“The Winner Takes It All” is pure theatre. In the sense that it’s a showstopper – Andersson and Ulvaeus had been getting itchy with the singles-albums routine and thinking towards the stage for a while, and this song by itself pretty much demanded that an ABBA musical come into being one day. But also in the sense that the song’s context is a performance – a final performance, with an audience of one – and the song is a sequence of desperate, doomed ploys by its singer to win over that audience, even as he’s flipping up his seat, putting on his coat and hat and walking out of the show forever.
This isn’t to say “Winner” is at all phoney – these ploys aren’t really trying to mask the singer’s underlying emotion, which is anguish. But there are plenty of songs about anguish: this is a song about attempts to use it, or spin it. The song, like “Maggie May” or “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina”, takes place in real time; a monologue. The attempts fail – but gloriously.
The first ploy is negotiation – don’t worry; I’m not here to rake over old embers, we’re reasonable people, we both tried our best. The music is gentle, reassuring – the falling piano melody that dominates the song is stately. The chorus, restrained on its first appearance, has a philosophical air.
And then the tone changes, the song becomes a guilt trip. Since we’re reasonable people, how could you let me believe these things? “Building me a home / Thinking I belonged there” – that slightly elongated, stressed “me” is the first hint of steel in Agnetha’s performance. The music has stepped up its pace, the pianos more urgent. There’s more venom in the singing as the song’s trap is sprung: if only fools play by the rules, and life is a dice throw – this metaphysical turn the song’s only lyrical mis-step – then the outcome of the reasonable game is still in doubt. The chorus, second time round, is more strident, more desperate.
The third ploy – a frontal attack. “But tell me, does she kiss, like I used to kiss you?” Agnetha has never sounded sexier, all caressed sibilants and soft vowels, then the regal sweep of “deep inside”. Rules must be obeyed, she shrugs, and the message is – throw the game! But the moment passes: resignation returns, and there’s real bitterness in “a lover – or a friend?”.
Which leaves just abjection, the real last throw of those dice: the music subsides, and for the first time the singer sounds broken, hesitant, perhaps horrified by how the conversation is turning out. “Seeing me so tense – no self-con…fidence”: it’s pitiful. And in the end, with a flick of the voice – that conspiratorial “but you see” – her pride returns, and the ranging final chorus is a defiant self-justification of what she’s just put her audience (him, and us) through.
On the video, the members of ABBA laugh and clink glasses, reminding us that there’s a third layer of theatre here, the public disintegration of a real life marriage. That layer’s become shorthand for the whole song – “Winner” as a divorce epic. But the specifics are unfair on the song: as “Dancing Queen” was to their world-beating peak, “Winner” is to the wintry late ABBA – a monumental combination of supreme craft and bittersweet subtlety. And more – it’s one of pop’s great pieces of acting.