May 08

ABBA – “Dancing Queen”

FT + Popular/236 comments • 11,174 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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  1. 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.

  2. 227
    abaffledrepublic on 4 Sep 2011 #

    More tabloid-only words.


  3. 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

  4. 229
    Billy Smart on 7 Sep 2011 #

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

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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)

  8. 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.”

  9. 234
    Red Seeker on 2 Dec 2014 #

    Pop music’s pinnacle. Grew up with Abba but the brilliance of this only surfaced on holiday around ’94 . The perfect pop song for the perfect moment in time – the force of the double vocals backed by the music is sublime. Also has a proper ending which I love in a song.

  10. 235
    Inanimate Carbon God on 4 Jan 2015 #

    No intro to this, no Motorcycle Emptiness. For which I will always be eternally grateful.

  11. 236
    Inanimate Carbon God on 5 Jan 2015 #

    I mean, I was grateful that Motorcycle Emptiness did happen because of DQ rather than wishing it didn’t. More when we hear from those fiery Welshmen again, in the not too distant future.

    Many moons ago, not quite understanding this new-fangled MP3 thing, wrote a furious letter to Q yelling “Putting M.E., their best ever song under “burn this” must be a misprint. Are you out of your minds?” “Simon, we didn’t mean ‘burn’ as in ‘immolate’..”

    (Tom – in bumped threads, are we allowed to discuss bands ‘bunnied’ at the time of the OP but not now?)

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