Nov 08

ABBA – “The Winner Takes It All”

FT + Popular105 comments • 13,140 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. 91
    flahr on 19 May 2011 #

    #89 – oh, I’ve heard “Tangerine” and “Immigrant Song” (I’d even heard it before the Viking kittens!) and indeed “Gallows Pole” (I believe this was school-related) but I’ve not heard the album as album, or even half the tracks on it. What I’ve heard I like. From hearing the normal edit of “Fantasy Island” I doubt his claim about the 12″ is true (if nothing else “Immigrant Song” is a lot more pop than “Fantasy Island”).

    “If someone makes an utterly bizarre claim…they almost certainly should not be taken seriously.”

    I don’t necessarily think we should trust what he says! But outlandish claims like that add to the colour and flow of pop/rock criticism, and I think it’s worthwhile having a couple of people around being contradictory for the sake of it; at best they might be right, at worst they’re amusing. I’m not sure people should be listening to what Paul says here, but I think it’s good that he says it. (Somewhere in the back of my head I want to make a vaguely Millsian justification of this but thankfully the rest of my head is telling me this is ridiculous.)

    #90 – I think most of my sense of self-satisfaction from the piece is the result of that giddy delight; I’m not sure why, for me and in that piece of writing, the latter comes across as the former. Possibly because we’re out of the moment he’s talking about and now this reads like nostalgic bludgeoning

  2. 92

    one of the things PM was good at was statements that sorted sheep from goats, actually — and this is one

    swanstep’s idea that you can measure something’s value by your own inability to find it is way more bizarre than morley’s claim – which is more or less the claim that living in your own present is better than living in someone else’s past

  3. 93
    thefatgit on 19 May 2011 #

    Surely what Morley meant, regarding “Fantasy Island > Led Zep III” was “for fuck’s sake lets get away from the Rock Museum and just look at how exciting RIGHT NOW is!”. That’s the impression I got from that piece linked by Tom. It was an outlandish statement, but I guess it needed to be, in order to get the attention he needed from the engaged and the outliers, even now. And what Morley does in his insistent LISTEN TO ME! LISTEN TO ME! way is to try to bring the reluctant rockists as well as the pop kids onside.

    For reasons that Mark S explains in various comments on his 5 years at NME across Popular, Morley simultaneously succeeds and fails in this venture, simply because the inky music press is approaching a seismic shift, that not only alienates a huge chunk of the inky readership, but also sets the writers on a collision course especially within the NME, ultimately ending in the re-formatting of NME as well as winding-up of MM and Sounds; the Death Of The Inkies. I’m not blaming Morley for this, after all, he’s a crucial character in the saga that is New Pop. On several levels, it was bound to happen.

  4. 94

    Re “supporting story”: also worth recalling that this appeared in a rock weekly, so that the general argumentative context — including battlelines drawn, and so on — had been being unfolded in its pages for months

    which is another reason the piece was so exciting, because form follows function: a magazine isn’t a book, it’s not one person’s idea unfolded long-form, it comes in clusters of bits, which wrangle and clash: this week’s chart (and this week’s pop magazine) are more important than some mouldy album, because they tell you about the jostle and turmoil of the world we’re in blah blah

    who this appeals to is more a matter of temperament than sort of Logic of the Eternal Verities — certanly it appealed to me enormously then

  5. 95
    swanstep on 20 May 2011 #

    ‘some mouldy album’
    Which was released 11 years before Morley was writing, the equivalent of 2000 for us now, or, put another way, to roughly half the distance back to Popular’s current horizon…. What?

    this week’s chart (and this week’s pop magazine)… tell you about the jostle and turmoil of the world we’re in blah blah
    Oh, maybe. Mostly though it’s about the present the way financial news is that endlessly comments on micro-/daily, sub-daily changes in stock exchange values (most of which is just random fluctuation and drift). All of that’s irrelevant to non-insider, long-term investors, and has almost nothing to say about the broader economy or its politically proper understanding). The jabber of those people, their mixture of hyperbole and breathless present-centrism and high-velocity name-dropping and brow-beating designed to provoke action ‘Buy!’/’Sell!’ is… familiar.

    I dare say that Morley’s enthusiasm appealed to me a lot at the time too (how could it not? year zero proclamations confirm a kid’s default stance in the world). How wonderful it was to have someone tell me that I didn’t need to listen to Led Zep or to decide for myself what I thought about them, I could just cut directly to the chase of the present, and, heh-heh, just know that anyone who listened to them was a moron (or something).

    the general argumentative context — including battlelines drawn, and so on — had been being unfolded in its pages for months
    Yes there was supporting material spread around. Unfortunately it was tended to be just more of the same hyperbole and in-group-/territory-marking and name-dropping. So, e.g., the next week it would be some Julian Cope B-side > Revolver.

    Looking back, I’d paraphrase the appeal of Morley et al. to my young self in a slightly different way than I would have said at the time. Returning to the the original provocation, Morley was saying to me at the time not really that Tight Fit 12″ > LZ3 but something more like the following:
    ‘Sure LZ3 is great. Everyone knows that. Everyone also knows that this piece of trash single is relatively worthless. Hence everyone knows that Tight Fit 12″ < LZ3. That's easy. But follow me down this very obscure pathway of esoteric knowledge that only I possess, thereby becoming part of an insider-group that most people aren't even mentally capable of joining, and I'll show you a perspective from which the converse of that conventional wisdom is true.'
    Something like this was the real source of Morley's appeal to me at 13-14. It and the merry dance though cool stuff it introduced me to was fun and even intoxicating for a few years, but ultimately I was ill-served by stepping into the cocked sling-shot of all of Morley's views and preferences. How exciting to be signed up for the frontlines of a battle and to see the world that way! I would have been better served by listening to more of the past in a fairer way in high school, broadly surveying and making my own mind up about conventional wisdom rather than embracing esoteric views too quickly.

    Returning to my financial news comparison. When I saw that long Joy Division documentary a few years ago (around the same time as Control), and got to see how close Morley was to that band, I felt (possibly unfairly) a little irate. From the other side of the world, I had relied on people like Morley for something like objective advice about what to check out etc.. I'd always thought of him as a kind of independent analyst, but I now saw that that was an absurd image to have had. He was completely in the tank for his mates, had what would be called in the financial press, massive conflicts of interest. It made me cringe at how gullible I'd been (and possibly still am to some extent – cringing cuts deep that way).

  6. 96
    Conrad on 20 May 2011 #

    One thing Morley achieved with pieces like this one is make the NME a bit more on the ball. God, if you wanted to read about pop music in 1980/81 Smash Hits was miles ahead of the inkies (the odd writer, like Betty Page at Sounds, or Thrills at the NME aside).

    As Mark says a magazine is a cluster of bits, not a book. Smash Hits – Hepworth’s dull AOR leanings aside – pretty much presented a united take on contemporary pop, and indeed helped evolve New Pop through its presentation and writing style.

    Pre ’82, NME was really quite dull and worthy and miles off the track in comparison.

  7. 97
    punctum on 20 May 2011 #

    A lot of the time we writers are hurtled, or jettisoned, into writing by loss of one kind or another. For some it’s compensation, for others it’s a battle – often long and muddled – to put that loss into perspective, so that the future might get through more easily, and I don’t necessarily, or only, mean the future of music.

    Apart from the unforced eclecticism of his tastes – as they stood in my teenage years, at any rate – I guess that’s why I’ve felt closer to Paul Morley than any other music writer, since both his kickstart into music writing and his maturation as a music writer – “maturation” here meaning the formation of his stray strands of ideas into a cogent engine of thought and (hopefully) prophecy – were provoked, more or less, by two losses. First, he lost his father at the same age, give or take a year or two, that I lost mine, and both were suicides of a kind (my father did not strictly speaking commit suicide but I cannot deny that he spent many years building up to his death, willing it to happen).

    Second; well, I don’t suppose losing Ian Curtis is remotely comparable with losing one’s partner of half a lifetime but IC’s suicide was the key trigger that set New Pop in (im)proper motion; speak to any of its major proponents and they’ll tell you the same story; that death drew a firm, starkly dark line under what had henceforth been building up (but to what?) and it was time to infiltrate the bloodstream of the mainstream with one’s ideas, philosophies or far-from-plain daftness, however one chose to do it.

    But in almost all senses PM wouldn’t exist as the writer that he is without Joy Division; imagine if you can the sheer wonder that your mates, the blokes with whom you hung out in the pub, who one moment were a crappy punk band and then somehow SOMEHOW made the quantum leap into WTFness and then that this cheeky bastard of a singer with whom you sometimes played a round of darts suddenly found the key to otherness, to his own stupid immortality, and how the hell did he get there, even if by getting there he was dragging himself to hell, and knew it?

    The emotional, bloody ties are too close to disentangle, too firmly (umbilically?) connected for PM ever to become the dreaded spectre of music writer-as-waiter, ticking off what’s good this week and what’s off – when reading a writer I have to be able to get into his or her life, try to understand who or what is driving them, since without the life of the mind, music writing is not worth minding.

    It was those losses which catapulted PM into a world and situation where SOMETHING HAD TO CHANGE (or the world might fail?) and so his writing of the New Pop period carries a rare emotional resonance and spiritual ferocity, even when New Pop was clearly thrilling him to bits; witness his delirious singles column in the November 1981 issue of The Face, an oasis of ecstasy marooned within too much premature/imprecise mourning and grumbling (there’s far too much Steve Taylor). Who wouldn’t want to have followed – and maybe, if one had the nerve, even SURPASS – him?

    As for “Fantasy Island” and LZ3; at the time the latter was thought very far from “great” or “classic,” an oddity stuck between two Rock Monuments, and the former was pretty much sneered at or disregarded. Yet “Fantasy Island” is, as with “The Land Of Make Believe,” an allegory about Thatcher’s Britain (just as its transatlantic contemporary, Blondie’s “Island Of Lost Souls,” was about Reagan’s America) and producer Tim Friese-Greene suggests angles and spaces – particularly in, but not confined to, the twelve-inch mix – which point both backwards towards the angelic trudge of “That’s The Way” and forwards towards Spirit Of Eden (which he himself produced). So I’ve always taken PM’s words not so much to be the fatal dart poisoning what Reynolds in Monitor called “the petrified doxa of Rockism” but a way of drawing our attention to both records, the subtle undertow highlighting the excitable (and in my view totally justified) urge to get on with NOW, knowing that the tide was with “us” (even if only for another week), that THESE ARE THE DAYS (to complicate the picture further, I thought the 12-inch of Robert Plant’s “Burning Down One Side” better than either at the time, while “Moonlight In Samosa” is exactly what a fusion of LZ3 and “Fantasy Island” would have sounded like).

    There is plenty wrong with the piece, and I thought so at the time too; the Pigbag and Junior jibes are unworthy attempts to haggle with RD Cook and NME soulboys, whereas for me one of the most important attributes of New Pop was to get the kind of music back into the charts which “rock” had more or less banished or ousted to the paddocks (pace Mark S on “African Waltz”). Without the expanded horizons which it enabled, New Pop would have been worth nothing. But that is far outweighed by PM’s life-or-death NEED to communicate that now might be all that we have (cf., of all records, Wolfsbane’s Massive Noise Injection) and that we should live in it, inhabit it, but not stay there. Would that there were more of this in music writing now; but the greater challenge may yet still be the one which RDC threw down – to change our views about music, to see that it all connects, even the remotest and cobweb-strewn of corners, and perhaps, if we’re extremely lucky, change the way music is made and – the next step that nobody dared take, I mean, who do these music writers think they are? – change the world. But that gamble, for now, is between you and me.

  8. 98
    Ed on 21 May 2011 #

    @95. To extend your bracingly Marxist / Bourdieuian analogy with the financial media, different forms of writing can be valuable for different purposes. If you know what you are doing, you can make a good living out of breathless present-centrism and sub-daily changes in stock market values. I guess you could say that is a good description of your classic Popist: they are the day traders of music fandom.

    Morley, meanwhile, you might think of as having been like one of those newsletters covering speculative mining companies or Silicon Valley start-ups. He has some stock invested in the subjects of his stories, but you don’t mind because his insider knowledge and understanding are so good, and he shares so much of what he knows so eloquently. Perhaps he should have been more open about that investment, but until music journalism gets regulated by the FSA, I don’t really think you can say he had any obligation to reveal it.

    He is far from the only journalist ever to be a part of a scene that he chronicled, of course. And as I understand the career structures of the British music press, there is a huge incentive for every writer to overstate the quality of the bands they are covering. Nobody gets cover stories and four-page features saying: “This new album’s a bit dull, really. Nothing much to see here.”

    And, to push the analogy even further, the best writers actually create value in the music they are covering. Firstly, in a cultural capital sense: if Morley writes great pieces about Joy Division, then people you respect are more likely to like them, so being a fan is more worthwhile for you. You might think of him as being like Jim Cramer, or another widely followed stock ramper; it can be worth buying the shares they tip, because they are so they can move the markets. Another vital skill for music writers is being able to spot bands that are going to go on to become big, so you can get in on the ground floor with your investment.

    Second – and this is where financial writing and music writing part company – the greatest music writers can add value to their subjects. Morley, Penman, Bangs and a few others have had a huge impact on what I listen to and what I get out of it, because of the perspectives and ideas that they reveal. I am sure, for example, that I would enjoy AR Kane and Teena Marie much less than I do if I had not read Simon Reynolds and Chuck Eddy.

    I don’t think you should be beating yourself up over being gullible. If you were caught up in a hype bubble, well it was fun while it lasted, and that is life in the market for ideas: cultural capital can go down as well as up. Certainly in Britain I would say there are lots of people who think that the hype – the overstated claims, the overheated prose – is all part of the fun, even an essential part.

    Eleven years from LZ3 to FI: what is our modern equivalent of LZ3? ‘Is This It’? ‘Kid A’?

  9. 99

    well, as i say, it’s a temperamental thing — and swanstep’s description of the temperament it awoke in him and pandered to is quite a lot different to the one it awoke in me, and i don’t think that’s just the age difference, and him now despising poor silly teenage swanstep: he enjoyed the elitist narrowing, and compares it to a particular kind of niche journalism; while i was loving the opening up, the sense of setting a stage where everyone could speak to everyone else, where past could meet present on equal terms — and quite soon ended up incredibly frustrated and unhappy that the ideal i’d perceived here (and still do, though it’s self-evidently a period piece stylistically and trapped in the ambit of a single week’s top singles) was being pushed out of the space, and that the space was already narrowing

    and both these elements were/are clearly there, scrabbling with one another

    as i say, i saw this piece and still see it as a counter to an extant review format which no one expected to be dispensed with — the singles column had already dealt with maybe half these songs as they came out and before they performed: so to me this particular format was the opposite of ahistorical: it was a way of taking stock of how meaning arises and changes in collective and semi-uncontrolled contention over time (by which i mean the formal contention of a singles column is one person’s selection, out of the serendipity of the singles box in front of him; but the formal contention of the charts is the consequence of thousands of semi-independent decisions); and had this lasted as format, there’d have been the chance to observe also how the chart itself was changing, narrowing maybe, or opening up because the responses were written down at the time

    the potential for revision being a beginning of history: and the acknowledgement of the role of the audience — the idea that quality is NOT just the fiat statement of a small band of self-declared experts, but something that emerges from the clash of one with another, of the surges of mass taste with the trends and fashions of elite taste

    it’s true that journalism deals with history (and wider structural viewing) badly: it deals with it badly when it ignores it, and it tends to deal with it just as badly when it pays attention to it — so that while the comparison of pop writing with a particular kind of financial pulp journalism is superficially suggestive (and cheekily funny), this is exactly the point when the deeper structural view would be kicking in to say, well, OK, they do look alike so ARE they alike? How are they the same and how are they DIFFERENT? If superficial instant response is off the table for the moment, what’s really going on here? The object of attention gets to be allowed to interrogate the framework of examination: or all you’re doing — which is what most journalism does as it grabs hold of the non-journalistic disciplines, is flashy comparisons to affirm pre-standing prejudices. If you strip this column out of its context — not a very “historical” thing to do — and scale it up so that all pop writing is imagined as similarly morley-form, well yes, you can conclude all kinds of things. But it arose in and against the context it was actually from…

    And as i say, it’s not as if the format on show prospered historically: quite the opposite, this was its one appearance, and insofar as the rock papers did indeed become more niche, to their detriment, it was “mouldy album” syndrome that was increasingly bedding in and causing this: they gradually stopped mixing film and telly and books and politic into the same jostle of discussion, and set about firming up particular readerships more and more in their pre-chosen prejudice of what proper tried-and-tested test-of-timed rock was. Which is why you get all the angry barely literate kids in the comments to old Tanya posts: angrily telling us that Pink Floyd are beyond criticism, and Tanya must be the kind of person (often “chav”) who likes [insert flimsy pop name of the moment] [today it’s GaGa, obviously: it’s nearly always women]

    Certainly I think the glib ahistorical shallowness swanstep perceives and dislikes was more a product of this reinstatement of the belief that ROCK was really about routinely producing these weighty masterpieces of importance, thatall could/must agree were actually what mattered for the music to have purpose, and — as a consequence — the entire rhetoric of criticism year-on-year bent itself to the pseudo-revelation of the new one and the next one, and about pre-fashioning a ready constituency of agreement… and of course it’s a corrosive pressure to produce “work for the ages”, especially when you have internalised this suspicion of the craft of building work for the instant, here-and-gone (this is why a lot of the music that’s merged from this bedding in, let alone the writing about it, is so joyless and unfunny and unself-aware — humour is situational, crafted for the now).

    Lastly, yes of course there’s something absurd about pouring so much exegetical attention into a fleeting and flawed column in a rock weekly from 30-odd years ago, especially when also defending its claim that something well-regarded and then only 11 years old is not as important as something flimsy happening right now. (The elephant in the room here all along being that L3 is easily my favourite Zep LP.) But this is how you do actually find what matters and what doesn’t: you play with the boundaries of conventional and recieved assumptions about same, and see where it takes you. Or you cling to them, and make up nice stories about where you’ve been stranded. I’m not the person I was when this column hit me; and it hits me today in all kinds of different ways, obviously. The person I was then was wrong about a lot of stuff — including maybe the role this “type of thing” had in fashioning those elements of my then-future, my current present-and-past that I dislike — but there’s certain elements, about the pleasure in the outcome of the encounter with people not yourselves, and indeed the trust in it, which still speaks to me pretty strongly.

  10. 100
    mintness on 19 Oct 2011 #

    And to bring the whole thing back around to ABBA and Eurovision, it’s rather pleasing to note that the much-debated “Fantasy Island” started out life as a contender for the Netherlands’ 1982 Eurovision entry:


    (The Dutch had a rather convoluted system that year, whereby three songs were each performed by three artists. That don’t sound good to me.)

    In the end, the Led Zep-conquering pop giant had to surrender the ticket to glamorous Harrogate to this slice of almost-amazing oompah blandness, complete with an all-female backing group including a Toksvig-esque drummer who can’t wink properly. 8 whole points on the Eurovision scoreboard were the cosmic punishment.


  11. 101
    wichita lineman on 18 Jan 2012 #

    Abba, their long-faced last days, and their final b-sides, Cassandra and You Owe Me One: http://besidethebside.blogspot.com/2012/01/abba-cassandra-you-owe-me-one.html

  12. 102
    hectorthebat on 25 Aug 2014 #

    Critic watch:

    1,001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die, and 10,001 You Must Download (2010) 1-1001
    Beats Per Minute (USA) – The Top 100 Tracks of the 1980s (2011) 67
    Blender (USA) – The 1001 Greatest Songs to Download Right Now! (2003)
    Freaky Trigger (UK) – Top 100 Songs of All Time (2005) 42
    Gary Mulholland (UK) – This Is Uncool: The 500 Best Singles Since Punk Rock (2002)
    Paul Morley (UK) – Words and Music, 210 Greatest Pop Singles of All Time (2003)
    Q (UK) – The Ultimate Music Collection (2005)
    The Guardian (UK) – 1000 Songs Everyone Must Hear (2009)
    Theater van het Sentiment, Radio 2 (NL) – Top 40 Songs by Year 1969-2000 (2013) 7
    Rolling Stone (Germany) – The Best Singles of 5 Decades (1997)
    Cameron Adams (Australia) -The Best Songs from the 100 Must Have Albums (2013)
    STM Entertainment (Australia) – The 50 Best Songs Ever (2007) 21

  13. 103
    Larry on 24 Nov 2014 #

    It isn’t news that critics can suffer from groupthink. Abba earned their reevaluation through a long career of inspired and well-crafted music. To paraphrase P^nk Lord in #99, revisionisms are healthy. (The Morley piece link is 404 now)

  14. 104
    Alan on 25 Nov 2014 #

    (fixed the 404 image)

  15. 105
    Gareth Parker on 3 May 2021 #

    Another excellent Abba single. I would go with 8/10 here.

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