Nov 08

ABBA – “The Winner Takes It All”

FT + Popular104 comments • 11,181 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. 31
    Tom on 19 Nov 2008 #

    I think the retro-fitting – which hopefully I’ve contributed to in my own small way ;) – is because the band NEEDED more retro-appreciation than most. They had a lot of factors going against them which tend* to lead to critical neglect: immense mainstream popularity; loved by women, and sentimentally loved by women at that; cross-generational appeal; European; a clothes sense that left something to be desired…

    So to dig through this to get at what’s good about them required a bit of effort. In my reviews I’ve tried to pick apart why I think the craft of ABBA – the mix of performance, lyric, and music – is so effective.

    There are substantial criticisms to be made of ABBA – their attempts at funkiness and dance music are often risible; their jokes were usually bad; they could often be trite; they weren’t (as Rosie says) particularly groundbreaking (their stoical grown-upness is a rarity in white pop but it had a mirror in adult 70s soul). But every band has flaws.

    Maybe it’s just that most posters here think the gap between “a damn fine pop band” and “geniuses” isn’t especially large :)

    *or tended – I’ll grant you the goalposts have moved in the last ten years or so, to the point where anti-ABBA opinion can now pose as unfashionably clear thinking!

  2. 32
    H. on 19 Nov 2008 #

    I think the lyrics here are perfectly serviceable, but nothing more. There’s nothing particularly unexpected for the “break-up song” genre. And there are some clunkers in there: the gods may throw the dice, their minds as cold as ice, indeed. And some downright nonsense (the likes of me abide spectators of the show, say what?). I don’t think the lyrics can compare to those of the other charting break-up song referred to upthread.

  3. 33
    Tom on 19 Nov 2008 #

    The judges will decide
    The likes of me abide
    Spectators of the show
    Always staying low

    These are clumsy lyrics but not nonsensical – she’s saying her lack of agency as the loser reduces her to the role of spectator. (She needs a romantic John Sergeant figure obv.) It’s a bit unfair to quote the middle two lines though – it’d be like saying “All my failings take hold get a taste in my mouth, HEIN??”

  4. 34
    LondonLee on 19 Nov 2008 #

    Re: #25

    I did note ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ because the songs are both wintry-cold dissections of failed relationships but in retrospect Curtis’ lyrics (good though they are) do seem a bit affected, a young man with pretensions trying to be profound and poetic about love while ABBA’s relatively more straightforward lyrics seem to carry more realistic weight.

    I think I was primed to like this one because my mother was always a big fan of grown-up relationship songs, particularly ones about divorce and adultery (from personal experience) so the air of my youth was thick with the likes of “Me and Mrs. Jones” and “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover” and as a result I’ve always liked songs that have the same adult and complex perspective as a novel or a movie.

  5. 35

    as a matter of interest — i could google this but i’ll ask instead — did abba always also record their songs in swedish?

    the reassessment issue is complicated by the fact that a generation’s re-visits to its past probably more or less coincide with any given member of that generation desire to look back and see where s/he was right and where wrong in past judgments and allegiances — was i a visionary popcult winner then, or just a sheep? which am i being now? is my ardent desire never to be seen as a sheep ever ever muffling my actual feelings (then or now); or obscuring my judgments?

    (the advantage of the lyrics not being first-rate is that it foregrounds the non-lyric elements of the music, of course — which with abba were often strong enough easily to overshadow the clumsier attempts at expressing a subtle idea)

  6. 36
    H. on 19 Nov 2008 #

    Oh I agree that bland lyrics will never sink a good song, they don’t have that much power. Only truly unavoidably awful lyrics can do that.

  7. 37
    H. on 19 Nov 2008 #

    Talking of lyrics, I was interested to note on the WTIL wikipedia page that the song was reprised by Mireille Mathieu as “Bravo, tu as gagné” (having just looked at it on youtube, it’s exactly the same arrangement). Around the same time someone did a French version of the Sheena Easton hit “9 to 5”, translated (if translated is the word) as “L’amour c’est comme une cigarette”. But this must be about the last time they did that in France, translate a hit for the domestic market.

  8. 38
    Erithian on 19 Nov 2008 #

    Someone more au fait with the French charts could possibly update this – but I do remember (in fact still have it on tape) Sylvie Vartan’s “Danse ta vie” which was the French version of “What A Feeling” from “Flashdance” – so that takes the practice into 1983 at least.

  9. 39
    Billy Smart on 19 Nov 2008 #

    “The gods may throw the dice, their minds as cold as ice” is a splendiferous lyric about fate and human vulnerability. It’s like a pop Sophocles.

  10. 40
    Billy Smart on 19 Nov 2008 #

    Am I the only person for whom ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ reminds them of ‘Pinball Wizard’?

  11. 41
    Tom on 19 Nov 2008 #

    #39 TBH it always makes me think of D&D but that is my trauma not ABBA’s :(

  12. 42
    pjb on 19 Nov 2008 #

    Ooops, late to the debate, and this was one I was really excited about commenting on…

    Despite a suitably self-conscious awareness of and drift towards the new romantic synth pop fashion, I hadn’t left my devotion to Abba behind. And I was a proper card carrying devotee (no, it really wasn’t a fashionable thing to me), even, as I recall, subscribing to the magazine, an A5 pamphlet of dubious quality or content. All of which explains to a great degree my failure to engage with the Jam/Dexys school of recent #1s.

    So obviously I liked this. And I think it stands up fantastically today, despite the familiarity, the endless revivals, the musicals, Meryl and the utterly bizarre Kylie/Danii cover of the other week.

    All the 10s are justified because this is one of those very rare meta-pop records, that manages to do and signify to a quite remarkable intensity.

    Firstly it is simply, on its own merits and with no external factors weighing in, as stark and plain a break up song as ever hit the charts. The slight second language clunkiness of the metaphor heightens, rather than dissipates the meaning, and as many have already said, Agnetha’s performance, carrying, in defeat, no histrionics is remarkable.

    Second is the interplay with the real life band/marriage scenario – and I’m firmly in the school of the song (and video) as one of the most extreme pieces of pop cruelty ever perpetrated. I think Agnetha’s contemporaneous quotes about the break up – Bjorn having moved in with her replacement the same week – rather back this up. And her subsequent personal and emotional history, or at least the tabloid version thereof, pile on yet more significance.

    Finally for me is the notice that as a song it crystalised the changing emotional and critical trajectory of the band, while at the same time managing to stand completely out of the artist context in the musical/film/whatever afterlife, accumulating more and more emotional punch as it goes along.

    Not many on the list that one say that for….

  13. 43
    H. on 19 Nov 2008 #

    I’ll give you “the gods may throw the dice”, but “their minds as cold as ice” – come on it’s doggerel, it’s just there to rhyme!

  14. 44
    johnny on 19 Nov 2008 #

    the critical reevaluation of abba strikes me as somewhat unexpected, though ultimately logical. initially disdained by the “hipper” elements of the pop audience of the time, admired ironically by the end of the 80s, and finally honestly adored in the current day.

    there is something intangible about abba, an x-factor that explains their unexpected triumph. personally speaking, my two favorite bands of all time are probably the beatles and the kinks – always have been, always will be. i LIKE them both very very very much. having said that, abba would probably not make my top top but i LOVE abba. i love them on a level i could never love the beatles – perhaps because i’m so familiar with the beatles, perhaps because of the sheer emotional force of abba’s music. i don’t believe i’m alone in my response to that music.

    what is it about abba that invited sceptical brits and americans to give them a chance initially? what is it that continues to convert doubters and win new fans across the world? i agree with #22 about the spectral (or sceptral) quality of the music, but i don’t think it can be limited to their 80s output. even “dancing queen” and “knowing me knowing you” sound otherworldly in their own way. i also agree with #30 that no aspect of ABBA was planned, it is surely almost entirely a happy accident. but accident or no, there is something *else* there that i’ve never quite been able to pinpoint.

  15. 45
    Billy Smart on 19 Nov 2008 #

    The gods dictate mortals’ destiny through controlling fate, acting with no compassion or empathy for the pain that their actions have on human beings.

    Hence the gods’ minds are as cold as ice, both dispassionatly objective and yet causing excruciating anguish and discomfort for mortals.

    Gold star to Bjorn and Benny for conveying all of this in twelve words which also rhyme and scan.

  16. 46
    mike on 19 Nov 2008 #

    Re. #38: The practice continued in Germany until early 1984 at least. Mike Oldfield’s “Moonlight Shadow” was a hit for Juliane Werding as “Die Nacht Voll Schatten”, and there was a German language cover of “Relax” called “Relax (Komm Tu Es)” which rather inverted the original sentiment!

    Oddly, I also remember both “L’Amour, C’est Comme Une Cigarette” and Sylvie Vartan’s take on “Flashdance (What A Feeling)”.

  17. 47

    see this is the song’s secret text — > “as flies to wanton boys are we chart popsters to the SO-CALLED HIPSTER SO-CALLED CRITICS”

    as i recall — as someone desperate myself to grow up to become part of same* — the UK rockwrite establishment (late 70s, early 80s division) were pretty much unitedly pro-Abba at this date (even if they were divided about everything else)

    *readers, i married it :(

  18. 48
    Billy Smart on 19 Nov 2008 #

    There’s an issue of the NME, February 1981 IIRC, the first ever U2 cover, where two disparate articles are linked together ‘ABBA Vs. Crass’!

  19. 49
    pink champale on 19 Nov 2008 #

    the UK rockwrite establishment (late 70s, early 80s division) were pretty much unitedly pro-Abba

    hasn’t there always been a bit of a tendency for abba to be the rockpress’s black friends? see also “i’ve nothing against manufactured pop music, the monkees did some great stuff”*. in my day it was the nme putting kylie on the cover and using the entire two page story to congratulate themselves for putting kylie on the cover.

    *most recently deployed by mark knopfler on “from the bottom to the top”, he then got his brace with “of course, there’s a line straight back from [“the message”] to the blues”

  20. 50

    well, you missed off the last part of what i said, pink c: the point i was making was that, when it came to abba (if i’m remembering correctly) all factions agreed; so yes, the faction that was down with manufactured pop agreed with the faction that was perhaps somewhat uncomfy or touristy in its pop love… which faction is the more representative of the rock press of the time i am way too parti pris to say

  21. 51
    mike on 19 Nov 2008 #

    I have to say that I don’t remember much in the way of conspicuous Abba-love from the rock press at this stage. I remember Pete Shelley from the Buzzcocks declaring his intention to buy their entire back catalogue in a 1978 interview (now, that DID throw me)… I remember a broadly respectful but still slightly snotty NME cover feature from the same year… and I recall a clutch of positive reviews for “Does Your Mother Know” as a Feisty Little Rocker or some-such. But not much more than that.

    And a search of Rock’s Back Pages reveals a yawning void between Kris Needs’ broadly positive (but still a bit sneery) live review for ZigZag (December 1979) and Richard Cook’s glowing NME review for The Singles, The First Ten Years (December 1982) – which a) reads like he still feels the need to fight their corner against the prevailing consensus and b) makes no mention whatsoever of anything recorded after 1978.

  22. 52
    Tom on 19 Nov 2008 #

    I’ve seen the “early, funny stuff” argument advanced re. ABBA before – in Bubblegum Music Is The Naked Truth the piece on Luv’ takes the view that Luv’ were the band you should have got into when ABBA got rubbish (sometime in 1976).

    The critical revisionism of the mid-late 90s and on though tends to focus on the late, unfunny stuff – all bleak Scando wintriness, like some kind of pop Ingmar Bergman. And the early stuff gets more ignored now, which is a shame, as there is room in the world for “King Kong Song” as well as “Like An Angel Passing Through My Room”, and also you have to contort yourself around the problem of “Two For The Price Of One” if you want to argue that The Visitors is some kind of icy Nordic masterpiece of frozen grief.

    (Though Taylor Parkes’ Melody Maker piece where he argues exactly this is still one of my favourite bits of 90s rock crit.)

  23. 53

    i’ll dig through my tattered old singles pages if i get a moment tomorrow, i think that’s where i’d find the evidence i need, if anywhere (rocksbackpages has a lot of selection bias, formal as well as personal) — what i’m getting at really is that all kinds of otherwise argumentative people liked and had affection and approval for abba, without necessarily (all) thinking they were “important”, which was (in those days) coded rather differently than vinyl’s “damn fine pop group”; but if i’m picking this vibe up from anything concrete, it’s from (admittedly barely remembered) comments and comparisons and references in pieces NOT about them, rather than articles actually dedicated to them (where the “lasting importance” issue kicks in)

    haha i think the most surreal thing about richard’s 1982 review is that he talks about the late 70s as if it were more ancient and distant than the age of the pharoahs — and he is making an argument for hypercanonic importance (he’s saying they were more radical than the pistols!); i totally agree that this level of support was unusual then

  24. 54
    LondonLee on 19 Nov 2008 #

    I don’t remember much ABBA love in the rock rags back then either, but then again it was a long time ago and all I remember now is trying to decipher what Paul Morley and Ian Penman were banging on about. Julie Burchill might have been a fan because it was music the proles liked (though she was writing a column for The Face at this point in time)

    If there was any serious evaluation of them it was probably along the lines of an anthropological field study: “The simple natives are more advanced than you would think. They have a sophisticated understanding of melody and verbal communication.”

  25. 55

    ok well my singles review archives so far come up pure DUD from my theory’s PoV, bah — at least in ref 77-81, abba just didn’t get a mention by anyone whose cuttings i’ve kept (there is even more selection bias here of course): except j.burchill being drive-by snarky about “the day before you came”; i haven’t hunted through 82-85 yet

    (it’s intriguing that they almost never get lumped into the collective denunciations of bloated bigwigs, either — of which there are unendingly many at this date — absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, as they say, but these were times when no one was afraid to hate! however this is a slim reed to build my argument on…)

  26. 56
    AndyPandy on 19 Nov 2008 #

    …but surely the reason they weren’t lumped in as “big wigs deserving of denunciation” back then was that apart from the odd supposedly “controversial” and deliberately contrary article they were looked on as merely “pop” and existing in a universe completely divorced from the rock canon and hence not even worthy of criticism by the average rock writer of those days

  27. 57

    no, andy, not so, not really — as you’d immediately see if you were looking at the singles columns i’ve been reading this evening, which are full of all kinds of discussion of pop and the charts, right alongside rock (and alongside lots of other stuff also): the line between rock and pop was (or was potentially) a LOT more fluid in the late 70s and early 80s than it became afterward; the argument about which was important, and why (and what was wrong with rock and what was wrong with pop) was all really heightened, but not in a way that’s terribly easily unravelled from our hindsight perspective; in particular, it’s REALLY misleading reading back from the settlement in the early 90s back onto the late 70s, because the media set-up and the surrounding attitudes really weren’t very similar at all — what you’re calling the rock-pop divorce was (i would argue) a lot more complete at the end of the 80s than it was at the end of the 70s

    (tho to repeat the caveat: as it perhaps unsurprisingly happens, the writers i’ve kept stuff by were exactly NOT the “average rock writer”; they were the unusual and interesting ones, to me then; the issue of how representative they are is obviously a bit fraught — do you want to the worst as the essence, which seems unfair, or the best, which probably distorts things a bit?)

    i know i promised a big post on all this last week – i’ll try and get it up tomorrow, it’s half written (it got bigger than i expected)

  28. 58
    LondonLee on 20 Nov 2008 #

    This must be around the same time as Pete Wylie’s now-famous ‘Rockism’ interview.

  29. 59
    AndyPandy on 20 Nov 2008 #

    Yes I suppose the new pop ethos did start to come in about 1980 with the more forward-thinking interesting writers but surely there were still plenty of unimaginative, peddling the old “rock-canonical-partyline”type writers around the turn of the 70s/80s who would have thought Abba were beneath them or written about them slightly more positively in some ridiculous ironic way.
    The kind of writers who felt the need to slag off pre-punk rock bands because however unacceptable they found them (wor had been told to find them) they were “rock” and appealing to the same general constituency of serious rock fans.

  30. 60

    i think the wylie “race against rockism” interview was in early 1981

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