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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. 151
    Tom on 15 May 2008 #

    Hooray indie cred preserved! :(

    (I still like Chic because they sound opulent as fuck though)

  2. 152
    pink champale on 15 May 2008 #

    tom – you’re right there. ‘perfect pop’ is generally made in opposition to ‘imperfect pop’ , where ‘perfect’ means “a bit like merseybeat” and ‘imperfect’ means “whatever is actually in the charts”.

  3. 153
    rosie on 15 May 2008 #

    An academic (the same academic, oddly enough, who told me one shouldn’t read Heart of Darkness because it was racist) remarked to me once that she liked the Blackpool Tower Ballroom because it was one place where she saw working-class people looking beautiful. Leaving aside the breathtaking condescension of it all, there’s a grain of truth there that connects to my reading of Dancing Queen: the Dancing Queen herself isn’t a member of a exclusionary set, she’s the careworn, downtrodden checkout girl at Fine Fare during the week but on Friday night she puts on her finery and then, out there on the floor not at Annabelles but at the local Locarno, she blossoms.

  4. 154
    Mark M on 15 May 2008 #

    According to the story that Nile tells on every documentary ever made, it was Freak Out a/k/a Fuck Off! that was directly inspired by not getting into Studio 54.

  5. 155
    Tim on 15 May 2008 #

    “Perfect pop” = pop in the perfect tense. (Twenty years ago I’d have got into a proper fight with anyone who said that.)

  6. 156
    Erithian on 15 May 2008 #

    That’s what I hear too, Rosie – an ordinary girl transformed into the Dancing Queen by the music (for which, thank you!), but attractive enough to turn the men on for fun. In fact, much as one would imagine a 17-year-old Agnetha (although the teenage Agnetha wasn’t as much of a goddess as the polished mid-20s pop star was). What kind of milieu would Benny and Bjorn have been picturing? – probably not a Studio 54 type of place or anywhere for the exclusive set, but a dancefloor full of young (and no doubt attractive) Swedes just having the time of their lives.

  7. 157
    DJ Punctum on 15 May 2008 #

    Oh yes, “Le Freak.”

    S Maconie: “Studio 54? What was that all about? Where were the other 53 then? Did they build them in Kidderminster for tax reasons? Bet it wasn’t as good as the Wigan Casino. I mean, OK, you had Andy Warhol and Marjorie Proops going in there, but I bet they never sold Tizer! Call yourself a disco and you don’t sell Tizer and Spangles? Eh? Eh?”

  8. 158
    rosie on 15 May 2008 #

    There was a pizza and cocktails joint in Cambridge called Pseudio 54. That about sums it up.

  9. 159
    pink champale on 15 May 2008 #

    ha, i was just about to make a maconie reference inspired by rosie’s excellent use of “fine fare” and “locarno” in the same sentence.

  10. 160
    LondonLee on 15 May 2008 #

    For some reason I’m reminded of this speech from Whit Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco

    Josh: Disco will never be over. It will always live in our minds and hearts. Something like this, that was this big, and this important, and this great, will never die. Oh, for a few years – maybe many years – it’ll be considered passé and ridiculous. It will be misrepresented and caricatured and sneered at, or – worse – completely ignored. People will laugh about John Travolta, Olivia Newton-John, white polyester suits and platform shoes and people going like *this* [strikes disco pose]. But we had nothing to do with those things and still loved disco. Those who didn’t understand will never understand: disco was much more, and much better, than all that. Disco was too great, and too much fun, to be gone forever! It’s got to come back someday. I just hope it will be in our own lifetimes.

  11. 161
    Billy Smart on 15 May 2008 #

    Hurray! And some of the best futuredisco from the generations after the original disco shall be brought to the attentions of Popular.

  12. 162
    pink champale on 15 May 2008 #

    the last days of disco! i love that speech, and i love that film. it’s sort of relevant to the exclusivity debate about dancing queen as well, as one of the points about the film (if i remember it right) was that the protaganists were kind of geeky (though this is relative, they seemed fearsomely cool to me) and the only reason they could get anywhere near studio 54 was that disco was already passe, but nonetheless their love for disco was real and admirable.

  13. 163
    lex on 15 May 2008 #

    I wish ‘Dancing Queen’ was a MORE elitist record! When it comes to pop stars, beautiful people acting like divas >>>>> ordinary people blah blah blah.

  14. 164
    LondonLee on 15 May 2008 #

    Susanne and Joanne from the Human League are probably the best pop example of the “Fine Fare girls at the Locarno” type. Phil Oakey did actually find them at a disco called The Crazy Daisy on Sheffield High Street.

  15. 165
    DJ Punctum on 15 May 2008 #

    How long, I wonder, before the guitar player turns to rock and roll?

  16. 166
    Tom on 15 May 2008 #

    I’d give it twenty minutes.

  17. 167
    Erithian on 15 May 2008 #

    Reminds me of a classic story about Muriel Gray. She and a pal spotted Madonna using a portaloo backstage at Live Aid, stood outside waiting for her to emerge and then declared, not addressed to Madge but intended for her hearing, “I’d give it ten minutes if I were you”.

  18. 168
    rosie on 15 May 2008 #

    LondonLee @ 160: s/Disco/Rock’n’Roll/ and that speech could have been made in 1966!

  19. 169
    DJ Punctum on 15 May 2008 #

    Trad will never be over. It will always live in our minds and hearts. Something like this, that was this big, and this important, and this great, will never die. Oh, for a few years – maybe many years – it’ll be considered passé and ridiculous. It will be misrepresented and caricatured and sneered at, or – worse – completely ignored. People will laugh about Kenny Ball, Mr Acker Bilk, bowler hats and striped waistcoats and people going like *this* [blows imaginary trumpet]. But we had nothing to do with those things and still loved trad. Those who didn’t understand will never understand: trad was much more, and much better, than all that. Trad was too great, and too much fun, to be gone forever! It’s got to come back someday. I just hope it will be in our own lifetimes.

  20. 170
    LondonLee on 15 May 2008 #

    With one crucial difference, also from that movie:

    “You know the Woodstock generation of the 1960s that were so full of themselves and conceited? None of those people could dance.”

  21. 171
    DJ Punctum on 15 May 2008 #

    What Happened To Ban The Bomb Trad, Dad? The Scandalous Truth Revealed:

    http://img.tesco.com/pi/entertainment/DVD/LF/674921_DV_L_F.jpg

  22. 172
    rosie on 15 May 2008 #

    We will, of course, be having another – radically changed – variant on the Fine Fare girl at the Locarno anon.

  23. 173

    […] Thursday, 15 May 2008 Over at Popular, wwolfe writes: […]

  24. 174
    Erithian on 16 May 2008 #

    I spotted last night one of those clips shows for which Freeview was made – “TV’s Funniest Musical Moments” on ITV2, no doubt to be repeated soon if you’re interested. Some well-worn regulars, but the gold among them were a sequence of clips of Peter Glaze and Don Maclean on Crackerjack (CRACKERJACK!). We were treated to their versions of “Dancing Queen”, “Bohemian Rhapsody”, “Video Killed the Radio Star” and, weirdest of all, “Golden Years” – Peter Glaze sings Bowie…

  25. 175
    DJ Punctum on 16 May 2008 #

    I once had a dream where I was watching a nineties edition of Crackerjack and Glaze and “Not American Pie” Maclean were performing their version of an iconic nineties number one (obviously I’m not going to say which one until we get there) and it looked and sounded eerily logical. The man is much missed.

  26. 176
    Waldo on 16 May 2008 #

    I thought the pious bastard was still alive, Marcello.

    Rosie – There were two branches of Fine Fare in Clapham High Street back in the sixties. Long long gone. Even seeing the name brought back memories. I take it they still exist in your remote corner of perfidious albion?

  27. 177
    DJ Punctum on 16 May 2008 #

    Mr Glaze passed on in February 1983, depriving a grieving public of the opportunity to witness his inimitable interpretation of Hayzi Fantayzee’s “Shiny Shiny.”

  28. 178
    Billy Smart on 16 May 2008 #

    Peter Glaze can also be heard, if not seen, as a Sensorite in a poorly regarded 1964 Doctor Who story. Even from behind a rubber mask, and hobbled by having circular saucer feet, its still very clear that its him.

  29. 179
    Waldo on 16 May 2008 #

    Err.. I rather fancy I was talking about t’other bloke. Peter Glaze was, of course, a comic genius. I’d love to see him featured in the “Curse of..” series but I’m not holding my breath. Ditto Lord Varney of Crouch End, who was still very much with us last time I looked.

  30. 180
    DJ Punctum on 16 May 2008 #

    Ah yes, I beg your pardon – pious Don “Not Vincent” Maclean who is certainly still walking amongst the living with his rib-fracturing humour and when not engaged in Crackerjack or Black And White Minstrel Show business – I’m sure he has stated many dozens of times that the latter was “not racialist” and that, look, we had “my coloured Brummie chum Lenny Henry” on the show (cue sternly worded letter from Mr Henry’s lawyers, swiftly followed by a letter of dismissal addressed to Mr Henry’s agent following the Premier Inns ad) – was to be found in such endeavours as Supersavers, a lunchtime ITV show which featured him wandering around the Co-Op in Solihull with a woman whose name I’ve long forgotten looking at the prices of cod and Omo. These days it would get an hour on peak-time Channel 4.

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