Monday, May 20, 2013

When ABBA Gets Divorced: Romance Loses, Art Wins

Most good singers can personalize the lyrics of a song, but my guess is, it probably helps when the lyrics in question are actually stemming from your actual personal life. Just ask ABBA's Agnetha Faltskog.

See, in 1980, ABBA had the musical world at its feet, but its romantic world was crumbling apart. Agnetha had been married to Bjorn, and Frida had been married to Benny, but both couples were unraveling. Well, if you think a break up is hard enough as it is, imagine breaking up with your band member, but staying in the band. Now imagine two couples doing it. Now imagine you're the biggest band in the world! A lesser act would have released a bunch of garbage. But ABBA turned their torment into (very glitzy) art.

In the early days, ABBA's lyrics were somewhat laughable, particularly their fondness for rhyming "honey" with "money/funny/sunny," but what did you expect? Have you ever tried to write a song in Swedish? That's what I thought. But by 1980, ABBA's lyrics were probably becoming better than the lyrics of most native English-speaking songwriters. Domestic strife will do that to you. "The Winner Takes It All" isn't a mere break-up song. "The Winner Takes It All" is an epic lament about the insignificance of the human race in an apathetic and uncaring universe. "The gods may throw the dice/Their minds as cold as ice/And someone way down here/Loses someone dear," Agnetha sings. Or "The judges will decide/The likes of me abide/Spectators of the show/Always staying low." Sounds like Benny and Bjorn had been reading some Schopenhauer. Robert Smith, eat your heart out.

And the public ate it up. God how they ate it up. The song became ABBA's eighth UK #1 hit, and one of their biggest American hits, peaking at #8 on the pop chart and #1 on the Adult Contemporary chart. Well, Benny and Bjorn may have engineered this rocket ship, but it was Agnetha who sent it into orbit. Her voice is recorded so precisely, so cleanly, that when she hits the big notes, it's almost a little disturbing. She really earns her paycheck in the last verse, speak-singing in a desolate whisper, as the couple is trying to find peace in the aftermath: "I apologize/If it makes you feel bad/Seeing me so tense/No self-confidence." Maybe things aren't so bad after all? Maybe they can still help each other out on some level, even if their time as a couple is over? Then Agnetha adds a "But you see..." But you see? But you see what? What is it, Agnetha?

"The winner takes it aaaaaaaaaalllllllllllllll!!"

She lets out a pained cry of such volcanic force that even those indifferent gods should be able to hear her. Whenever I listen to this part of the song, I always imagine Agnetha sitting on the floor of a giant discoteque, and there's a camera on the ceiling pointing downward, and right when she hits that note, the camera pans back and the whole disco starts swirling around her in a deadly spiral of synthesized doom, as Frida, Benny and Bjorn chime in like the Greek chorus in the background: "So the winner/Takes it all/And the loser/Has to fall." Yeah, I think we got that already.

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