13
May 08

ABBA – “Dancing Queen”

FT + Popular/233 comments • 10,571 views

#394, 4th September 1976

In my teens I read a science fiction novel with a startlingly elegant twist. (I won’t mention the book’s name in case you come across it yourself.) It was about a brilliant scientist who vanishes: the book’s protagonist goes looking for clues to what happened, and becomes close to the scientist’s wife. And at a crucial juncture in the plot, the narration shifts, mid-paragraph, from third person to first: the scientist’s “vanishing” was literal, and with a thrill of horror you realise he’s been observing the action all along.

What on earth does this have to do with “Dancing Queen”? The song turns on a similar effect. Of all ABBA’s twenty or so hit singles this is the only one with no first-person content – none of the “I” or “me” or “us” that populate almost all their records. Of course on one level this is coincidence – but the apparent lack of personal perspective is very unusual for ABBA. They’re a band who like to ground their songs in experience and who pay close attention to a lyric’s perspective; even a character song like “Head Over Heels” makes sure to establish its subject’s relationship to the singer, right in the first line. “Dancing Queen” is entirely in the second-person – the song is directly addressed to a girl, but its narrator has, like the scientist in the novel, become invisible.

And yet there she is, all through the song, the prism for its observation – watching the dancing queen from the sidelines, vicariously feeling her freedom, her peak. What makes “Dancing Queen” a masterpiece is how it is both joy and the witnessing or memory of joy, and so much of this is down to the seamless, extraordinary shared lead vocal: Frida and Agnetha’s voices combining to strengthen the chorus as it arcs upwards, but also shifting to softer, fonder registers as they wistfully look on – “leave them burning and then you’re – gone…”.

The music, when she first heard it, made Frida cry – but to stress the sadness in “Dancing Queen” would be to do it a disservice. It’s not envious, or regretful, or bittersweet – it’s a more generous ache, the recognition that “having the time of your life” is literal, that this moment might be as good as it gets, but still being warmed by the moment’s incandescence. “Dancing Queen”, like “Teenage Kicks”, is one of those songs that captures the feeling that being young, dancing, loving is also to be living more intensely and wonderfully than anything else. But “Dancing Queen” goes further, tries to share that fire – “You can dance! You can jive!”, suddenly the “you” is, well, you. And him and her and me.

The vocals in “Dancing Queen” betray that this inclusiveness is, ultimately, doomed: the music does its best to deny that. Certainly its beat is democratic – you rarely see anyone dance well to “Dancing Queen”, which is a different thing from the cheap shot of its being ‘undanceable’. Everything in the arrangement is vibrant, exciting – the trilling intro, the sashaying keyboards in the “turn him on” verse – but of course it’s all in service to the magnificent piano part, its fusion of rock rhythm with light classical swagger, its top-end chords as pure a joy as anything pop’s given us.

That piano line turned up again three years later, changed slightly in a pop world that seemed overturned, and it almost pushed Elvis Costello – a perennial sideline-lurker who’d long seen the tears as well as the grins in ABBA - to Number One himself. Even by then “Dancing Queen” had become ABBA’s monolith, and by their 90s revival it was omnipresent. There’s an irony, maybe, that a song about the fleet intense beauty of youth, love and movement should have become such an ossified monument to ‘perfect pop’ – but when I play it that really never seems to matter.

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Comments

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  1. 201
    DJ Punctum on 17 May 2008 #

    “a checklist of all those words and expressions used in newspapers and never IRL”-suprised no one has mentioned my favorite- the classic ‘bedded’ as in “Theakston bedded the 21 year old stunner”…

    I think you’ll find that DJ Punctum mentioned it in post #185.

  2. 202
    Billy Smart on 17 May 2008 #

    Oh here’s a useful rule of thumb: If ever a headline is about the doings of a ‘TOP TORY’ then the story will be about a politician that you’ve never heard of.

    If they really were a top Tory, then their name would have been used, because the reader would have recognised it.

  3. 203
    DJ Punctum on 17 May 2008 #

    Not necessarily the case with Top Tory Drummer Bev “Bev” Bevan, of course…

  4. 204
    Caledonianne on 17 May 2008 #

    I don’t dance, can’t dance, get panicky at the thought of dancing. But need to be welded to my seat when this ccomes on. It’s just so life-affirming.

    Surely at some stage in her life every right-thinking girl has a gay best friend who’s ever-keen to prime her with lavish G&Ts, all the better to share the spotlight when DQ grabs the floor?

    Must be a 10.

    (BTW I played I Want You from youtube just before I went to bed the other night. Big mistake. Kept me awake and not because of my usual aversion to Mr Costello’s voice – OA apart). Powerful stuff.

  5. 205
    intothefireuk on 17 May 2008 #

    Maybe that’s where I’m going wrong – I obviously need a gay friend.

  6. 206
    crag on 18 May 2008 #

    re#201-Oops! had to read the list again twice before i saw it- must be going blind in my old age…

  7. 207
    LondonLee on 19 May 2008 #

    I’m pretty sure I have used the word “romp” in real life (never referring to sexual doings though), but that could just be part of my suave-Brit-in-America persona, I also use “groovy” a lot.

  8. 208
    DJ Punctum on 19 May 2008 #

    “Probe” of course more often than not preceded by “shock horror youth cult.”

  9. 209
    Erithian on 23 Jun 2008 #

    There was a story last week that the Queen – that’s THE Queen – was seen dancing to this at Peter Phillips’ wedding reception on Cup Final day. A few awkward glances at the “you’re a teaser, you turn them on” line, I guess. (Who the hell gets married on Cup Final day? – apart from my mate who asked me to be best man and made me miss the Coventry-Spurs classic in 1987. But I digress.)

    I know a number of us on this site are or have been DJs. So here’s a challenge. You’re behind the decks at a Royal bash, you’re playing “Dancing Queen” and you spot Queenie strutting her stuff on the dancefloor. What do you cue up next to see whether she stays out there or sits it out? (A certain controversial Number 2 hit is not allowed on the grounds that (a) it’s too obvious and (b) it could earn you a spell in the Tower.)

  10. 210
    mike on 23 Jun 2008 #

    I’d go with “Honky Tonk Woman”, with high hopes of a Betty/Camilla dance-off during the first verse.

  11. 211
    Billy Smart on 23 Jun 2008 #

    ‘The Crown’ by Gary Byrd?

    She’s not really the intended audience, but the chorus (“You wear the crown!”) would fit.

  12. 212
    DJ Punctum on 23 Jun 2008 #

    “I Hate The White Man” by Roy Harper.

  13. 213
    Lena on 23 Jun 2008 #

    I’m not a DJ but I would pick “In The Navy” or “Macho Man” as I’ve just begun to appreciate the New Poppishness of the Village People. To see if Her Majesty wants to actually get down, “I Love Music” would be good.

  14. 214
    DJ Punctum on 23 Jun 2008 #

    Not a DJ yet… ;-)

    “I Want You” by the Inspiral Carpets and Mark E Smith.

  15. 215
    Erithian on 23 Jun 2008 #

    No Royal connection, but I’d fancy trying “Can Can” by Bad Manners.

  16. 216
    DJ Punctum on 23 Jun 2008 #

    don’t try it

  17. 217
    Ken on 26 Apr 2009 #

    I really can’t explain why, but I loathe this song with a passion nowadays. When it first came out, I remember quite liking it without being overwhelmed, especially those Pertwee-era Radiophonic Workshop-esque twiddles/fanfares between the lines of the verses.

    It’s probably down to the ossification that you so correctly pinpoint. This has become so much a song regarded as “Perfect Pop Music – END OF!!!” – when it really isn’t – that it’s changed for me from a pleasant if throwaway distraction to a pain in the arse. How many times? – NO MORE FUCKING ABBA!!!!

  18. 218
    sydney on 30 May 2009 #

    That`s stupid

  19. 219
    inakamono on 3 Oct 2009 #

    So I guess I was 16 when this came out, and they were part of the landscape, remembering them from Eurovision and all, and of course it was all over the radio and TOTP and stuff, and they were already commercially huge; but evidently I didn’t connect with this “instant pop classic” at the time.

    I remember the moment I did connect with it — more than 20 years later, on a summer holiday lazing in a beach-bar on an island in Thailand, and this came on (coz they played ABBA for all the Australian tourists) and my reaction was, “You know, when you come to think about it, maybe they were quite good after all.”

    I think that is the core of my issue with this song, and the rest of the ABBA canon. It never felt relevant to me when it came out, even though, as a 70s teenager, I was their target audience.

    Trying to think yourself back into your mindset more than 30 years ago is bound to be selective, but I know my mental bookmarks at the time were saying “ABBA, Boney M, stuff like that” — which was undoubtedly better than the bookmark that said “Chicago, David Soul, boring stuff like that” or the bookmark that said “Bay City Rollers, crap like that” — but it was still filed away in a general category of “not for me.”

    Listening to it now, I can see that it is very good, and I can feel what has been described here as the sadness it contains– although it seems more like wistfulness to me — in a way I never felt at the time. But still my problem is, why it took 20 years before I realized it was “quite good really, after all”?

    So, I reckon, it comes to a question of relevance.

    ABBA were never relevant to me, at the time. Nothing they did ever spoke to anything that was happening in my life. They were always there, cute songs on the radio, but they never meant anything. They never spoke to me.

    To me, the sadness — wistfulness — is that they only started to speak to me 20 years later. Was that what they intended?

    Still, it’s “quite good really, after all,” I suppose.

  20. 220
    Ian on 13 Nov 2009 #

    Abba, some nice sounds, out of a whole lot of great stuff around this time. The best thing about Abba by far was the blonde – the best singer and, hands down, best looking woman in Abba and in pop at that time.

  21. 221
    Tom on 13 Nov 2009 #

    #219: well, they were adults, late 20s, early 30s, and they were writing as that – not aiming it at teenagers, I think. At families sometimes, sure, but that’s a different thing.

  22. 222
    swanstep on 8 Dec 2009 #

    Brilliant lead-off essay by Tom. Reading it originally hooked me on Popular….so, thanks! The song is, of course, a complete wonder – an absolute, gold standard 10. DQ is the first single I ever bought, and it remains a favorite. The vid. has a special moment that is worth remarking on, which I don’t think anyone’s mentioned above: the camera’s in relatively tight on Frida for the ‘Anybody could be that guyyyyyy…’ line. She looks directly at us and smilingly wrinkles her nose as she hits the ‘Anybody’ (she’s talking to *you*, pal). It’s a deliciously flirtatious, sexy moment. As a pre-pubescent I wasn’t *quite* plugged into this at the time, but I did register something. It was certainly the beginning of my awareness that the media emphasis on Agnetha as ‘the hot one’/the fetishized blonde swede was quite misplaced. It was Frida who, for whatever reason, was happier, more fun, confident, more comfortable with being a sexy singer/front-woman, etc.., and it all made sense when it emerged (early in 1977 IIRC) that all was not well between Bjorn and Agnetha.

  23. 223
    thefatgit on 8 Dec 2009 #

    I was 10 years old, running around like a mad thing. That summer we lost a cat, our dog lost her virginity on holiday in Devon. She got summarily speyed as soon as we got home. It had been a summer of stand-pipes, skateboards, go-karts, long country walks, visits to the beach, the best deep brown tan of my life, lidos and then…back to school. I’ll always remember DQ as a back to school song, but no doubt that would never take the shine off it. It was on the radio in my Dad’s Capri (mk 1). It was a joyous time for me at least. I had no knowledge of money troubles or that being the last summer that Mum and Dad would holiday together. Next year, Dad would get a contract abroad that would take him away for 2 years and burden him with a sizeable tax-debt as well. 10 year old kids have no knowledge of stuff like that. I do remember 76 being the last year everything was really good (not even the cat passing could take the shine off it).
    DQ was part of that perfect summer, and I always smile when I hear it. Carefree days! Nailed on 10.

  24. 224
    scott on 29 Dec 2009 #

    Dancing Queen grows in importance. Something about it, the joy, the vibrance marks a halcyon period in Western Civilisation. Could that song be written now? I doubt it!

  25. 225
    swanstep on 11 Feb 2010 #

    Dancing Queen had an awesome B-side, ‘That’s me’(which is also on Arrival). That song is great but has an infamous main couplet, ‘I’m Carrie not the kind of girl you’d marry/ That’s me’ which has always mildly embarrassed, or made listeners uncomfortable because it’s a painful note to strike (very characteristic of latter Abba as it happens). Anyhow, I just stumbled across a v. fun 7 min dance remix of ‘That’s me’ on youtube which kind of solves this problem (such as it is) for the song by dilating for its whole length on 12 bars of piano from the song, and just using the two word title (i.e., omitting the carrie/marry stuff). The vid’s pretty nifty too. Go here if you’re interested.

  26. 226
    Nixon on 13 Apr 2011 #

    Having 0 points of reference, discovering this circa 1989 via stealing my parents’ shonky cassette copy of an Abba best-of -

    (digression: I never knew what the original source of this was, my parents had clearly copied it off one of their mates at some stage, but I was never quite sure if it was a real compilation or just a load of stuff taped from records and the radio – either way it had clearly been edited and added to because some DJ’s voice appeared in the gap before the last song (“Under Attack” missing a few seconds off the beginning), with two different comments spliced together giving half a chart position (“…ba, down from number thDown this week from… BOM BOM BOM BOM BOM BOM BOM BOM Don’t know how to take it don’t know where to go”, I can still remember that perfectly)

    - I thought this was pretty much perfect. I had no points of reference and knew nothing about Abba, so when some tabloid ran a Eurovision-themed competition asking which song Abba had won the title with (is it A. Waterloo, B. Super Trouper, C. Dancing Queen), I entered by answering C, because this would so clearly have swept all competition before it.

    I didn’t win.

  27. 227
    abaffledrepublic on 4 Sep 2011 #

    More tabloid-only words.

    busty
    axed
    x-rated
    raunchy
    kinky
    bosses
    chiefs
    sensationally
    hunk
    blasted
    heartbreak

  28. 228
    Billy Smart on 4 Sep 2011 #

    My attempt to present the tabloid headline lexicon in 130 words; http://drunkennessofthingsbeingvarious.blogspot.com/2011/01/few-years-ago-i-read-headline-top.html

  29. 229
    Billy Smart on 7 Sep 2011 #

    On the subject of headlines – http://necktiemurcererstrikesagain.blogspot.com/

  30. 230
    punctum on 12 Jul 2012 #

    Going to put another link to my Arrival piece here, just to make sure it doesn’t get lost or missed.

  31. 231
    DanH on 19 Jan 2013 #

    I remember having to sing this in some ’70s medley for 6th grade (along with such evergreens as You Light Up My Life and Tie a Yellow Ribbon), and I and a friend ended up singing ‘dig up the dancing queen,’ like digging her dead corpse from a grave. 12 year old me found this HILARIOUS.

  32. 232
    hectorthebat on 18 Jul 2014 #

    Critic watch:

    1001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die, and 10,001 You Must Download (2010)
    Blender (USA) – Standout Tracks from the 500 CDs You Must Own (2003)
    Bruce Pollock (USA) – The 7,500 Most Important Songs of 1944-2000 (2005)
    Dave Marsh & Kevin Stein (USA) – The 40 Best of the Top 40 Singles by Year (1981) 16
    Michaelangelo Matos (USA) – Top 100 Singles of the 1970s (2001) 67
    Pause & Play (USA) – 10 Songs of the 70′s (2003)
    Pause & Play (USA) – Songs Inducted into a Time Capsule, One Track at Each Week
    RIAA and NEA (USA) – 365 Songs of the Century (2001) 148
    Rolling Stone & MTV (USA) – The 100 Greatest Pop Songs Since the Beatles (2000) 44
    Rolling Stone (USA) – The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (2004) 171
    Rolling Stone (USA) – The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (Updated 2010) 174
    Stephin Merritt (Magnetic Fields) – The Best Recordings from 1900 to 1999
    BBC (UK) – Pop on Trial, Top 50 Songs from the 1970s (2008)
    New Musical Express (UK) – Classic Singles (magazine feature 2006-2007)
    New Musical Express (UK) – NME Rock Years, Single of the Year 1963-99 (2000)
    New Musical Express (UK) – The Top 100 Singles of All Time (2002) 32
    Q (UK) – The 1001 Best Songs Ever (2003) 38
    Q (UK) – The Ultimate Music Collection (2005)
    The Guardian (UK) – 1000 Songs Everyone Must Hear (2009)
    Nerikes Allehanda (Sweden) – The 50 Best Rock Songs of All Time (1992) 47
    Panorama (Norway) – The 30 Best Singles of the Year 1970-98 (1999) 2
    Les Inrockuptibles (France) – 1000 Indispensable Songs (2006)
    Volume (France) – 200 Records that Changed the World, 2008 (38 songs)
    Rock de Lux (Spain) – The Top 150 Songs from the 20th Century (1998) 25
    Rocks Musiczine (Spain) – The 100 Best Rock Songs in History (1995) 75
    Toby Creswell (Australia) – 1001 Songs (2005)
    Giannis Petridis (Greece) – 2004 of the Best Songs of the Century (2003)

  33. 233
    Larry on 17 Nov 2014 #

    Great reading all these.

    Maybe “with a bit of rock music” is Bjorn and Benny’s gibe at disco, with a Lou Reedian implication of “her life was saved by rock and roll.”

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