people pretending to be happy, the conditions were perhaps ideal to create a hothouse capable of forcing out a form of constructed joy such as ABBA. From the gray asphalt of Stockholm ABBA grew as four flowers from the cracks, bringing light and color and sweetness to the gloom of progressive collectivism—or perhaps four variegated poppies in the chimney of Sweden’s technologization of itself.
And so there is no more obvious and immediate candidate for pop immortality, no more complete combination in a single combo of desiring, beauty, sweetness, innocence, knowingness, love and its loss. Which raises those inevitable ethical questions: Is the introduction to human culture of edgy concepts like avatars, cyborgs, transhumanism, and posthumanism appropriately effected with a download and a bunch of gigs? Ought such matters not be treated with gravity rather than glitz? Should something so potentially earth-shaking, not to say controversial, be rendered misleadingly palatable by giddy pop songs? Might ABBA, perhaps innocently, be paving the way for a new, dark, digital world?
Perhaps we might dust down a copy of Huntford’s The New Totalitarians, since what was then an experimental domestic condition now eyes up the entire world. Sweden in 1972, according to Huntford, was “a spiritual desert.” But this seemed to have “no ill effect on the Swede. His contentment depends entirely on material possessions.”
The Swedish experience suggests that the choice before us is between technological perfection and personal liberty. The Swedes have chosen perfection. But it would be wrong to suppose that only they would do so. It is wrong to be deceived by their historical peculiarities. Much of what they have done is different only in degree from what has happened in the West. Others can be similarly moulded, if with somewhat more trouble. The Swedes have demonstrated how present techniques can be applied in ideal conditions. Sweden is a control experiment on an isolated and sterilised subject.
Or, I hear a voice piping up from the back, maybe we should just lighten up? It’s only a few pop concerts, after all. Trouble is, once the sweetened pill is swallowed, there is no going back. And where we go one, we go all.
John Waters is an Irish writer and commentator, the author of ten books, and a playwright.
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