Do you like ABBA?
There’s a reasonably good chance that your answer to that question is not actually an answer to that question.
You might instead be answering the question:
“Do you like the culture and aesthetics that surround the ABBA phenomenon?”
You’re probably not alone. When we think of ABBA we might think of Mamma Mia, or a dreadful cabaret performance we saw on holiday one time, or a drunken teenage vomiting incident soundtracked by ‘Dancing Queen’, or blue eyeshadow, or Eurovision, or ironic ‘revivals’ and accompanying backlashes, or any one of a multitude of kitsch characteristics that get in the way of goshdarn enjoying/not enjoying their musical output on its own merits.
I mean, think of the impact of Alan Partridge alone…
ABBA are not unique in being a popular musical act to have a plethora of questionable cultural artifacts pinned to them, of course. Any degree of popularity comes with accompanying scenes, sounds, looks, and so on. And when people become fed up with those scenes, sounds and looks, the artist’s popularity is also threatened.
But it strikes me that ABBA are in an unusual position amongst their once globe-bestriding peers. Because where acts like, say, The Eagles or Fleetwood Mac had the good grace to sod off and let us forget about them for a decent number of years, ABBA have never really gone away.
Even when we were sick of them — even when they stopped releasing or performing music — they still seemed to be everywhere. And as a result, that music kind of… depreciated.
This isn’t a case of me feeling sorry for Agnetha, Benny, Bjorn and Frida, you understand. Their willingness to licence their creative output for TV shows, movies, musicals, etc has played a large part in creating the public’s love/hate relationship with the band. And good luck to them — they stopped needing to work a long time ago.
It just strikes me as a bit of a shame that the quality of the music isn’t what most people think of when they hear the band’s name. Because it’s what I like to call Very Good Music (VGM).
I have been listening to quite a bit of ABBA’s VGM recently. I think the reason I’ve been able to enjoy it is that I was able to — for want of a better word —disintermediate the group from all the ABBA-ness.
I did this somewhat inadvertently, but it got me thinking about how I might have gone about doing this on purpose had I wanted to, and how I might do it with other artists who I consciously feel I’m sick to the back teeth of.
My ‘way in’, as far as I can remember it, was some urge that prompted me to find out what the ABBA ladies’ solo work was like. To my knowledge, I’d never heard any of it. That felt weird, given their fame and ABBA-related achievements. There’s probably an essay to be written about the part the patriarchy played there, but I’ll leave that to someone better-qualified.
Unsurprisingly, there are a number of gems in their back catalogues (e.g. Agnetha: ‘The Heat Is On’, ‘Can’t Shake Loose’; Frida: ‘I Know There’s Something Going On’, produced by Phil Collins at his thunderous, gated reverb peak), and there was something about hearing them outside of ABBA that, paradoxically, made me want to listen to the band again.
Suddenly, I was intrigued by many things about them: the way I could never tell the vocalists apart unless I was watching them (despite their voices, in their solo work, sounding very distinct); the curious military history motifs in their lyrics (see ‘Waterloo’, ‘Fernando’); the impact their couplings/break-ups must have had on their work, and so on.
I suddenly found a whole new range of angles from which to listen to their catalogue, which helped push a lot of my previous ABBA blockers out of the way. Sadly I can’t say the same for my partner — having not taken the same journey of disintermediation she bemoaned, loudly and repeatedly, my playing of ABBA anywhere within her earshot.
All of this got me thinking about other ways of ‘disintermediating’ music and its inconvenient associations. There are so many acts I technically like, but who I just don’t think I can listen to anymore. They’re too tied up with places, people, phases of my life. Not all bad ones, necessarily, but components of my past that are considerable enough to overshadow the music and stop me from enjoying it on its own terms.
Is it possible to remove all those blockers and listen to music as just music, rather than some kind of flashback soundtrack? Do we want to do that? Don’t we at least owe it to ourselves to try??
Is there, God help us, a framework we could work from to renew and refresh our appreciation of music we’ve heard a million times?
I don’t know, but below is my attempt to flesh out such a thing. It’s a list of seven ways you can try to recapture that ‘first listen’ feeling. I’m not totally happy with it — some of them feel brain-numbingly obvious — but it’s a start. I’m open to more suggestions, should you have them…
1. New perspective
Recently I’ve been enjoying YouTube videos of younger listeners reacting to music with which I’m already very familiar. It strikes me that this may be one of the purest ways to try and recapture that experience of hearing something for the first time.
There are caveats, of course: reactions might be exaggerated somewhat, given the medium and the desire to drive clicks and channel subscribers. And sometimes I find myself wondering how someone could have reached even a relatively young age without having ever heard such-and-such a song.
But I’m willing to suspend my disbelief because there is something undeniably delightful about seeing two friends flip out over Rush, or some guy become uncomfortably aroused at Portishead.
These listeners have fewer reference points, which, while it can’t help but make one feel old, also means there is less second-guessing about influences, scenes, and all the other cultural baggage that gets in the way. And by the way, consider their willingness to sit on camera, silently, and have it capture their unguarded facial expressions as they enjoy this music. This kind of behaviour is surely unthinkable for most people over the age of thirty. And while some might label this narcissistic, it doesn’t feel that way to me: it feels pretty brave and vulnerable.
When you think about it, it’s a unique, intimate thing to witness a person’s first exposure to something they love, and for me it doesn’t really matter that I don’t know these people. Indeed, you could argue that watching them in this scenario is how you start to get to know them.
2. Stories behind songs
The closest I’ve come to performing is singing in a choir, I can’t play a lick of any instrument and I’ve never written a lyric. But I love learning about the conditions under which music was written and produced.
I will rarely fail to read one of those ‘How I wrote…’ articles, and I am a sucker for a clip of a music producer in a studio tinkering with knobs as they regale us with tales from recording sessions.
It all improves my contextual understanding of the music, which can in turn enhance listening joy. You may have heard the Marvin Gaye song ‘What’s Going On’ a thousand times, but when you hear the apocryphal story that bassist James Jamerson played it for the first time in the studio while intoxicated, lying on his back, doesn’t it make you want to listen to it again?
3. Better hardware
Obviously there’s a financial outlay involved here: but very good speakers or, ideally, very good headphones can make a huge difference. I definitely wouldn’t qualify as an audiophile, but you can’t underestimate the joy of hearing things you never heard previously in a piece of music you’ve heard hundreds of times. It’s a revelatory experience.
4. New environment
If most of your music listening is done on a commuter train or in the car, try somewhere different and (this is the tricky bit, whether because of time constraints or distractions) try not to do much else while listening. Except maybe dancing, as a club/gig would technically qualify as a different environment.
But even just lying on the floor with headphones on can make a difference, or taking a long walk, or a bath.
5. Alternate versions, covers and remixes
I’ve never been a huge fan of live albums, but they do at least bring up different versions of over-familiar songs that can reignite your interest.
Likewise, live performances on YouTube. And while semi-ironic cover versions became a boring motif long ago, a good — or indeed bad — reinterpretation of a classic song can deepen your appreciation of the original.
Can it be possible that Lynyrd Skynyrd were able to reproduce ‘Freebird’’s lengthy, legendary guitar solo in live shows?
Is it surprising that Harry Styles could pull off a creditable cover of Peter Gabriel’s ‘Sledgehammer’?
Is it heresy to prefer Sly Dunbar’s version of ‘Inner City Blues’?
6. Altered states
You can probably work this one out on your own. You don’t want to use listening to music as an excuse to get hammered every night. But if you happen to find yourself, somehow, in an alternative condition from the one in which you spend most of your waking minutes…
This won’t be for everyone, but during my stints in choirs I’ve definitely gained a deeper appreciation of the construction of songs we’ve performed. When you’re still learning a song, and it’s difficult, you can go through a period of kind of hating it, but you usually come out the other side. And seeing other people react to it and (hopefully) enjoy it is a rare feeling.
I would have thought this process would lead to me being even more sick of a song, given I’ll have sung it dozens of times. But that doesn’t seem to be the case, possibly because I now associate the song with the mental uplift I feel when I sing.
So what have I missed off this list? And are their other lost Agnetha/Frida classics I should check out?