STEPHEN THOMPSON, HOST:
Earlier this month, ABBA released a new album called "Voyage." It's the Swedish pop sensation's first set of new material in 40 years.
GLEN WELDON, HOST:
"Voyage" gives us a perfect excuse to talk about all things ABBA - the massive sales, the jukebox musical, the endless hiatus, the new album and, of course, those classic songs. I'm Glen Weldon.
THOMPSON: And I'm Stephen Thompson. Today, we are talking about ABBA on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
THOMPSON: Joining Glen and me today is Sofie Hernandez-Simeonidis. She's a production assistant for NPR Music. Welcome, Sofie.
SOFIE HERNANDEZ-SIMEONIDIS, BYLINE: Hi, y'all. So excited to be here.
THOMPSON: It is great to have you so on November 5, the world got its first new ABBA studio album since "The Visitors" in 1981. And that 40-year hiatus between albums had long seemed like it was going to be permanent. The group had famously turned down massively lucrative offers for a reunion. And its members long since moved on to other projects and solo careers. But in 2016, ABBA's members - Agnetha Faltskog, Bjorn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson and Anni-Frid "Frida" Lyngstad - got together to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their creative origins, which led to the band making their long awaited ninth and final album. Of course, the old ABBA songs have never gone away. The greatest hits collection "ABBA Gold" has sold 30 million copies since it came out in 1992. The jukebox musical "Mamma Mia!" was a hit on Broadway that spawned two feature films. And the group was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame back in 2010. We're going to get to the new album in a little bit. But first, let's talk ABBA Glen, you are an ABBA enthusiast.
THOMPSON: How did you come to know and appreciate the band and its music.
WELDON: I mean, my personal experience is that they were kind of the background noise to my childhood. They were every long car trip not because my parents owned any of their albums - they didn't - but they listened to the easy listening station, Philadelphia's WWSH, Stereo 106, all day, all night, all nice.
THOMPSON: Literally, the call letters are a calming sound.
WELDON: Absolutely. And they were on such heavy rotation that I considered them, like everything my parents liked, kind of square and kitschy and nice. And then one day, I was 8 or 9. I was taking a nap. I was hovering in between waking and sleep. And "Fernando" came on the radio. And for the first time, I listened to the lyrics. And the imagery with the drums and the war and the stars. And then the chorus kicked in, just that huge release.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FERNANDO")
ABBA: (Singing) There was something in the air that night. The stars were bright, Fernando. They were shining there for you and me, for liberty, Fernando.
WELDON: If I typify anything, if I think of anything when I think of ABBA, I think of so much tension in the verse that when the chorus comes, it's this joyous kind of release. It's how ear worms are made. And because of that, this band has put up with a lot of rockist snobbery over the years. We'll talk about that. And all they were doing, Stephen, was they were doing humanity a service because we all know it - someday, the body snatchers are going to come. And they're going to turn us all into pod people. And the only way we'll be able to tell who is still human is by going up to somebody, getting right in their face and going, (singing) knowing me, knowing you. If they do not reflexively respond, (singing) aah, take them out. They're the enemy.
THOMPSON: That's how you know.
WELDON: Spray them with weed killer because...
WELDON: ...They are the enemy. The notion that you would consider this band, this music, these chords bubble gum when there is so much melancholy...
WELDON: It's just fascinating to me. I love this band.
THOMPSON: Wonderful. All right, Sofie. I'm going to guess that your relationship with ABBA started in a slightly different way. Hit me.
HERNANDEZ-SIMEONIDIS: I don't know if it was that different, actually. My first introduction to ABBA was - I think I was 12. I was in the sixth grade. And I was preparing a New Year's Eve costume with my older cousin. And she put on "Mamma Mia!" I loved it so much. I was really into the music, but the movie had so many weird parallels with my life. For example, the main character's name is Sophie. She has a dad named Harry, and my dad's name is Harry. It takes place on an island in Greece, and my dad is also a Greek immigrant. So it just seemed weird to have all of these parallels and also this music that I instantly loved.
My parents did play ABBA in the car, but they had, like, a CD booklet that they kept all their CDs in and one of which was "ABBA Gold." And at the time, I was also really into dance. And I heard "Lay All Your Love On Me" and loved it so much and decided that this was the song I wanted to do my solo to at 13. And my parents were like, what is wrong with you?
HERNANDEZ-SIMEONIDIS: Because I just didn't understand what the song was about. I did have to end up changing songs.
HERNANDEZ-SIMEONIDIS: But that being said, I always really loved that song.
HERNANDEZ-SIMEONIDIS: But yeah, ever since then, like, ABBA has been a huge band for me. I've always revisited them time and time again. Even when I was a little emo kid in high school, I still would sing so loudly in the car to "Thank You For The Music." And it always just was so impactful for me. And like Glen said, it's all about the drama. I loved the dramatics of it, which was, I think, why I was so attracted to it.
THOMPSON: Yeah. I mean, I think my experience with ABBA early on was one of skepticism. You know, I was born in 1972. I was raised by folkies. I was raised by people who loved Peter, Paul and Mary and Bob Dylan and The Weavers. And so, like, ABBA was not part of the cultural firmament of my life at all. And, in fact, I think early on, I probably equated ABBA with the sounds of this group called Up With People.
THOMPSON: This, like, super cheesy - you just bring out the, like, clean-cut, young go-getters, and they would sing the most sanitized pop songs imaginable. And I think for me, like, ABBA was just the sound of a bunch of clean-cut go-getters singing sanitized pop music. And it wasn't until I became hopefully sophisticated enough as a listener to start to tease out the craft and the difference between what ABBA was doing and what Up With People was doing was - and Glen touched on it - the impeccability, the way the songs are just so fussed over and yet loose at the same time. To take a Glen-ism, you could bounce a quarter off of any given ABBA song. It's so incredibly airtight. But it took probably the release of "ABBA Gold" in 1992 and hearing all those ABBA songs, all those bangers, next to each other to really appreciate not only how catchy they are but just how perfectly paced they are. So I kind of came to my ABBA appreciation late in adulthood and then started to kind of back into it again through "Mamma Mia!" and "Mamma Mia! Two - Here We Go Again" (ph) (laughter) to kind of appreciate just how perfect their best songs are.
WELDON: Yeah. I mean, I forgive you, Stephen, because this...
WELDON: ...Music is really, really deceptive. If somebody tells me this stuff is cotton candy, I'm like, you have not listened to these lyrics...
WELDON: ...Which are often quite sad. Many of these songs are about breakups or something worse. And also, you haven't listened to these chords, these harmonies. So many of these songs are in a minor key. Even a song like "Dancing Queen," which has a rep as this euphoric celebration, is sung from the perspective of someone in their 20s looking back at how great it was to be 16. That is so sad.
WELDON: So this music isn't bubblegum pink. It's kind of sadder than that. It's ochre. It's raw umber. You know, it's burnt orange.
THOMPSON: Well, you mentioned "Dancing Queen." I think this is a perfect opportunity for us to play some clips and talk about our favorite ABBA songs. Sofie, I'm going to start with you. Hit me with your favorite ABBA song.
HERNANDEZ-SIMEONIDIS: So one of my favorite ABBA songs that I actually discovered through "Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again" was "Angeleyes." I watched that scene of Sophie and Tanya and Rosie all dancing together, complaining about the great loves of their life, and I fell in love so instantly. It was just so much fun and so dramatic. I loved the drama and antics of it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ANGELEYES")
ABBA: (Singing) Look into his angel eyes. You'll think you're in paradise. And one day, you'll find out he wears a disguise. Don't look too deep into those angel eyes.
HERNANDEZ-SIMEONIDIS: There are no words. I just love how much there is going on. I love it. I can, like, imagine them dancing through the entire scene as the song goes on. The year that "Mama Mia! Here We Go Again" came out, this was my No. 1 song on my Spotify wrap.
HERNANDEZ-SIMEONIDIS: Like, I listened to it every day (laughter).
THOMPSON: Well, it's funny. Just, like, even hearing it - we're having this conversation via Zoom. We're listening to the clip that was played through, you know, tinny speakers, and yet you can hear what a lavish Technicolor production it is. And you can just hear that layering. Every second of that song has 1,500 component parts...
THOMPSON: ...All working in perfect unison.
WELDON: Yeah. And, you know, when you hear that ABBA isn't really a band that did a lot of live concerts, that checks out.
WELDON: That actually - that totally - this is - all these songs could not be reproduced live. It's too tight.
THOMPSON: Well, Glen, give me your favorite ABBA song.
WELDON: I already mentioned it - hit me once.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KNOWING ME, KNOWING YOU")
ABBA: (Singing) Knowing me, knowing you. There is nothing we can do. Knowing me, knowing you. We just have to face it. This time we're through - this time we're really through. Breaking up is never easy.
WELDON: I mean, there it is - the purity of it. But yet there's so much going on in the combination of this implacable yet very lively music. Man, I love this.
THOMPSON: That is a great pick. I'm going to go even more meatball, pitch down the middle. I'm just gonna go with "Waterloo."
THOMPSON: It is the song that launched ABBA. It is the song that ABBA won the Eurovision Song Contest with Back in 1974...
THOMPSON: ...Which not only made ABBA, but I think in a lot of ways kind of made the Eurovision Song Contest because Eurovision Song Contest can always hitch its wagon to the fact that it helped launch ABBA.
THOMPSON: Kind of that weird symbiotic relationship, like "American Idol" has with Kelly Clarkson.
THOMPSON: And if I have a bone to pick with ABBA, it's the degree of grandiosity sometimes, especially in their slower songs, can kind of feel a little turgid to me sometimes.
THOMPSON: But then you take a song like "Waterloo," there is not a wasted nanosecond of this song. You can kind of drop the needle anywhere, and you are hearing a banger.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WATERLOO")
ABBA: (Singing) I feel like I win when I lose. Waterloo, I was defeated. You won the war. Waterloo, promise to love you...
THOMPSON: Glen talked about the pod people before. If you're not shimmying your shoulders...
HERNANDEZ-SIMEONIDIS: It's taking everything for me to not keep singing.
HERNANDEZ-SIMEONIDIS: Like, oh, my gosh.
HERNANDEZ-SIMEONIDIS: I just want to - I want the rest of this to just be karaoke.
WELDON: And there's something magical because hearing a saxophone like that in the middle of a song should instantly date this song, and yet somehow it's timeless.
THOMPSON: But that's something I want to talk about a little bit - is that timelessness. Like, what made ABBA stand out in its, like, '70s and '80s heyday, what makes it stand out in the present day and, like, how do you think it's influenced other music?
WELDON: They do have an enduring legacy. So many people have covered their songs. There is an Erasure cover of "Take A Chance On Me" that is life-saving.
WELDON: And we've got to mention it - Cher's album of ABBA cover songs. It's amazing. It's concentrated gayness. You have to handle it with care.
WELDON: There are some albums you play to send people home from a party. This is the one you want to turn everyone gay.
WELDON: So it should come with a surgeon general's warning on it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DANCING QUEEN")
CHER: (Singing) Friday night and the lights are low, looking out for a place to go where they play...
WELDON: It's not "Dancing Queen" anymore. It's Dancin' - N, apostrophe - Queen.
WELDON: And there's nothing anyone can stop. I mean, like, "Mamma Mia!" - the "Mamma Mia!" movies and the musical, that is rose wave the movie, right?
WELDON: That is the anti-Super Bowl. It's nothing...
WELDON: Nothing - when I saw that in the theater, it was queers. It was women. It was so empowering. It's just a lot of very silly fun. So that is their enduring legacy - is just this smile you get on your face whenever you hear any song, even the really sad, slow ones.
HERNANDEZ-SIMEONIDIS: Exactly. I would say a big part of it for me personally and the other people my age that I know love ABBA as much as I do is "Mamma Mia!" It was such a moment when the second movie came out, "Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again." It was the sequel we were all waiting for with bated breath. I thought there was no way that they could make a better movie than the first one. I was wrong. Oh, my God. It's the same amount of camp, I would say, as the first one with just a much larger budget.
And as much as it did fill my heart with, like, so much warmth, all of the moments that the songs wanted you to really feel something deeply emotional - that I did. Something about the music is that it's all so deeply emotional and so invoking of joy or laughter or just complete, utter sadness or - So the final scene of "Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again" is a baptism of both Sophie and Donna and their respective children getting baptized in their same church. They're singing "I'll Be Waiting For You" (ph). And I saw that movie with my mom in theaters the day that it came out. And we sobbed for 20 minutes after the movie.
HERNANDEZ-SIMEONIDIS: And there is no way that scene would have been as nearly emotional without that specific ABBA song. And ABBA put their whole lives into that - let me tell you (laughter). I just - I lived for it. Those movies just do the music so much justice, and I appreciate that so much. I would also say another really big part of it is that ABBA is kind of currently aware of their audience, and they're really meeting people where they're at. When people on TikTok started making, like, remixes of ABBA songs or started singing ABBA songs, like ABBA is so responsive on that platform specifically. And they kind of knew even before they joined the platform that they had an audience on there. And they really were able to capitalize on that. I think they have a few million TikTok followers now. And I'm willing to bet it's mostly people my age or younger.
THOMPSON: Yeah, it's probably not people my age or older.
THOMPSON: Yeah, I mean, when you talk about ABBA's musical legacy - this is going to rankle any of the rockists that Glen was talking about earlier, the Robert Christgaus of the world. But in a way, ABBA, I feel like, is on a continuum that goes back to The Beach Boys. And The Beach Boys were making pop music, but they were making technicolor pop music. They were making pop music using every part of the mixing board, you know (laughter), just, like, a million little, precise components that are adding up to something that somehow sounds effortless, even though it is literally the farthest possible thing from effortless.
That, to me, is the legacy. There are really a part of the pop music continuum as, like, something that is the result of incredible hard work and craft. And I think they're very, very important in that way. Now, the peg for us to have this conversation was that ABBA has put out a new album. "Voyage" is ABBA's first album in 40 years, as I have already mentioned. What do you guys think of the new album?
HERNANDEZ-SIMEONIDIS: To be honest, I thought it was fine. I thought a lot of the sounds were really evocative of the music that they released 40 years ago. But to be honest, there weren't as many bangers as I was hoping. That's what I was really counting on. So when they released "Don't Shut Me Down," that was immediately like my favorite of the two singles that they released of that and "I Still Have Faith In You." It sounds classically ABBA. I just wish there was a little bit oomph in there, you know?
WELDON: Yeah, I agree. It is kind of ballad heavy. And most of these songs start pretty slow. So we had some folks over, and we were like, let's do it - new ABBA.
WELDON: And a song would start, and we were all looking each other like, when is this going to start bopping?
WELDON: It's not bopping yet. And, you know, the first song on the album, "I Still Have Faith In You" is - has a pretty strong Carpenters vibes, which makes sense, I guess. But there is an ode to shared custody on this album called "Keep An Eye On Dan." There is a ballad about the disappearance of the bumblebees called "Bumblebee." So, you know, their concerns have changed, I think it's safe to say. But for me, the only bop, really, on the album is just a notion.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUST A NOTION")
ABBA: (Singing) Just a notion. But somehow, I know I'm not wrong. It is our destiny. There's nothing...
WELDON: I mean, you got the harmonies there - right? - harmonies. And...
WELDON: ...It is a little, you know, four on the floor, (laughter) kind of bom bom bom bom (ph). But, you know, it worked for me.
THOMPSON: Yeah. I like that song, too. And I agree with Sofie about which was the better of the first two singles. To me, the adjective that kept springing to mind when I was listening to this album is statesmanly.
THOMPSON: It is very much the work of extremely wealthy musicians...
THOMPSON: ...Who haven't made a record in 40 years. But at the same time, like, this song is not dismantling ABBA's legacy...
THOMPSON: ...In any way, shape or form. This is a curiosity, and this is kind of an answer to the question - like, people who've wondered, what if ABBA had kept making music? You know, this was a reunion that people had been trying to get off the ground for four decades. I think it justifies its existence as a curiosity and has its moments. But if you're reaching for an ABBA record, you're probably reaching for "ABBA Gold."
THOMPSON: Let's go out on one more piece of classic ABBA. Sofie, tell us about your last pick.
HERNANDEZ-SIMEONIDIS: Sure. This is a song called "That's Me." I personally love it. It's not a pick from "Mamma Mia!" or "ABBA Gold." And I think it deserves more justice. I believe it was actually a B side to the single "Dancing Queen." And honestly, if you had told me that this song had inspired "Sex And The City," I would believe you.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THAT'S ME")
ABBA: (Singing) I can't help my ways. I'm just not the girl to hide my face. I'm Carrie, not the kind of girl you'd marry. That's me.
THOMPSON: All right. Well, we want to know what your favorite ABBA songs are. Find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter at @pchh. That brings us to the end of our show. Thanks to both of you for being here.
HERNANDEZ-SIMEONIDIS: Thanks so much.
WELDON: Thank you.
THOMPSON: We will see you all tomorrow, when we'll be talking about the Bravo reality series "Below Deck."
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