13
May 08

ABBA – “Dancing Queen”

FT + Popular/240 comments • 14,178 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. 1
    and everybody elses Mark G on 13 May 2008 #

    I remember when this was going to come out, expecting some fast disco number!

    When I finally got to hear it, it sounded so boring!

    I think this was the last song I seriously thought had lines of noise: “sorma senio la dermiwoh” as I would sing to myself…

    Magic Ten? Get a grip! OK, it’s possibly the abba song I dislike least, but hey. Also, the only one I like more with age…

    Also, re the ‘no first person’ theory: I always took it to be that the two singers were talking to each other (as per the video): “See that girl! Watch that scene” and so on…

    (OK, so I got comment number one, and all this is going in via edit!)

  2. 2
    SteveM on 13 May 2008 #

    I love the drum beat – is Abba’s occasional funkiness overlooked? It fits with ‘More More More’ and numerous other slow disco hits from the time (and obv the early 70s black funk they were inspired by).

  3. 3
    Drucius on 13 May 2008 #

    It kind of passed me by at the time, but has grown on me a bit as the years have gone by. The girlies all loved it in our year and all had complex dance routines that they would gleefully perform at the weekend hop.

    It’s a bit pedestrian really, innit?

  4. 4
    Billy Smart on 13 May 2008 #

    That’s as fantastic a critique as such a fantastic record deserves, Tom. Well done!

    A couple of stray observations;

    The one really incongrous period detail of this is that she goes to dance “where they play the ROCK music” It’s unlikely that even a few years later the dancing queen would be going to a place that wasn’t orientated around pop/dance music. Perhaps things are different in Sweden, though.

    There’s a slight sexual ache to the observation of the dancing queen. Not only is she a tease and she turns them on, but *anybody* could be that guy – but there’s no sense that the observer as positioning himself as that anybody.

    In that sense, I always think of ‘Does Your Mother Know That Your Out?’ as being the bad other of this song, sung by a more jaded and opportunistic lecher.

    And, speaking from experience, this note of personal hurt present in the pleasure of seeing the dancing queen is easily found in the song even when you’re still young, let alone when you’re old enough to be a seventeen-year old’s father!

  5. 5
    Tom on 13 May 2008 #

    Haha yes it is a ROCK club BUT there’s a really funny little detail in the song where (just before the last verse I think) you get an ELECTRIC GUITAR kind of growling away for a second or two at the bottom of the song and then vanishing, as if it’s poking its head round the corner of the club, seeing the gorgeous pop queen dancing and thinking “blimey I’m out of my league here”.

  6. 6
    SteveM on 13 May 2008 #

    Up there with BoRap in the ubiquitous cliched party monsters I can never hate but never need to hear – maybe a 1 and 2 respectively. And both still a few years before I was born.

    The seconds from ‘feel the beat from the tambourine’ to ‘having the time of your life’ are perfect and dizzying – like so much monolithic soul (‘Nothing But A Heartache’) AND lighter stringy disco (‘Love Hangover’). I get images of sunshine and skyscrapers (looking down from or soaring inbetween rather than gazing up at, as towering and monumental as the sound is) from these anthems more than anything else.

    But for Disco, a much more futuristic and sexually charged template is coming into view (and like Punk probably ‘had’ to happen)…

  7. 7
    Tom on 13 May 2008 #

    Yeah I don’t think I need to hear it again at a party, to be honest, but it still moves me close to tears pretty much every time I hear it on headphones etc.

  8. 8
    Kat but logged out innit on 13 May 2008 #

    I was one of those 90s revivalists. Me and Kirsty made up a dance and everything. And went to see Bjorn Again at the Watford Colosseum! I never rated this as much as Waterloo but the wedding-bell piano chime is still wonderful.

  9. 9
    Waldo on 13 May 2008 #

    The Swedes’ finest hour by the length of Broadway, an appropriate cliché since it was number one in the States too. An almost faultless pop song, which managed to tick the disco box as well. As a grizzled old lag, I have no trouble in declaring my admiration for DQ, even though it is recognised today as the anthem for everything my sexuality is not (in any case back in the day the girls both looked impossibly beautiful). Ultimately, none of this matters. The fact of the matter is that DQ was one of the highlights of the year and indeed of the decade. No seventies night should be without it and normally isn’t.

  10. 10
    Billy Smart on 13 May 2008 #

    Number 2 watch; 2 further weeks of ‘Let ‘Em In’, a week of Rod Stewart’s ‘Killing of Georgie’ and The Real Thing continued their recent run of success with 2 weeks of ‘Can’t Get By Without You’.

  11. 11
    Billy Smart on 13 May 2008 #

    TOTP Watch: By this stage, ABBA understandably had bigger fish to fry than appearing regularly on the BBC, so their appearance on the Christmas day edition of 1976 was the first time that they’d been on it since January.

    Infuriatingly, the decision was taken for them to do ‘Mamma Mia’ and not ‘Dancing Queen’, which was instead interpreted by Legs & Co (who also danced to ‘Jungle Rock’). Also in the studio were Slik, JJ Barrie, Tina Charles, Cliff Richard, Pussycat and Demis Roussos. The show was hosted by Noel Edmunds and Dave Lee Travis, and survives in the archives.

  12. 12
    Matthew H on 13 May 2008 #

    Feel a bit removed here as I don’t remember being aware of ‘Dancing Queen’ at the time, even though I was definitely familiar with ‘Don’t Go Breaking My Heart’ – possibly says more about my mum’s taste.

    It’s a thing of lush beauty, but I never paid it much mind until I picked up their Greatest Hits vol.2 LP when I was 18 and mixed it with ‘Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing’. It works! Or at least I thought it did, through a studenty haze. For me, bigger ABBA treats to come.

  13. 13
    rosie on 13 May 2008 #

    Yes, I was expecting it and I can’t quibble with it at all. Others will disagree but nothing else quite sums up the second half of the decade for me quite as well as this one, and I’m certain that although I won’t be typical of everybody, I won’t be alone by any means. It’s something more than a well-crafted pop song. It’s one of those artefacts that artlessly hangs together perfectly, as if all the ingredients came together and peaked at just the right moment.

    I won’t say it’s the best the late seventies would come up with (and we’ve a while to go), and if I have a quibble it’s the bloody ubiquity of the thing and, if I’m honest, a bit of sour grapes from the Janis Ian seventeen-year-old that lurks within, even into my dotage!

    So, it’s not just me emerging into full-blown adulthood then! From this point on I, newly-qualified, newly-employed teacher, will have a finger on the pulse of pop for the first time since the late 60s. Amongst other things I’ve just acquired pastoral responsibility for a group of what would now be called Year 8; it is not lost on me that this was Marcello’s cohort! ;)

    Here beginneth my second phase of chartwatching after a six-year hiatus.

  14. 14
    Tom on 13 May 2008 #

    I think there are better ABBA songs than this too (though not very many). And better late 70s songs (though still not a huge number). Did anything in either category get to No.1? Wait and see :)

  15. 15
    lex on 13 May 2008 #

    I’d love to hear someone cover this song and make it their own. Because when a song becomes a standard of this magnitude – and there are very few which have! I certainly would not count the loathsome ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ because all right-minded people actually HATE it – it’s very hard to cut through the collective ownership of it, to own it yourself; and so it’s hard for me to imagine this as a personal favourite, because it seems to be everyone else’s first, even more so than Abba themselves, and the sheer oveerwhelming numbers kind of leech the meaning out of it for me (or to be accurate they ensured the song reached me already stripped of meaning).

    (I’m not even sure if I’ve heard the song in any great detail, as opposed to as…background, I guess: other people karaokeing it, through a drunken fug in a club, through tinny speakers in shops.)

    So yeah, I can appreciate it but I actively don’t want to hear it again.

  16. 16
    Tom on 13 May 2008 #

    I completely understand that reaction to it Lex but it really is worth hearing in detail, because a lot of the depth and detail in the recording (and nuance in the performance) is what makes it amazing.

    It’s been covered by surprisingly few notable acts really.

  17. 17
    lex on 13 May 2008 #

    Yeah I meant to say, it struck me that you focused on the production details, because that’s exactly what you miss/never get to hear when a song is turned into this sort of standard – but production details are such a huge thing about why a song gets to be a personal favourite, so it feels like the song’s been hoist on its own petard somewhat.

    I can imagine several of my own favourites, which I’ve been around at the time for, turning into a ‘Dancing Queen’ type several years henceforth – ‘Baby One More Time’ and ‘Crazy In Love’ are the obvious examples – and I can imagine a younger version of me (EEK) thinking as I do about this.

  18. 18
    Billy Smart on 13 May 2008 #

    Oddly, the first time that I was ever exposed to this song was through a cover version!

    It was performed by The Communards on Channel 4’s ‘Friday Night Live’ in early 1988. They wore comedy seventies costumes. Once they’d been on, Ben Elton said that he’d been a dancing queen in the seventies and made an unfunny joke about flared trousers.

    This inauspicious experience didn’t lead me to realise that Dancing Queen was one of the absolute pinnacles of popular music. Indeed, it probably served to discourage me from investigating Abba for a few years.

  19. 19
    rosie on 13 May 2008 #

    I think plenty have had a go but really, nobody could make it their own. This is one of the cases where song and singer are fused together as one; it’s always Abba’s Dancing Queen.

    Quoth lex: I certainly would not count the loathsome ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ because all right-minded people actually HATE it

    [FX: Rolls eyes, counts to ten under breath, walks away]

    Oh yes – I also think there are better records than this already dealt with that didn’t get a 10.

  20. 20
    Tom on 13 May 2008 #

    Haha Rosie that is quite the right response to The Lex on the topic of rock music: he makes Marcello look like the Buddha.

  21. 21
    Lena on 13 May 2008 #

    Thank you, Tom, for giving this a 10 – it’s the most awesome #1 of the 70s, the best…it breaks the ground for so much to come, even as it stands on its own (the only other song that does the same for me is Chic’s “Good Times” which I can mention as sadly, it didn’t get to #1 in the UK, just the US).

  22. 22
    Waldo on 13 May 2008 #

    Billy # 11 – BUNNY!

  23. 23
    crag on 13 May 2008 #

    Not much i feel the need to add at this point on the excellence of both the track and Tom’s comment on it except the matter of the second person point of view. Doesnt it actually change perspective from present tense second person narrtive for the line “see that girl”-if not than who is the ‘girl’ the Dancing Queen is seeing? Personlly, i like to think it’s describing a moment of dance-fuelled out of body euphoria though i know this is probably wishful thinking on my part…

    Re#8- I saw Bjorn Again live in the mid 90s too, kat! They did a cover of Supergrass’ “Alright” which was v v odd.

    Re#15- I recall seeing U2 covering this live on telly, again in the mid90s w/ Benny and Bjorn joining them on stage. It wasnt very good…

  24. 24
    Tom on 13 May 2008 #

    The you in the song switches from girl to audience (both club audience and you lot listening – it ‘breaks the fourth wall’ except I’m not sure there is a fourth wall in pop music.)

  25. 25
    DJ Punctum on 13 May 2008 #

    This is another entry freely adapted from my not-to-be-published work in progress When Blackpool Tower Gazes At The CN Tower And Realises It Has Been Looking In A Mirror:

    So it started with a “Rock Your Baby” rhythm but then drummer Roger Palm decided to add a second shuffling layer inspired by Dr John’s Gris-Gris. Above the roots flourishes the orchard, a Jane Austen theme park ballroom-cum-grotto of untouched elegance – those keyboards sound free of direct hand input – and then

    The voices, a forest of voices, yet only emanating from two voices, but they are particles travelling at different speeds (if not completely independently) and some of these sounds are real and others synthetic but it’s too late to worry about that now

    because this is

    GRANDEUR

    Not a gross gargoyle of grandeur such as been witnessed on so many of 1976’s limp-not-limpid number ones but natural aristocracy of grace in hallucinatory corridors

    (four oxymorons in one line – not a bad haul, but BSJ would scoff if he’d been smart enough to survive to ’76)

    and in that aquarium of a corridor dances ALL past, present and future pop music.

    Look at what pop had been and what it was still going to be and “Dancing Queen” is the link because it is utterly against FORCE or CYNICISM and well they were trying to make a disco record but they don’t quite do that yet what they do make is a greater good which illuminates everything*…the Miami pool of TK turns into an arena within kissing distance of Olympus

    (and hey! the Montreal Olympics!!)

    *(just as J Meek and Brian W would have wanted)

    Gunnarson’s arched eyebrow of a bass rising below “See that girl, watch that scene” – a subtle yet firm question mark under the “queen”‘s idealistic dreams of love, that strange, harsh electronic echo which suddenly snaps and recedes just after the second chorus, the synthesised triplets in the second half of each verse

    DID SOMEONE SAY SIMPLE MINDS?

    …like a glittering prize

    …on a cleared day?

    “Dancing Queen” and “Anarchy” – which was the more radical single of ’76? Remember how quick and easy it was for punk to fit into the leather tapestry, whereas the bridge of “DQ” somehow rises above it, a never missing link between every pop record made before it and every (NEW) (POP) record made after it from the Tornados to Scooter, from Alma Cogan to Natasha Bedingfield, from Edison to Estelle…

    …because here, let us not forget, is a group so brilliantly open and stealthy that, unlike the Bay City Rollers a year previously, they can rhyme “queen” with “seventeen” and even “tambourine” and not only do you not mind it, but the cunning bastards make it sound as though they were the first musicians ever to think of that rhyming scheme. And they go even further back than that – “You can dance, you can jive/Having the time of your life!” Jive! A couplet straight out of Bill Haley (or maybe Wizzard?). But there was no dim drape jacket pseudo-revivalism here; everything about the record points to a future, something brighter and HIGHER than what had gone before…

    (worship payoff)

    …since “Dancing Queen” is virtually the apogee of the pop song as hymn. Those choirs, which sounded so tacky backing Demis Roussos’ winsome warble, now sound like Rachmaninov’s Vespers, arising so tenderly and fully behind and finally above the song. There is within the record’s bones a sense of worship; few other number ones make you feel so completely dwelling within a cathedral (“You’ve come to look for a king”)…

    …yet there is also doubt and potential pain. The dancing queen herself is, when scrutinised in close-up, not at all certain about what or whom she’s looking for, or what she wants (“Anybody could be that guy”). As it is, she proves that she is unlikely to find any happiness, truth or reality outside her protective cocoon of pop (“With a bit of rock music/Everything is fine” – even though one of the most celebratory “rock” records sounds nothing like rock, except perhaps how it might be perceived in an adjacent galaxy), and she is eventually on a hiding to nothing (“Leave ‘em burning and then you’re gone/Looking out for another/Anyone will do”). So that seemingly triumphant cry – and it does sound so touchingly like a cry – of “Having the time of your life” carries within it the warning that this may be the only time in her life that she is truly alive.

    And still, sceptics applaud politely but dismiss Abba as skilled but heartless pop artisans. How does that explain Frida bursting into floods of tears when first she heard the instrumental track? It stands so high above the timid pabulum which surrounds it in this year of decision, and yet so naturally among the shoulders of the records discussed on this website which have mattered, and those which will in turn be shown to matter. Emotionally there is something wrong with “Dancing Queen,” and as a record there is absolutely nothing wrong with it. THIS is where Abba leave their forlorn dreams of the Seekers behind and really soar. No one else, not even Phil Spector or Roy Wood, and not yet Trevor Horn, could have made a record like “Dancing Queen”; so few records weave all these disparate good strands together so effortlessly and fruitfully. Forget about appending guilt to the business of pleasure; as with that extended formal ball which takes up nearly all of the final third of Visconti’s The Leopard, “Dancing Queen” defies the listener to blaspheme against its unanswerable grace and regal, if not Olympian, enormity. And Abba would sound this happy (even if it is qualified happiness) only very rarely through the remainder of their career. When next we meet them, Ingmar Bergman will have begun to win out over Ingrid Bergman; and these records of course have their own attendant greatness. But in the perfect world where they always “play the right music,” “Dancing Queen” is one of the greatest and grandest pop records ever made.

  26. 26
    Billy Smart on 13 May 2008 #

    Waldo re 11: Aha! Only one of the 2 featured acts not yet mentioned got to number 1 in 1976. Use your skill and judgment to anticipate which…

  27. 27
    fivelongdays on 13 May 2008 #

    In one respect, this is Abba’s apex – nothing they did was as successful as this, and this is the song that most people would name if asked to name one of their songs – and yet, IMHO, it’s their nadir.

    OK, OK, you’re all thinking – FLD doesn’t like Abba, he’s told us he doesn’t like Abba, and he especially doesn’t like this song, but what gives? Show some constructive criticism, you whinging provincial!

    So I will. Or at least I shall try to. (NB, this stuff is part thought out and part off the cuff, so hold on – and try to decipher).

    I could do the somewhat dull criticism of it being vapid and frothy. I mean, it is vapid and frothy, but were I to work out my top 100 songs ever some – most – of them would be vapid and frothy. At least as vapid and frothy as this is, if not more so. So that doesn’t explain it.

    Dancing Queen seems to reinforce a kind of enforced happiness, a kind of ‘everyone is having a good time, so you will have a good time too’ which seamlessly (and seemlessly) translates into ‘everyone likes this, you will like this too’ which quickly takes on the subtext of ‘and if you don’t like this, there is evidently something wrong with you’.

    There we have the -by which I, of course, mean my- overarching problem with this record. It always feels that if you fit in with this record, the Dancing Queen is more than willing let you dance with her, buy her a drink, and leave you wanting to come back the next Friday night to do it all over again. And if you don’t, the Dancing Queen looks at you with a withering contempt, tells you to get your hair cut, and runs off, laughing at you, with her friends.

    (Which, in a neat sidestep, shows how wonderfully personal and yet universal the best sort of music criticism is. While Tom sees unstoppable glory, I see irrefutable dross. Where Tom sees a longing for the transient moment, I see a snide inclusivity that is, in fact, utterly exclusive. Which is the fun of the thing, and why, I’m sure, this whole Popular thing is here.)

    I think that Tom hit the nail on the head when he compares this to Teenage Kicks. The only thing is is that I adore the (oh sod it!) frothy vapidity of Teenage Kicks, whereas I utterly loathe (and I mean loathe – there’s only maybe a handful of records across the whole of Popular, past and future, that I dislike more than this) this record. But I think I can tell you why Teenage Kicks never fails to make me smile, whereas I’d leave the room if this ever came on the office radio.

    Put simply, Teenage Kicks is a record for people like me, whereas Dancing Queen is for people who are not only not like me, but who would, I think, not ever want to be like me. And you know what? I don’t think I’d ever want to be like them.

    It’s not a matter of taste (well, it is a matter of taste, but you know what I’m saying), and it’s not a matter of culture, but it is a matter of mindset.

    So am I in the minority? Yes. Is that a bad thing? Well, the Dancing Queen, all shiny and cool, ready to wage war on the terminally unhip, might disagree, but I don’t think so.

    It’s not a case of Explain-this-to-me-I-pray-to-God-I’ll-never-understand, but it is, I think, a case of You’ve-explained-this–and-I-don’t-care-if-I-understand, the one great refusal of the utterly uncool. Which, ironically, is a category Abba were in for some years. And I think the tale of how they were repositioned would be one worth telling.

    If this did sound rather mean-spirited, I’ll leave you guys with one thought – at least my utter detestation of this record has inspired me to set out my stall. And, in a twisted way, that has to be a positive. Hell, it is a positive. I’m genuinely sorry, but it’s the only positive I can find here.

    FLD

    (love to see what everyone’s response is…)

  28. 28
    Billy Smart on 13 May 2008 #

    The thing about the dancing queen is that you have to separate her from any trying hen party that you may have tried to sidestep dancing to her song.

    She may be something of a tease, but she is open to all experience and of profound feeling. That *anybody* could be that guy means that if she crossed the path of a misfit like… well, me, and I would suspect many other Popular correspondents might see themselves as, she might respond to what is good in us.

    Neither Dancing Queen or Teenage Kicks are really frothy or vapid, surely? You might as well say that being a teenager and having what seems like an excess of what might be adult feeling is insubstantial.

    Feel free to dislike it, but I’m not sure whether its wise to make it an either/or argument. I think that both songs are for a person like me!

  29. 29
    fivelongdays on 13 May 2008 #

    That’s an interesting set of points there Billy, and it just goes to show how generally ace it is when people get completely different things from songs.

    I honestly wasn’t thinking about the ‘trying hen parties’ but I will say that music, more than any other artistic endeavour (Oh God, I sound like a right pretentious arse when I write the words ‘artistic endeavour’, don’t I?) is linked in with context. And I’ve always associated the context of this song with something that I wouldn’t be. Along, of course with “anybody can be that guy” having the unsung following line of ‘so long as he’s cool’.

    Because I am a cantankerous young fogey sometimes.

    And I’m being somewhat pillocky when I use the term frothy and vapid, but I wouldn’t say they were bad things, nor were they good things. It all depends on (yes!) context.

    Oh, and it’s totally awesome that you like TK and DQ at the same time- and I can understand why someone might well do. It’s just that I, personally, don’t.

  30. 30
    LondonLee on 13 May 2008 #

    This song is indestructible, unlike other over-played pop chestnuts I never get tired of hearing it.

    Never understood why it gets tagged as “disco” though, it’s too slow.

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