Nov 08

ABBA – “The Winner Takes It All”

FT + Popular104 comments • 11,711 views

#463, 9th August 1980

“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.



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  1. 1
    Martin Skidmore on 18 Nov 2008 #

    That last phrase is a subject that always interests me – you may recall that I talked about acting a lyric rather than simply feeling it in that old Al Green piece, but it’s a major part of my love for some other acts, such as the Shangri-Las or Dolly Parton. I think it’s an underappreciated skill, often lost in favour of vocal pyrotechnics (I often like these too, but there is sometimes a trade-off).

  2. 2
    LondonLee on 18 Nov 2008 #

    I know they’d written “adult” songs before (Knowing Me, Knowing You) but this one wasn’t as dressed up in bright pop clothes so it was a surprise at the time that ABBA could be this grown up, to me anyway. It felt like their ‘Send In The Clowns’ or ‘Rumours’

    I think this is their last truly great single, I might quibble with a 10 but only a little.

  3. 3
    Tom on 18 Nov 2008 #

    I’d say “The Day Before You Came” is great. And maybe “The Visitors”. But this is better than either of those (I think it’s their best single full stop).

    It’s another goodbye-to-the-70s single in a way – one of the titans of the era preparing to throw in the towel: more on that when we hit their actual last No.1 maybe.

  4. 4
    lonepilgrim on 18 Nov 2008 #

    This is an outstanding song, with a fantasticly judged performance by singers and musicians preventing it from becoming overblown or mawkish. Unlike ‘Crying’ this benefits from restraint rather than full on operatic emoting – although I can imagine it being howled through quite affectingly at karaoke evenings.
    I love the way that the lyric moves from the personal to the cosmic. It may have been inspired by Cole Porter’s ‘Every time we say goodbye’ in the way that it invokes the indifference of the gods – although I envisage Odin and Loki in Abba’s case rather than Zeus and Hermes.
    I really didn’t appreciate this fully at the time but this deserves a 10 without a doubt.

  5. 5
    johnny on 18 Nov 2008 #

    couldn’t agree more with the 10 rating. my parents loved abba when i was young and i really couldn’t understand it. flash forward 15 years to a tape my cousin made for me of her 25 favorite songs of all time. when this popped up, i was completely taken aback. this was not platform boots and snowsuits, this had real depth of feeling. it made me reevaluate everything i thought i knew about abba. i was in love. this is always the track i play for abba-haters. if the song doesn’t affect you, there’s sometime wrong with you. how could you deny THIS?

    for me, the backing vocals make the song. notice they only come in during the most intense sections of the song. when the singer becomes overwhelmed by emotion, the backing vocal becomes the rational counterpart. having said that, their sound and melody are perhaps a knock-off of lennon’s “happy xmas(war is over)”.

    this is abba’s masterpiece. while it vies with “SOS”, “One of Us”, and “Under Attack” for favorite status, I’m well aware of its superiority.

  6. 6
    will on 18 Nov 2008 #

    Indeed, a masterpiece. To my mind this is one of only two Number Ones in my lifetime fully deserving the whole 10.

    As Tom rightly points out this is one of THE great vocal performances. At times you feel as if you’re intruding on private grief. Which I suppose, given the state of the Abba marriages at the time, we were.

  7. 7
    Marshmallow Hamilton on 18 Nov 2008 #

    Abba return to the top slot after a gap of two and a half years and their genius has not dimmed. “The Winner Takes It All” is a heart rendering concession of defeat in the game of love (“Nothing more to say. No more ace to play”) and we sit spellbound sharing her misery. But is this self-wallowing pity? It is not. The brilliance of this record is that there is never a swipe at the victorious rival or even at the lover she has lost. Instead there is a brave stoicism which we readily applaud as the narrator loses everything (“The Winner Takes it All, The loser standing small. Beside the victory, That’s her destiny”). There is, of course, reflection (“I was in your arms, thinking I belonged there”) before acceptance (“It’s simple and it’s plain. Why should I complain?”) and even though she offers a final brave challenge (“But tell me does she kiss, like I used to kiss you, Does it feel the same, when she calls your name?”) she knows her cause is lost and there is a handshake before the song ends with her howling into the night “The Winner Takes It All” and a magnificent piece of theatre leaves us with a feeling far greater than a woman being dumped by a lover with whom she is especially in love. This is not the end of a relationship. This is the end of the world.

  8. 8
    peter goodlaws on 18 Nov 2008 #

    You lot are all raving about this but sorry, no. Abba were never for me then and not now. Im not going to say their crap, that would be ignorant. Just to say that Abba are not on my taste list. I guess there will come a time when kids will look back to the stuff I like and slag it all off. I’m not going to do that here to Abba because you guys are clever and reasonable and I don’t want to look like a dickhead. I just think Abba belong in the seventies not in the eighties which is my decade really.

  9. 9
    Erithian on 18 Nov 2008 #

    Just to say, briefly, that the moment when the swell of music stills for a second and Agnetha gets down to the nitty gritty with that “does she kiss like I used to kiss you?” is the single most arresting and brilliant moment in all of Abba’s work.

  10. 10
    Andrew F on 18 Nov 2008 #

    I think I’m closer to Marshmallow Hamilton’s interpretation of the last verse than Tom’s, the ‘but you see’ doesn’t show me a glorious flash of pride as much as a simple victory through loss – the twist is that there is no twist, that this isn’t turning into I Will Survive any time soon, the flash of a match and the realisation that that odd smell is petrol, and despite yourself you’re too close to get away now…

    Okay, I suppose that is a twist.

  11. 11
    Nicole on 18 Nov 2008 #

    There is something rather poignant about this being John McCain’s favorite song. I guess it’s appropriate.

  12. 12
    Andrew Farrell on 18 Nov 2008 #

    Also also she singing it into truth, do you see, that the winner this time will take it all, the misery as well as the good times, as she has no more space for it..

    This is why I don’t review things, I will nail any half-clever idea at all to a song.

  13. 13
    LondonLee on 18 Nov 2008 #

    Standing at No.34 this same week: “Love Will Tear Us Apart” by Joy Division

    Just thought that should be noted.

  14. 14
    Elsa on 19 Nov 2008 #

    Wait, I heard that John McCain’s favorite song was “Dancing Queen.” Which I guess is inappropriate.

  15. 15
    wichita lineman on 19 Nov 2008 #

    This is now visually embedded in my mind as Claremont Road, Hendon FC’s former ground, as they would play this at the end of a home defeat while I trudged out to catch the 102 home (the bar was the winners’ enclosure).

    I’ll go with Martin’s comparison to the Shangri La’s rather than a musical number – ‘Girl Group grown up’ is a rare sub genre, and this as good as it gets.

    Best moment: “But tell me, does she kiss…” followed by a perfectly timed drop to near silence (cue awkward shuffling, pangs of guilt, remorse).

  16. 16
    rosie on 19 Nov 2008 #

    For quite a while now I’ve had a sinking feeling about an oncoming tsunami of mark inflation as we enter the period of the majority of Populistas. Part of this is resentment of the (perceived, hasn’t actually happened at least not yet) triumph of the 80s over the 60s (when it was new ground being broken), of production over performance. And, of course, that our first double-10 act should be Abba and not the Beatles! (Although had Strawberry Fields/Penny Lane hit the top spot it might have been a different story, might it not, Tom?)

    Anyway, all that resentment should be unworthy of me. I’m 54 after all, and supposed to be grown up (although I’ve never seen any sign of that happening.) And I really can’t fault this one. It’s a quite masterful performance, which would have graced any period – I can certainly imagine this going down very well indeed in the 50s.

    And I can’t have it both ways. I had a sinking feeling that Abba, whom I can’t remember ever not holding in high regard, were going to get a shellacking from the Populistas. I’m delighted that it hasn’t happened.

    Semper sursum, as we say around these parts. (I had intended to attend last night’s FA Cup replay between Barrow and Eastbourne Borough as Waldo’s proxy, but a nasty cold has prevented me.)

  17. 17
    Kat but logged out innit on 19 Nov 2008 #

    Should-have-seen-this-coming-ages-ago watch: I noticed a copy of ABBA Singstar for the Playstation in HMV yesterday. Man that’s got to be one hard game (as anyone who’s tried doing ABBA at karaoke will testify), unless you can tweak it to put everything down half an octave?

  18. 18
    Tom on 19 Nov 2008 #

    I am struggling manfully against mark inflation Rosie! And while the 80s is certainly “my decade” it’s got its share or horrors as well as triumphs.

  19. 19
    Billy Smart on 19 Nov 2008 #

    Everyone is right about the poigniancy and depth of this. The thing which I always find difficult to imagine is first of all, handing this wife to your estranged wife to sing, and then travelling around the world to perform it in stadiums together night after night!

    A word for its placing in ABBA’s 1980 album. Its the second song, coming after the title track (which we’ll go on to discuss, a song about being in a hugely successful pop group) and then crashes into ‘On & On & On’ – a song, in part about going out and pulling, but with a slightly nightmarish quality of routine and repetition in the chorus. That great album really does have some narrative structure to it…

  20. 20
    The Intl on 19 Nov 2008 #

    Sod how deep this is – it’s just a big, ace tune. But that sleeve: a little too casual for the grooves within.

  21. 21
    Billy Smart on 19 Nov 2008 #

    #2 Watch: Two weeks of Diana Ross’ cartwheeling, Chic-orchestrated ‘Upside Down’, which would have been a great number one, too.

  22. 22
    mike on 19 Nov 2008 #

    #19 – Yes, there’s a hall of mirrors effect at work here. Benny is splitting with Frida, Bjorn with Agnetha. Benny and Bjorn write a song about the end of a relationship, from the “losing” woman’s point of view, and then they hand it to Agnetha to sing. That’s borderline emotional cruelty, isn’t it? No wonder she gives the performance of her lifetime – but who is articulating what emotion, and for what reason?

    We can only guess, but it was interesting to read Bjorn’s denial (in a recent Observer Music Monthly) that this song was in anyway a reflection of the band members’ emotional reality:

    ‘Well, with “The Winner Takes It All”, the basis is the experience of a divorce, but it’s fiction. ‘Cause one thing I can say is that there wasn’t a winner or a loser in our case. That’s fiction. A lot of people think it’s straight out of reality, but it’s not.’

    Hmmph. Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?

    Interesting to read Peter at #8 saying that “Abba belong in the seventies not in the eighties”. Plenty agreed with him at the time, as their falling record sales in 1981 and 1982 showed, and certainly the spangly “Mamma Mia” version of Abba had no place in the early-to-mid 1980s… but in my mind, “The Winner Takes It All” forms the glorious overture to the groups’s second incarnation: Bleak, Wintry, Bergman-esque, All-Grown-Up, Sadder And Wiser, Post-Divorce Abba.

    And maybe in some ways, Abba Mark II works so well artistically because the old Abba had no place in the Eighties. There’s a sceptral quality to some of these later songs (I’m not clever enough to use voguish terms like “hauntology”), as if we are listening to the ghosts of the 1970s, hanging around after the party is over.

    (Case in point: the aforementioned “On And On And On”, whose underlying bleakness and alienation pokes awkwardly through the forced surface jollity. It’s a midweek Divorced And Separated/Twenty-Fives And Over Nite at the town centre disco, where everyone’s a little over-done, a little desperate, trying a bit too hard.)

    At the time, the 18-year old version of me had no use for “The Winner Takes It All”. This wasn’t I wanted from pop at all, and so I zoned out on it with typical generational lack of empathy. 28 years later, I think it’s up there with their best material.

  23. 23
    Billy Smart on 19 Nov 2008 #

    The key text in any reading of an ABBA of the 1970s/ ABBA of the 1980s dichotomy, must be ‘Happy New Year’, set on the 1st of January, 1980.

    “Seems to me now
    That the dreams we had before
    Are all dead, nothing more
    Than confetti on the floor
    Its the end of a decade
    In another ten years time
    Who can say what well find
    What lies waiting down the line
    In the end of eighty-nine…”

    Its sad, but what hope there is in it lies in the ability to carry on, and that the couple are still together.

  24. 24
    pink champale on 19 Nov 2008 #

    #4 yes on the way the song suddenly opens out to reveal that the situtation is cosmically hopeless, it’s kind of a paraphrase of king lear’s “as flies to wanton boys are we to the gods”.

    but the line i love best is “rules must be obeyed”. nothing better sums up the grown up, matter of fact, northern european, un-rock n roll glory of abba.

    in a mid-eighties smash hits yearbook (85 i think) there’s a feature where the stars list their favourite ever records. this is one of phil oakey’s and ever since i’ve not been able to hear this without thinking of his comment “so sad, so true”. it was a bit of a disapointment when i recovered the yearbook from my parents’ house recently and found he’s actually said something prosaic like “i like a nice sad song”

  25. 25

    yes i second mike in ref. my callow indifference at the time — i was pro forma pro-abba in sympathy with a spiky pro-poptimist at my school (who i. set himself bold nd alone against the endless sea of poshboy prog, and ii. was dating a 35-yr-old woman aged 15 himself) (i’ve told this story before i think) but not to the extent of checking them, more like thinking “good for them” and carrying on ignoring them

    lee’s is a good catch as comparison: i too was enough of a secret romantic nihilist to believe (back then) that curtis’s story was closer to some important overlooked truth than anything as compromised and negotiated and plain grown-up as this in-group scando-backstory (also, to be fair to teen me, the grimness in my own family’s domestic set-up was seriousness illness of a parent and how this was faced, not any kind of marital war)

    now mainly (in my way more pragmatic middle age) what i get from joy div — that song anyway, which i have NEVER much liked — is misery and confusion and youth snuffed out needlessly: the abba approach seems, well, smarter and braver

    (also — this only just occurred to me — i was very excited at age 20 at the way the likes of pere ubu were bringing a broader range of metaphors for life and love into play, specifically political metaphors; but actually this works both ways, doesn’t it? agnethe is unfolding the story of what happens to ANY adult allegiance, ANY engaged commitment, when it turns out not perfectly hermetic and two-way after all: how do you behave when the party grows away from you? dignity? tantrums? etc etc)

  26. 26
    Erithian on 19 Nov 2008 #

    It is indeed hard to, er, divorce what was going on in Bjorn and Agnetha’s life from the narrative of the song, even if the circumstances might have been different. It’s like literary criticism that seeks to ignore anything you might know about the history or circumstances of the author when discussing the text (some lit-crit experts might be able to tell me the term for that).

    That last verse (“you’ve come to shake my hand”) seems not so much pride or stoicism but the confirmation of the crushing nature of the defeat – he wants to part on good terms but she’s not having any of it because of what’s happened to her. (Marshmallow, it doesn’t seem to me like there is a handshake.) He’s relatively unaffected; she’s passive-aggressive with knobs on and perhaps justifiably so.

    And if you felt the way I did about Agnetha, you’d be going, Bjorn, you clot, you’ve pulled way out of your league with her and now you’re dumping her…? It gets even more poignant when you consider her subsequent life.

    Billy #23, nice thought about the end-of-decade tone of sadness. Your quoting of the “Happy New Year” lyric brought strongly to mind another bloke who at this stage of 1980 – indeed this very month – is returning to the fray with the message, as he put it himself, “How’s your relationship going?… Weren’t the 70s a drag? … let’s try and make the 80s good…” It’s not the first time I’ve alluded to his story this year, and we’ll come back to him very shortly.

  27. 27
    H. on 19 Nov 2008 #

    I like Abba (I did at the time too), and I like this song, although I’m a little surprised at the gushing praise for it here. Personally, I’m willing to take at face value Bjorn’s claim that the song is fiction. Especially when he talks in that same article about songwriting as if it were a nine-to-five job. There seems to be a real investment around these parts in seeing lyrics as some kind of unvarnished autobiographical truth, that’s quite a romantic way of perceiving things I think. I think Tom is right to talk about theatre and acting in this regard.

  28. 28
    mike on 19 Nov 2008 #

    #26 – And then there was Yazoo’s “Goodbye Seventies” (from, er, 1983):

    “I’m glad that we don’t hear you any more, I’m tired of playing in your fashion war.”

    Yes, thank goodness we left the style-obsessed 1970s behind, eh?

  29. 29
    Tom on 19 Nov 2008 #

    Our lodger, in about 1987 or so, had a double cassette compilation called something like SEVENTIES: THE DECADE THAT TASTE FORGOT. I remembered thinking that yes, the aesthetic problems of our time had probably been solved and what on earth would nostalgists of the 80s find to talk about.

  30. 30
    Vinylscot on 19 Nov 2008 #

    It’s good to see one or two posters above questioning the recent critical re-assessment of Abba. I have always firmly believed that re-assessment itself to be firmly tongue-in-cheek.

    Abba were a good pop band. It’s not their fault they weren’t English speakers, so their vocals can often sound stilted, disconnected, or almost androgynous. This is an accident of birth, not a ground-breaking innovation.

    Their lyrics were often good, but often rather bad as well (“Money Money Money”, “Gimme Gimme Gimme”) and I do think there has been more retro-fitting of this band’s story than any other, possibly in an attempt to portray them as some sort of geniuses. I don’t know why that should be; why they can’t be appreciated for what they were – a damn fine pop band, but nothing more?

    This is certainly one of their better singles, but I’m inclined to view the lyrics as a cynical (but successful)attempt to cash in, by letting listeners think this was what it was like to be Agnetha at that time. I somehow doubt Agnetha would have gone along with it if it had all been rather closer to the truth.

    …..lights blue touchpaper and stands WELL back…..

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