13
May 08

ABBA – “Dancing Queen”

FT + Popular/240 comments • 14,121 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. 31
    rosie on 13 May 2008 #

    Probably the best thing to do with tags is to ignore them, really. Everytime I think something I can grasp seems to be emerging from the fog that is the Popular comments pool it proves to be as insubstantial as ever, and the best way to approach these things is to take each on its merits and not try to engage with the turf wars.

    And so, yes, it doesn’t make sense to label this ‘disco’. Partly because it’s a lot more than that, but partly because, as Tom and others have already pointed out, it’s actually not a very danceable piece. Not that a skilled dancer couldn’t, and hasn’t ever, interpreted it well, but for the average dancer it just doesn’t work that way. It’s too slow for a high-spirited bop at the wedding/summer school/end-of-term bash. It’s too fast for a smoocher. You can do a passable slow leroc to it but it isn’t ideal and doesn’t offer much for the high-speed twirler. It demands to be listened to more than a true dance track should, and doesn’t lend itself to suffusing the body with energy and rhythm.

  2. 32
    SteveM on 13 May 2008 #

    What about ‘More More More’? I know the Disco tag isn’t technically right but it seems as if these slower records were touched by it’s presence in some way.

    But they’re roughly the same tempo as ‘Night Fever’ which may explain it, as well as many Funk tracks, tho that tag feels even less appropriate. Can you not dance to them in the same way you would ‘Family Affair’, at least in a very casual style – less gyrating/thrusting. The similarity only goes as far as bpm – Funk being generally regarded as Sexier.

  3. 33
    Tom on 13 May 2008 #

    FLD – very interesting post, I promise I’ll reply to it but possibly not tonight: nappies to change, suppers to cook, etc!

  4. 34
    wwolfe on 13 May 2008 #

    What a wonderful review. Thanks.

    Two points to which I can try to offer some response. First:

    “…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.”

    This made me think of the last time I saw “A Hard Day’s Night.” On what was probably my 30th viewing, or thereabouts, what most struck me were the shots of the young girls screaming in the concluding concert scene. Specifically, I found myself wondering what had happened to all these girls in the ensuing years, and was this exact, precise moment the very peak of their entire lives? If so, well…that wouldn’t be so bad, would it? In fact, that’s a pretty nice thing to have as a peak moment. Likewise, the dancer in ABBA’s song.

    Second:

    “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.”

    That made me think of the Beach Boys’ “I Get Around.” That song – espcially when taken in tandem with it’s B-side, “Don’t Worry Baby” – has always struck me as that great band’s greatest moment. Odd coincidence that it, too, is about “the fleet intense beauty of youth, love and movement.” That surely says something about which subject matters Pop, at its best, speaks best about. Or perhaps, casting a wider view, good artists in any field are naturally drawn to that same subject.

  5. 35
    Tom on 13 May 2008 #

    Obviously this doesn’t apply to Rosie, but I wonder if for people who grew up on house and rave music disco isn’t generally pretty slow sounding?

    (On the other hand, hip-hop is often slow and highly danceable)

  6. 36
    SteveM on 13 May 2008 #

    Of course my examples may not be good here, curse of the DJ age is how easy it is to speed tracks up or down to suit needs at the time, both in your mind and on the decks (or indeed laptop).

  7. 37
    fivelongdays on 13 May 2008 #

    wwolfe – good point about the best music taking a certain time of life and making people who hit that point respond to it, regardless how far removed they are, timewise, from it.

    Billy – Forgot to add that the whole frothy/vapid thing isn’t really the same as teenage-having-excess-of-‘adult-feeling, as that’s (from my own experience) what really hits you. A subconscious test for me is ‘were I ten years younger, would I adore this record?’ Which, it has to be said, is a GRATE excuse for me to listen to My Chemical Romance. Yup.

    Tom – really looking forward to what your thoughts are. I also have to say that this was a great review, even if I can’t abide the song, what you have to say about it did make me smile rather!

  8. 38
    Waldo on 13 May 2008 #

    Billy – I just don’t want either of us to be savaged by that lop-earred fiend, something which I had to face as a Popular virgin, unschooled in the blog’s etiquette. Flippancy (as at # 26) only makes him angry. And he does terrible things when he’s angry…

  9. 39
    Waldo on 13 May 2008 #

    Marcello – Please can you just clear something up which always confuses me with regards Ingmar Bergman and Ingrid Bergman:

    Which one of them knocked out Floyd Patterson?

  10. 40
    lex on 13 May 2008 #

    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

    I totally get this feeling, though not with this song. It’s worse than just not getting why people like a track, which can be frustrating enough, it’s when the realisation dawns that the reasons they like it are precisely the reasons you hate it.

    I don’t think this is an uncool position. I mean, I get this with Slade, and as far as I’m concerned my proud and lone disgust for them makes me a lot cooler than anyone else.

  11. 41
    lex on 13 May 2008 #

    Obviously this doesn’t apply to Rosie, but I wonder if for people who grew up on house and rave music disco isn’t generally pretty slow sounding?

    It doesn’t really (although actually ‘Dancing Queen’ does) – I mean, I can hear the bpm is slower, but it doesn’t make it any less danceable or propulsive.

  12. 42
    LondonLee on 13 May 2008 #

    It has the swishy 4/4 beat of Disco but it shuffles more than it grooves (are those the technical terms?)

  13. 43
    SteveM on 13 May 2008 #

    sure enough, listening to DQ now and it is indeed much slower than it’s been in my head all thru this thread until this point gah.

  14. 44
    fivelongdays on 13 May 2008 #

    Lex – well said! What is interesting (and related to the whole matter of coolness, absurd as it is) is that it all depends on our old friend Mr Context.

    For instance, were I to have expressed my opinions on this song 20 years ago, I’d be onthe road to hipster heaven, but at any point since (RANDOM DATE TIME!) 1993, it condemns me to the hell of one who knows not the glories of Abba The Ultimate POP! Band (TM).

    Whereas I’d argue your case with Slade is more neutral. Or summat.

  15. 45
    SteveM on 13 May 2008 #

    ‘it’s when the realisation dawns that the reasons they like it are precisely the reasons you hate it. I don’t think this is an uncool position. I mean, I get this with Slade, and as far as I’m concerned my proud and lone disgust for them makes me a lot cooler than anyone else.’

    but then why bother continuing to repeat such proclamations again and again? hoping people will be convinced of your argument? or just exercising the need to stand out?

    just reminds me too much of a well known troll who mercifully does not contribute to Popular comments much (so far)!

  16. 46
    crag on 13 May 2008 #

    Re#35- I don’t find disco too slow to dance to at all- in fact Stayin Alive came on in the pub on Sunday while i was coming in from outside post-ciggie and at that moment the tempo seemed so completely right and in tune with my steps i innvoluntarily slid into a Travoltaesque strut and had to call on all my willpower not to lay down some funky moves there and then-you’ll be glad to know i controlled myself and my fellow drinkers were spared the sight…

  17. 47
    Billy Smart on 13 May 2008 #

    Abba in time: Younger readers may be astonished to read this, but there was a time, in the 1980s, when Abba were not so revered or listened to as they are now.

    I knew a bit about old pop music when I was in my teens, but I don’t remember hearing this until 1990, when I was seventeen, a state of ignorance which I can’t imagine any present-day 17 year-old living in.

    It was an odd circumstance. I was at only my second ever proper grown-up gig in a paying venue, seeing They Might Be Giants at ULU. The support, The Popinjays, had just been booed off and the DJ filled in the time by playing this. It polarised our party – those of us with parents who were raised on it responded immediately, and those of us who hadn’t were bemused – it sounded so slow and plinky and not of our time. So my very first reaction to it was one of incongruity and quaintness.

    (I remember Jonathan King being at the concert, but mercifully I failed to catch his eye. I also vividly remember ticketless fans offering us the astronomical sum of £50 for a ticket, but us deciding that having gone up to town to do this, we were going to do this.)

    The ABBA revival can be pinpointed to the precise moment in time of spring 1992, and the release of ‘ABBA Gold’. One cause of this (hop! hop!) we’ll eventually go on to discuss in the fullness of time, but Epic were very canny in creating a demand through withdrawing all ABBA albums from sale for a year or so beforehand, sanctioning the screening of ABBA The Movie on Channel 4, and this being a time when many people had got rid of their turntables but only just moved onto CDs. A similar situation happened with The Smiths at precisely the same time, which resulted in Dancing Queen and This Charming Man appearing on the same edition of Top Of The Pops!

    ‘ABBA Gold’ is a much better compiled Greatest Hits than The Smiths’ ‘Best 1’, however, which may well be Exhibit A in any demonstration of how not to do this sort of thing.

  18. 48
    crag on 13 May 2008 #

    As a fellow 17 year old in 1990, Billy, I’m suprised you hadnt heard DQ by this stage- do you have an older sister?If not, perhaps that explains it-I’m sure i first became acquainted w/ it thru my sis owning a copy of “Arrival”.

    I think the future #1 you elude to was more the kick off of the revival rather than “Abba Gold” which was merely a cash in on this success(and was actually released in Sept 92!). The increasing popularity of Bjorn Again who by the start of ’92 were begining to get coverage in the mainstream music press and even played the Reading Festival that Summer (at the request of Kurt Cobain apparently)played a big part too.

  19. 49
    SteveM on 13 May 2008 #

    re #47, I grew up with the idea that Abba were deeply uncool – I probably associated them as one of the last bands my Mum would’ve liked before losing interest in popular music after having my brother and I at the end of the decade. In fact I’m not sure she purchased any albums in the 80s except for ‘Flowers In The Dirt’ and ‘Introducing The Hardline…’ and maybe a couple of compilations on tape. Judge lest not etc.

    In my last few years at school there was a boy a year or two below, tubby and vaguely camp to our minds. He was playfully mocked rather than abused for the most part (or so it seemed) but it emerged that he was a big Abba fan. I wasn’t aware of anyone else liking or caring about them tho, so this preference was almost refreshing (but I really did eschew all attention on pre 80s bands at this point). I continued to think Abba were a bit naff or just irrelevant right up until ’02 baptism of Trigfire to be honest.

  20. 50
    wwolfe on 13 May 2008 #

    “Muriel’s Wedding,” released in 1994, was another important moment in the rise of ABBA to the status of unstoppable Pop immortals. I don’t know about England, but it was a big hit in America, and as such served as the gateway drug for a lot of hitherto un-ABBA’d music lovers.

  21. 51
    vinylscot on 13 May 2008 #

    Like many of the above (I suspect) I thought I knew this one like the back of my hand, but some of the earlier comments drove me to actually LISTEN to it, rather than just remembering having heard it.

    It IS slower than I remember, even though I must have heard it a dozen times this year at least. I can’t get quite as enthusiastic as Tom about it, but it just brings a smile to my face every time I hear it; I honestly didn’t like it much at the time – Abba were definitely “uncool” (copyright 1977 Jo Callis), and by now were established enough that there was a bit of an anti-Abba backlash beginning.

    There are one or two heavy hints in the vocal delivery that we’re not dealing with English speakers here, and while in some of their songs (e.g. The Day Before You Came) that can be a rather endearing little foible, here it just irritates. Once you’ve noticed it once, you’ll always notice it. (like the production error on Red Box’s “Lean on Me” – A favourite of yours I believe Tom – “The Circle and the Square” must surely be one of the greatest “Pop” albums of the 80s, or any decade?)

    I also hadn’t noticed the Oliver’s Army bit, and will no doubt never get away from that either now.

    My own take on it is not quite so romantic as some outlined above – just a couple of girls, going out on the town to have a good time teasing the boys, and probably not going any further because 1) they are only seventeen, and 2) this is Abba we’re talking about!

    Not a 10, but a definite 7… or maybe an 8.

  22. 52
    pink champale on 13 May 2008 #

    i was 17 in 1990 too and don’t remember ever not knowing DQ, and i think have pretty much always thought – as i still do now – that it was the greatest record ever made. as lots of people have said, it’s the joy and it’s the joy in seeing the joy, and it’s the sadness in seeing the joy and it’s the sadness in knowing the joy will become sadness, but for all of that, there’s no bitterness, the narrator is still there digging the dancing queen. and i can’t see how anyone is excluded – this is trancedence happening in some crappy suburban club – that plays rock music for gawds sake – the dancing queen isn’t some exotic creature gliding round studio 54.

    bjorn again at reading was by a mile the highlight of the festival for me – i remember standing there with that stupid grin, lump in the throat and tears in the eyes that i wouldn’t experience again until i saw jonathan richman for the first time ten years later.

  23. 53
    Billy Smart on 13 May 2008 #

    Re: 48 – In 1976 my big sister (who had the wild adolescence that I manifestly didn’t a decade or so later) was listening to things like Hawkwind and Roy Harper – a terrifying din to my three-year old self! ABBA was not the sort of thing that she’d give the time of day to. And as for my parents; my mother has never liked any popular music, while my father lost interest in pop once the skiffle boom was over!

  24. 54
    pink champale on 13 May 2008 #

    in nine or so years, of course, we’ll be getting another wonderful, wonderful song where the dancing queen tells us what it’s like to be her.

  25. 55
    crag on 13 May 2008 #

    I was at Reading 92(my first ever festival!) but didnt see Bjorn Again or indeed anybody on the Sunday they performed due to a classic piece of teen stupidity on me and my friends part. The bus back to Edinburgh was IIRC only 10 minutes after the end of the headliners set so we figured the ‘sensible’ thing to do(since the whole day was filled w/ bands we wanted to see on the main stage-Nirvana, Pavement..erm, cant remember the rest now) was to pack up first thing and head into the performance area early doors,taking our tent,ludicrously overpacked rucksacks(first ever festival remember.i know better now-bring a change of socks? Madness!) etc with us. Unfortunately we were turned away at the door due to our enormous luggage and so we merely wandered around feeling sorry for ourselves, catching vague snippets of sound on the wind for the next 7 hours..Not my proudest moment…

  26. 56
    wichita lineman on 13 May 2008 #

    Hats off to everyone. This is a fabulous thread.

    My memory of Dancing Queen on its release is that it was a mediocre disappointment to one and all. It seemed (intriguingly, after just two consecutive number ones) that Abba were already expected to produce instant pop classics to me, my parents, and my pop loving Gran. Can’t think of anyone with that weight of expectation previously, me being just too young to miss out on The Beatles.

    The chart positions bear this out. In at 23, up to 16… in the olden days when you could work this kinda thing out with a slide rule it should’ve been no.10, possibly 9, the following week.

    Instead, the UK suddenly cottoned on. From number 16 to number 1 inside seven days.

    Take the ubiquity away and this may suggest, on top of everything else, Dancing Queen has great subtlety as well as real grandeur. No small feat for a song that is entirely made up of hooks – and so many – from start to finish. A solid 10.

    And Abba had no real precedent. Unlike any other pre-76 million-selling act they were unknowable and, Agnetha’s bum aside, seemed character-free and charmless. No David Essex in their ranks, for sure. But at this juncture everyone (hip dudes aside) wondered what their next 45 would sound like. They still confuse me.

  27. 57
    Doctor Mod on 14 May 2008 #
  28. 58
    Doctor Mod on 14 May 2008 #

    I recently took an Aussie friend to dinner. Almost simultaneously, we heard something in the background that made us look at each other rather archly. It was, of course, “Dancing Queen.” “Oh my God!” she said, dropping her fork on the plate, “It’s the Australian national anthem!”

    Well, indeed.

    As far as I’m concerned, Tom’s spot on with his critique. If this isn’t the perfect pop single, I don’t know what is.

  29. 59
    rosie on 14 May 2008 #

    May I, since he has been mentioned obliquely in this thread, put on the record how sad I am that Elvis Costello won’t be troubling the scorers here. Along with The Who, he is one of the two toweringly influential acts never to have had a number one and his influence on the very best of what is to come can’t be underestimated. He is also an accomplished craftsman, a superb writer of songs, and a consummate musician.

    For what it’s worth!

  30. 60
    DJ Punctum on 14 May 2008 #

    I think you’re mixing up Elvis Costello with Billy Fury here.

    EC was all right up until about Imperial Bedroom after which he became Julian Barnes for Q readers.

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