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May 08

ABBA – “Dancing Queen”

FT + Popular/240 comments • 14,057 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. 121
    LondonLee on 14 May 2008 #

    I saw a video of them singing it on Japanese television the other day and the two girls looked so damn happy. It made me think that was why two such gorgeous women would fall for those two plain-looking blokes, they gave them songs like that to sing.

    God, Frida was sexy. Watch her move

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GUObsGna8GA

  2. 122
    lonepilgrim on 14 May 2008 #

    re#119 I saw TW around that time as well and enjoyed the show too though I wouldn’t describe it as scary…
    he used to make it more obvious that the hipster/beatnik persona was more of a pose than a reality (kind of the lie that tells the truth) but somewhere along the line – the Frank’s Wild Years album for me – the mask got stuck and he/the audience took it way too seriously

    there’s a similar problem for me with elvis costello in that once the persona of ‘elvis costello’ solidified into this lyrically verbose, musically versatile character he became less interesting and despite adopting new musical styles has never done so with the conviction of dylan or bowie. there’s another telling of the dancing queen /olivers army connection in the latest ‘word’ magazine – there was also a bbc programme recently where glen matlock admitted to basing the opening riff of pretty vacant on an abba song though i don’t think it was DQ

    at the time Dancing Queen came out i didn’t pay it too much attention and probably came to appreciate it’s happy/sad mix with muriel’s wedding

  3. 123
    wwolfe on 14 May 2008 #

    “…in a nutshell, these artistes demand to be taken seriously and are, which means they’ll always get more exposure than Pure Pop acts who may be capable of at least as much emotional depth. Ergo, it’s good salesmanship as much as anything.”

    This is the best capsule summary of “Sting: Why I Dislike Him and All His Works” that I’ve ever read.

  4. 124
    rosie on 15 May 2008 #

    Ah, Sting! He who can come and do my washing up any time he likes! Sexy beast.

    I winced along with everybody else when he made his foray into John Dowland country but there’s still a bit of me that says, kudos to him for trying. It didn’t work but what the hell? I doubt whether he did it for the money and I can well understand why he might want to try something new even if it doesn’t come off and doesn’t bear repetition; his problem of course is that whatever he does, and he is the kind of person who wants to explore different things, he will be under scrutiny and subject to the sneers of his many critics. However, Mr Sumner is bunny-fodder in the not-too-distant future and I look forward to some colourful exchanges when we get there.

    Meanwhile, I have never claimed expert musical knowledge in these pages; my interest was originally in the pop I grew up with (Beatles, Stones, Who, Kinks, Beach Boys, Motown in all its glory; to be young was very heaven), and latterly in the sociological aspects of pop (and isn’t it all hanging out now!). I know more about writing because that’s what I aspire to, and despite the claims that music, and especially pop music, is sui generis amongst the arts, I think there are very strong parallels in that world.

    A friend of mine, a very talented writer and critic of the writing of others, churns out Mills & Boon Modern Extras (the spicier end of the Romantic Fiction niche) by the yard. Although she enjoys producing these, she finds them very limiting because they are essentially written to a strict formula, and they also take up all of her time because having cracked that very difficult market her publishers demand that the product keeps coming, and her readership have very precise expectations and would be up in arms if she strayed from the path and gave them something a little bit unexpected, never mind challenging or thought-provoking. I’m guilty myself in a way – I consume large quantities of crime fiction and sometimes have been annoyed when a favourite crime writer – Reg Hill, say – gets too clever by half. But I don’t get too annoyed because as a would-be crime writer myself I know exactly the yearning to set oneself apart from the crowd, and how difficult it is to experiment when others have such precise expectations of you.

    I suppose a literary equivalent of ‘prog’ might be the Booker Prize and its contenders. It’s not a good parallel because those who win the the Booker aren’t generally blockbusting superstars of the literary world, and part of the idea of the Booker is to provide some kind of remuneration for the talented in a world where none but a few can afford to give up the day job. Nevertheless, every autumn when the shortlist is announced, there’s an outcry; it’s elitist, it’s not representing the kind of books that ‘ordinary people’ (whoever they are); inevitably that the Booker winner is ‘unreadable’. I have to say that I haven’t read all the Booker winners by any means but those that I have, haven’t disappointed me. Years ago I stayed up all night to finish Midnight’s Children. Schindler’s Ark wasn’t a pleasant read but it is unforgettable. Possession, Last Orders, The God of Small Things, Amsterdam; all stonking good reads. How Late It Was, How Late evokes the grittiness of Glasgow better than any noir crime story. And so on.

    The problem with the anti-elitist line is that it starts from a false premise; that anything different or challenging is remote from the masses. Well, how condescending and elitist can you get than that! Nothing is out of the reach of anybody who wants to break free of their mind-forg’d manacles (what would William Blake have made of Popular, I wonder?). It’s easier to risk failure from obscurity, however, than to fail under the spotlight of popular scrutiny. I have nothing but admiration for those who would take that risk.

  5. 125
    Tom on 15 May 2008 #

    It’s odd, though, cos another criticism that tends to get made of the Booker is that it’s middlebrow, it backs the wrong horses, it’s not rewarding genuinely challenging work, etc. I don’t really like the word “middlebrow” (speaking as someone who used to fling it around a LOT in hotheaded younger days) but I think ‘art rock’ (for want of a better word) suffers from the same perception and the same squeeze: respectable in comparison to the mass market but still treading familiar, though more rarefied, ground.

    Right, now I am going to do my promised reply to Five Long Days and then it’s onwards!

  6. 126
    Waldo on 15 May 2008 #

    Marcello – I notice that your contribution at # 87 was a right old free for all.

    And many thanks for your clarification at #78. It was, of course, neither Ingmar Bergman nor Ingrid Bergman who knocked out Floyd Patterson. It was indeed Scarlett Johansson!

    Cheers, buddy!

  7. 127
    a logged out p^nk s lord sukråt wötsit on 15 May 2008 #

    yes my answer also would be — or would have been — that the charge against prog wasn’t “oh this is too challenging” so much as “this thinks itself very challenging but really it isn’t” — and noting that eg Trout Mask Replica remained a touchstone before during and after punk (which is not at all to say that all punks loved or treasured or cared about it): since i now (by contrast) quite strongly feel that something* got lost in the humiliation of prog, i am less inclined to argue that punk’s drive was towards nothing but better, deeper, truer difficulty, tho that is CERTAINLY what i told myself at the time (as well, of course, as getting same to the top of the charts)

    *what exactly though? i think a hard-to-specify 60s-utopian open-endedness — and i think that prog itself had, in practice, actually rather squished this open-endedness, as it lost momentum, found its own limits of capability, got defensive…

  8. 128
    pink champale on 15 May 2008 #

    #122 i think the ‘pretty vacant’ intro is supposed to be inspired by SOS, though i’ve never quite seen it myself.

    the pop equivalent to the booker prize is probably the mercury prize, which i’m fairly sure is consciously modelled on the booker – both have the same remit of “quality over sales” and as a result do rather set themselves up for accusations of being middlebrow and existing only to provide people who don’t follow contemporary music or literature that closely with a pre-approved shortcut cutting-edgeness. personally (and as someone who increasingly fits into the demographic!) i don’t see much wrong with that.

    i’d say the literary equivalent to prog is the kind of sci-fi that has pretensions to “dealing with” weighty issues. however, i was born in 1973 and have pretty much no first-hand experience of prog (and so am still prey to what the nme thought about it in 1989) and have read almost no sci-fi. so it is just possible that there are some holes in this argument!

  9. 129
    Billy Smart on 15 May 2008 #

    In the 1990s, there were a few years when the prize money for the Booker, Mercury and Turner Prizes was identical – £20,000, which must say something or other about the equivalence of status between the three.

  10. 130
    DJ Punctum on 15 May 2008 #

    What about prog needing to be humiliated in order to be resuscitated by post-punk since what were PiL, JD if not etc. etc.

    (note how in America this never represented a problem since the likes of Rocket from the Tombs/Ubu, Heads, Patti, Suicide &c. were exactly the same sort of unplaceable WTFness which would have arisen from the early catalogue of Virgin Records here before punk happened – I’m finding it hard to think of direct US early seventies equivalents to Yes, Tull, ELP etc. and was this the dividing line here, this extra layer of favours-owed-from-the-sixties-but-no-longer-actively-any-aesthetic-use prog timeservers?)

  11. 131
    pink champale on 15 May 2008 #

    i suppose one of the things it says is that the award is intended to be given to someone who wouild find £20,000 a significant amount of money, i.e. the up and coming rather than the superstar. though i think you have to be a pretty stella in the world of literary fiction before you start making any money at all.

  12. 132
    Tom on 15 May 2008 #

    The US though had this enormous layer of adult non-progressive rock which we’ll run smack into in a couple of entries so I’ll say no more.

  13. 133
    rosie on 15 May 2008 #

    Perhaps in retrospect comparing Prog and the Booker wasn’t particularly apt. Prog covers a lot of ground – some of it very good indeed – and perhaps the best and most apt comparison to some of the worst excesses of Prog is The Lord of the Rings, a work which I detest because it’s huge and baggy, badly-written, self-indulgent and desperately in need of heavy editing. But I also take the point about the science-fiction novel with an axe to grind.

    Will we accept, maybe, that the equivalent of the 3-minute pop song is the 300-page genre novel, whether it’s Romance, Chick-lit, Lad-lit, Detective, Cyberpunk or whatever? Some of which are very good and some much less so, but to restrict oneself to these and these alone is to miss out on some wonderful, or perhaps distressing or eye-opening, experiences.

    There’s nothing wrong with liking or disliking any of these but there’s a lot wrong with restricting oneself to a narrow range of what one feels safe with. Same with music.

  14. 134
    DJ Punctum on 15 May 2008 #

    What I’m more interested in, though, is where the two overlap and start to blend – a good literary comparison starting point might be Lanark by Alastair Gray which non-coincidentally is my favourite book or anything (well, most things) by David Peace.

    Either/or is always a dodgy dealer.

  15. 135
    DJ Punctum on 15 May 2008 #

    (and yes, either/or spirit of punk haha but the spillage was more colourful by being kept under didactic wraps)

  16. 136
    a logged out p^nk s lord sukråt wötsit on 15 May 2008 #

    the distinction between US and Uk is that i don’t in the US the deep suspicion of musicality as a value ever took hold, as it did in the UK (it’s right there dead centre in free improv, punk and post-punk): i think the contrariness and contradiction is interesting and produced enormously valuable stuff, but it’s weirdly underexamined — no one ever steps back and looks at it (whence the hostility, whence the fear?)

    proto-prog in the US = zappa, the dead maybe, even jefferson airplane (all pre-date brit-prog main wave)
    parallel to prog in time (but not prog) = jazzrock and fusion, return to forever, weather report blah blah
    US next-wave-prog of course does exist viz rush (except they’re canadian)

  17. 137
    pink champale on 15 May 2008 #

    i’ve never got more than 20 pages into lotr (though tolkein went to my school so it was something of a presence in my youth) but i’d always kind of assumed that the audience for it and prog were basically the same – wasn’t lotr was pretty much forgotten until the late sixties when it got taken up by hippies who were then inspired to write concept albums about goblins in the seventies. then punk came along and drove them both underground until the unlikely resurrection of lotr a few years ago – i could never quite get used to suddenly seeing twenty something women on the tube with their heads buried in frodo.

  18. 138
    a logged out p^nk s lord sukråt wötsit on 15 May 2008 #

    (vital and exciting radioshow discussing the sf equivalent of the 3-minute-single HERE of course pimp pimp) :D

  19. 139
    DJ Punctum on 15 May 2008 #

    well you know, elijah wood…

  20. 140
    DJ Punctum on 15 May 2008 #

    yes it’s probably wise to keep CanCon out of this at the moment since amongst other things it would drag in supremely awkward argument-demolisher n**l y***g…

  21. 141
    and everybody elses Mark G on 15 May 2008 #

    OK, how about KonKan?

  22. 142
    a logged out p^nk s lord sukråt wötsit on 15 May 2008 #

    punk = orc-rock, it was only elves that were driven underground

  23. 143
    pink champale on 15 May 2008 #

    rosie, sorry i missed your second paragraph first time around. i don’t think i would agree with this, as for me the best 3 minute pop song is the absolute pinnacle of what music can be (and dancing queen is,er, the pinnacle of this pinnacle) whereas i don’t think the genre novel is ever the pinnacle of what literature can be. or i suppose what i mean is that i honestly feel i get the same out of ‘dancing queen’ as someone else might get out of the best bit ‘tristan and isolde’ but i don’t think that anyone can get as much out of a dan brown novel as you can out of a fitzgerald novel. though a dan brown novel could still be better than [insert literary novelist who’s no good]. i suppose i’m some sort of book rockist.

  24. 144
    rosie on 15 May 2008 #

    I wrote a short story once (it probably doesn’t bear reviving but I might think about it) called The Assassination of Aragorn, which deals with ill-treatment, enslavement and subsequent uprising of the Orcs in the Kingdom of Gondor!

  25. 145
    DJ Punctum on 15 May 2008 #

    Now come on Rosie, be honest – was it inspired by the Grunwick dispute?

  26. 146
    a logged out p^nk s lord sukråt wötsit on 15 May 2008 #

    ash nazg durbatulûk/ash nazg gimbatul/ash nazg thrakatulûk/ash burzum-ishi krimpatul

    vs:

    i am the antichrist/i am an anarchist/don’t know what i want but i know how to get it/i wanna destroy passersby

    (johnny rotten = gollum, DISCUSS)

    [must. stop. now. my grand theory of craft vs anti-craft in art and music threatens to drag entire universe into black hole of absurd connections]

  27. 147
    Tom on 15 May 2008 #

    OK this is a reply to Five Long Days at #27:

    FLD’s basic point (as I understand it) is that the Dancing Queen is exclusionary – she is one of the beautiful people, enforcing her kind of fun.

    I think this is slightly defused by the invisible-narrator I talked about – the DQ is the centre of the song, but the narrator is generous enough to celebrate her even though the narrator can’t join in. The inclusive element is the “You can dance!” bit in the chorus – telling everyone that they can have that Dancing Queen moment, in which case anyone really could be that guy, because anyone could be the DQ too.

    Obviously though there is a point at which democratic fun becomes forced fun – the conga-line horror of the office Christmas party. “Who gets to have fun?” and “who gets to be pop?” and “who gets to be cool?” are big underlying questions for Popular, and for the split between ‘pop music’ and the rest of it (prog, or art rock, or indie, or soul). This split is never ever total – critically or commercially – but it’s easy for particular records to seem to symbolise one side or the other of it. Especially “Dancing Queen” because ABBA’s critical arc – tolerated to mocked to celebrated – is semi shared by pop too.

    Personally I’ve always been torn between the sides. My favourite band for a long time was The Smiths, because (paradoxically by drawing on pre-Beatles ultra-sanitised pop) they offered an alternative to the fun and dancing and pop that alienated and terrified me – but then at the same time that stuff attracted me. I’d have been laughed away from Studio 54 before I’d so much as sniffed the doorman’s aftershave but my stock ‘favourite single’ answer for ages is “Good Times” by Chic, because the aspirational gorgeousness of it was so powerful.

    One of the things about pop is that it has a joint-status as commodity and art but as both it behaves very oddly: something crucial but little remarked on is that it all costs the same. In pretty much every other market (and in the original art market), price functions as an indicator of status, but a consumer pays approximately the same for Trout Mask Replica as she does for The Best Of The Undertones or for an ABBA album. So scarcity becomes the main indicator of status – and here TMR is higher status than ABBA because less people have heard it.

    But then you run into problems because pop – the low status, low scarcity end of the market – is seen as flashier and more expensive and more status-conscious and less grass-roots than the high-scarcity stuff often is. (This is why the pop:fast-food analogy doesn’t work)

    So pop throws questions of status and inclusiveness into some confusion anyway, even before you start looking at how it’s been received as art.

    This is all a very rambling way of saying that if “Dancing Queen” (or indeed “Good Times”) is an elitist, exclusionary record then it’s an apalling failure as one – it is a colossal hit known and danced to by millions! But I know that isn’t really FLD’s point – his point is simply that he feels alienated by this definition of pop. To which I can only say, yes, fair enough, I don’t! But I think the issues raised by feeling alienated from pop are going to come up more and more often.

  28. 148
    DJ Punctum on 15 May 2008 #

    I merely point out that “Anarchy” was in the hit parade at the same time as Can’s “I Want More.”

  29. 149
    Tom on 15 May 2008 #

    Pink Champale at #143: there is a point though where the 3 minute pop song DOES become a kind of genre-novel equivalent, when songmakers internalise the idea of “the 3 minute pop song” as the height of music and start trying to make ‘perfect pop’ records. Why is this different from what ABBA did? Aha, there you get onto very tricky and difficult ground unfortunately :(

  30. 150
    DJ Punctum on 15 May 2008 #

    Well, not quite – Chic were always very clear that “Good Times” was intended to be ironic, not just because of the impending recession but also because of the fact that they had very publicly been refused admission to Studio 54 even though they were playing and dancing to their records inside.

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