13
May 08

ABBA – “Dancing Queen”

FT + Popular/241 comments • 16,834 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. 181
    rosie on 16 May 2008 #

    Waldo: I haven’t seen a Fine Fare in many, many years. The last one I remember was in Hull in the late 70s. I believe it got subsumed in the empire that is now Somerfield.

    The HQ of Fine Fare was in Welwyn Garden City where I spent my teenage years and rare was the teenager of wasn’t employed by them in one capacity or another at some point. They also owned the Welwyn Stores, purveyor of gramophone records amongst many other things, and if you hung out in the record department of a Saturday, eventually you would meet everybody you knew.

    Welwyn Stores is now John Lewis Welwyn, I believe, and no longer sells gramophone records.

  2. 182
    Alan on 16 May 2008 #

    hurrah, i have just found independent internets confirmation of my childhood memory of the crackerjack performance of Sparks “Something for the Girl with Everything” (possibly a sparks ‘medley’. it would probs have been in 75)

  3. 183

    my mum grew up in welwyn, among other places, and every now and then we still find a tiny little “welwyn stores” sticker on some item that’s knockin round dad’s house

    they lived in sherrards park road

  4. 184
    pink champale on 16 May 2008 #

    ah, Don “the other one” Maclean. Without fail referred to as “Solihull funnyman Don Maclean” in local newspapers round our way.

  5. 185
    DJ Punctum on 16 May 2008 #

    Time for a checklist of all those words and expressions used in newspapers and never IRL:

    madcap
    funnyman
    quizzed
    bedded
    tryst
    romp
    quipped
    conquests
    rip-roaring

  6. 186
    SteveM on 16 May 2008 #

    love rat
    rap (as in ‘Avram faces FA rap’)

  7. 187
    vinylscot on 16 May 2008 #

    a sex-act

  8. 188
    Billy Smart on 16 May 2008 #

    I’ve seen Michael Barrymore described as the “The disgraced funnyman, 54”.

    Paul Jewell’s recent travails got the headline “PREM. BOSS IN KINKY ROMP WITH MYSTERY BLONDE”, which I thought packed a lot of narrative into a few words.

  9. 189
    SteveM on 16 May 2008 #

    I like the ‘mystery blonde’ bit, as if we are expected to know who Paul Jewell usually romps kinkily with.

  10. 190
    SteveM on 16 May 2008 #

    another one: leggy

  11. 191
    Tom on 16 May 2008 #

    tot (as in infant, not rum)

  12. 192
    lex on 16 May 2008 #

    pal

    (i hate all these words, i could never work on a tabloid)

  13. 193
    Erithian on 16 May 2008 #

    probe (usually precedes a “rap”)
    Kop (as shorthand for Liverpool FC so the headline can be bigger)
    Now (in the context of: the Mail gets even more aerated then previously at what the PC brigade is doing “now”)

  14. 194
    a logged out p^nk s lord sukråt wötsit on 16 May 2008 #

    NOW TOT PROBE PAL RAPS ROMP FURY FANS

    is there a tabloid-hed fridge-magnet poetry set? i absolutely adore the energy of the compression to this kind of stuff, it is a weird semi-evil artform

  15. 195
    Billy Smart on 16 May 2008 #

    In the summer of 1997 The Sun had what I still think of as the greatest of these cover stories; “RUNAWAY PERVERT LEERED AT MY TOTS”

  16. 196
    intothefireuk on 17 May 2008 #

    Nearly 200 comments on this and I’m only registering my first – fashionably late as always. So, ABBA, good looking blonde and her mate and a couple of dodgy looking geezers. Yes they can write a decent tune and yes I fancied the blonde. Unfortunately I don’t fancy this song much. It just doesn’t move me in the right areas. I can’t dance to it (and I don’t want to), the lyrics aren’t particularly interesting (I haven’t personally felt the beat of a tambourine), I don’t like the lead synth sound, piano flourishes or dodgy vocal phrasing & I just can’t relate to the general upbeat nature of it. At this stage of their career it didn’t really matter – if you didn’t like this one then you didn’t have to wait too long until another one came along. Of course this just happened to be Money, Money, Money which I did like (a lot better than this). The fact that it is now totally over-played and IMHO over-hyped has not helped me to like it any better in the intervening years. 4

  17. 197
    Waldo on 17 May 2008 #

    Rosie # 181 – Thanks for that. My family went shopping in Brixton too, particularly the “Arcade”, which was an amazing place and two department stores, Morleys and Bon Marche, which was anything but!

  18. 198
    crag on 17 May 2008 #

    “a checklist of all those words and expressions used in newspapers and never IRL”-suprised no one has mentioned my favorite- the classic ‘bedded’ as in “Theakston bedded the 21 year old stunner”…

  19. 199
    richard thompson on 17 May 2008 #

    when Dancing Queen was number one,it was a wednesday when the chart was announced because of the bank holiday, Agnetha was known as Anna then, my 14 year old self found her attractive as well, if it had been 2000 it would have come straight in at no.1.
    The last time I saw Crackerjack Peter Glaze was singing Arts for Arts sake, Ed Stewart was dressed up as Harpo Marx, no idea why.

  20. 200
    Waldo on 17 May 2008 #

    For my five cents’ worth, how ’bout “tubbed”, meaning pregnant (as in: “CARAVAN MOTHER OF TWELVE TUBBED AGAIN!”)

  21. 201
    DJ Punctum on 17 May 2008 #

    “a checklist of all those words and expressions used in newspapers and never IRL”-suprised no one has mentioned my favorite- the classic ‘bedded’ as in “Theakston bedded the 21 year old stunner”…

    I think you’ll find that DJ Punctum mentioned it in post #185.

  22. 202
    Billy Smart on 17 May 2008 #

    Oh here’s a useful rule of thumb: If ever a headline is about the doings of a ‘TOP TORY’ then the story will be about a politician that you’ve never heard of.

    If they really were a top Tory, then their name would have been used, because the reader would have recognised it.

  23. 203
    DJ Punctum on 17 May 2008 #

    Not necessarily the case with Top Tory Drummer Bev “Bev” Bevan, of course…

  24. 204
    Caledonianne on 17 May 2008 #

    I don’t dance, can’t dance, get panicky at the thought of dancing. But need to be welded to my seat when this ccomes on. It’s just so life-affirming.

    Surely at some stage in her life every right-thinking girl has a gay best friend who’s ever-keen to prime her with lavish G&Ts, all the better to share the spotlight when DQ grabs the floor?

    Must be a 10.

    (BTW I played I Want You from youtube just before I went to bed the other night. Big mistake. Kept me awake and not because of my usual aversion to Mr Costello’s voice – OA apart). Powerful stuff.

  25. 205
    intothefireuk on 17 May 2008 #

    Maybe that’s where I’m going wrong – I obviously need a gay friend.

  26. 206
    crag on 18 May 2008 #

    re#201-Oops! had to read the list again twice before i saw it- must be going blind in my old age…

  27. 207
    LondonLee on 19 May 2008 #

    I’m pretty sure I have used the word “romp” in real life (never referring to sexual doings though), but that could just be part of my suave-Brit-in-America persona, I also use “groovy” a lot.

  28. 208
    DJ Punctum on 19 May 2008 #

    “Probe” of course more often than not preceded by “shock horror youth cult.”

  29. 209
    Erithian on 23 Jun 2008 #

    There was a story last week that the Queen – that’s THE Queen – was seen dancing to this at Peter Phillips’ wedding reception on Cup Final day. A few awkward glances at the “you’re a teaser, you turn them on” line, I guess. (Who the hell gets married on Cup Final day? – apart from my mate who asked me to be best man and made me miss the Coventry-Spurs classic in 1987. But I digress.)

    I know a number of us on this site are or have been DJs. So here’s a challenge. You’re behind the decks at a Royal bash, you’re playing “Dancing Queen” and you spot Queenie strutting her stuff on the dancefloor. What do you cue up next to see whether she stays out there or sits it out? (A certain controversial Number 2 hit is not allowed on the grounds that (a) it’s too obvious and (b) it could earn you a spell in the Tower.)

  30. 210
    mike on 23 Jun 2008 #

    I’d go with “Honky Tonk Woman”, with high hopes of a Betty/Camilla dance-off during the first verse.

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