My, my, how can I resist you?: How an ABBA cover band brings the masses together
The ongoing universality of Swedish pop genius.
It was a perfect spring day – clear and bright with air that filled your lungs with optimism. It had a different feel about it, that day. Some kind of camaraderie suddenly existed between everyone, as if our interactions had not previously been limited to torturous ‘getting to know you’ exercises in class. A shared twinkle in the eye, a close mouth smile which says, ‘yes, I am a white person with a fun-loving attitude’. This kind of atmosphere was a rarity for me, and I suspect many of my peers. My lack of rugby jumper indicates that I didn’t experience the ‘college life’ of a university residence, and instead witnessed the joys of genuinely unhinged citizens getting up to mischief on public transport. We clock in, we clock out, and occasionally we grab a beer or a burger. Mostly, we are a very, very small fish in a very, very large ocean, trying not to look at the fucked-up faces of sting-rays or those fish with the lights on their heads.
In an effort to maintain the long-heralded university tradition of drinking in the day time and eating veggie burgers, the Tuesday courtyard music gig attempted to momentarily ease the nagging isolation of this big pond. For me and my mates, it allowed us to regularly engage in two of our favourite activities – lining up for warm alcohol, and standing in cramped spaces with strangers. It also allowed the student union to flex some cultural-cool muscle. I assume the decision to book each and every act was driven by how it might sound coming out of the mouth of a student attempting to one-up their old high school friends – ‘Well I’d LOVE to pop over for lunch, but you see the ‘Reanimated Corpse of PRINCE’ is playing at the Tuesday gig, so you know…’.
So the game was a tricky one. What kind of act is known to ‘the youth’, without being overexposed? Draws a crowd but not because of ‘irony’? can foster enough of an atmosphere that students have a good time but doesn’t only attract the die-hard groupies?
The answer is contained in four blonde little Swedish letters – ABBA (or the much more Australian and much more available cover band, BABBA).
The murmurings of BABBA’s arrival had been building for weeks. The morning of that gloried day, students ran through the university like Paul Revere ‘The Swedish are coming! The Swedish are coming!’.
With two sausages in bread in one hand, and two beers in the other (yes, I’m surprised I’m single too) me and a friend gamely ventured into a crowd growing before an empty stage, awaiting the arrival of what would be the highlight of any university student’s day, week, or most likely month: an ABBA cover band who committed to the accent with such intensity, you could overlook that each of them sounded like a variation of the Swedish Chef from The Muppets.
I must step back for a moment to remain at least a semi-reliable narrator. Was a fair majority of this crowd white? Yes. Was the man playing Bjorn wearing his real hair in such a way that made him appear less Swedish musical genius and more like a Golden Retriever? Also yes. But as not one but two films have shown us, a love of ABBA is enough to convince Meryl Streep to wear overalls, and their power cannot be underestimated.
The crowd begins to metastasise. It spreads throughout the courtyard, climbing up balconies and catching the eye of people attempting to move through, apparently with more important things to do than watch a cover band of a Swedish pop group from the 1970s. The gall of some people…
But then that opening guitar lick of ‘Mammia Mia’ hijacks our attention, and in four perfectly plucked notes the eyes of hundreds of over-worked and underpaid university students are enraptured by a group of forty-year olds who continue to play dress ups.
This wasn’t just an average cover band, the kind who interrupts your $10 parma and pot at an out-suburban pub with an off-key rendition of Belinda Carlisle’s Summer Rain. This was a genuine, bonda fide concert with a crowd of people with one shared prerogative – to have a bloody good time.
The crowd exists as one being. We sing along to the tight harmonies of ‘Super Trooper’, and share in the loneliness of touring musicians who only seems to ‘eat and sleep and sing, wishing every show was the last show’. The wall of sound delivered by Waterloo’s opening bars hits one like a train. We sway to the subdued Fernando, I assume all imagining some long-haired, topless Spanish man romancing us. For a moment, each and every person in that crowd is a teenage girl out in the world for the first time, dancing to the music and having the time of our lives. The euphoria of Dancing Queen is the final, unifying nail in the coffin. We feel the beat of the tambourine and remind ourselves that some feelings, some great big meaty feelings are ones that we all feel, and are so much bigger than our own, isolated experience. The dancing queen has the time of her life because she surrenders herself to the entirely human activity of being moved by music in every sense, and we finally allow ourselves to do the same. For this moment in time we were together, we were happy, and we were part of some Scandi-pop organism far bigger than ourselves. That moment is over now, but we’ll remember it, and thinking about it periodically when we yet again catch the upbeat but ultimately melancholic earworm of S.O.S in the deli section of Coles.
But how do we, a group of strangers whose most in-depth interaction beyond those weird getting to know you games was perhaps an argument over whether Foucault was a paranoid genius or just a wanker, come to be singing and dancing, truly having the time of our lives on one ordinary Tuesday? White people having little culture beyond keep cups and those low-cut Doc Martens seems to be at least somewhat rectified by our shared, innate love of ABBA. How do we all seem to know the words? How do we all seem to know that the hanging, alluring guitar riff at the top of Mamma Mia, and how is it we come running, not wanting to be left behind when the rocket takes off?
In all honesty, I assume it has something to do with radio-play, and Australia’s ongoing status as a bit of a daggy cultural backwater. The first time I heard ABBA I was at a 7th birthday party, and the birthday girl’s mother decided a game of musical statues could only be played to Money Money Money. My friend’s exposure and enjoyment of the band was conceived through his mother’s outright hatred – Take A Chance On Me generated in this demure Scottish woman a fury only ever seen in Braveheart or those crime shows on the ABC on Friday nights. But I like to think it’s something a bit bigger than that. The allure of ABBA, or BABBA, is that for a moment we come together and let ourselves be daggy, let ourselves piss off our mothers, let ourselves hook arms around people we have never spoken to in our lectures and ask, my, my, how can I resist you?
Ella Robinson is 21 and in her first year of a Masters of Teaching at the University of Melbourne.