Ladies and gentlemen, I am about to commit a grave heresy: I am about to say a few good words about ABBA, perhaps the single most dismissed mega-group of all time.
Perhaps it's the fact that ABBA came out at the height of the fashion-challenged 1970s which makes the band so inviting a target, or perhaps it has to do with the way in which they came to the spotlight, namely via the much (and mostly justly) ridiculed Eurovision Song Contest, or maybe it's just the sheer extent of ABBA's popularity which grates with so many, but if there's one thing that can be said with confidence, it's that no critic would be sticking his neck out by indulging in an ABBA-bashing rant. Yet, it ought to give one pause to consider that despite the vast numbers and intense virulence of the criticisms which have been directed the Swedish foursome's way, their music remains immensely popular to this day, even amongst young people who are too young ever to have considered the Swedish singers any sort of fashion icons (and even if they have to wrap their admiration for the group in a protective blanket of faux-irony): what is it about ABBA that explains the breadth of their appeal and its staying power?
I think what it comes down to is this: despite the surface simplicity of ABBA's songs, there really are subtleties to the music which endow it with a deep emotional appeal, while underneath even the most superficialy cheerful ABBA songs there is an undertow of sadness, melancholy and longing which makes listening to them a bittersweet experience, and the very earnestness with which the songs are performed helps to sell the listener on the genuiness of the impression which is being conveyed. It is always possible to dismiss songs like "Super Trouper", "Knowing Me, Knowing You" and "Take a Chance on Me" as pop fluff for dancing to, but if one is honest with oneself, one has to admit that there's rather more to them than that, and that the genius - yes, genius - of Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson extends beyond a prodigious talent for orchestration and catchy melodies to an understanding, especially in the latter years of the band, of how to endow supposedly throwaway pop songs with a depth of feeling few have managed to equal since.
Dismiss ABBA's origins and fashion sense all you like, but there's a reason why "Mamma Mia" is still packing them in after all these years, and it isn't because of the crappy taste of the same masses who buy Britney Spears records and Celine Dion albums: the truth is that most musicians would probably make a pact with the devil himself to enjoy ABBA's universal reach and staying power, especially those who are most inclined to join in the ABBA-bashing, but none of them have the talent. It's time ABBA took its rightful place alongside the Jackson 5 and the Beatles in the pop pantheon, if only the "ironic" hipster set will stop cringing at admitting that they like ABBA's music long enough to let them in.
PS: More on ABBA's resilient drawing power on this page. Some interesting statistics: ABBA has now sold more than 350 million records, is still selling 3,500 CDs per day, and the musical "Mamma Mia!" pulled in an astonishing $750 million in the five years after its opening. You don't get to have that kind of allure two decades after calling it quits by being crap, and the article reveals that even U2's Bono and Rolling Stone's Joe Levy have come around to admitting that ABBA had serious talent, as did the members of Nirvana before Kobain's death. It's okay for all you "ABBA Gold" album owners to bring your CDs out of hiding now!