Essays at the intersection of marketing and life.
Even as the music critics thrashed them, the most feted rock stars of the 70s recognised the unique talent of ABBA. Yes, the band name was a little corny – but the music sure was not. Pete Townsend of The Who, not a man to clip his cool by dropping BS, would maintain that ‘SOS’ was one of the best pop songs ever written.
Time would corroborate his opinion.
The music of four effervescent Scandinavians has become a cultural staple in the 21st Century. Indeed, it is more widely listened to now than in the first bloom of its first airing – way back in 1974-1982.
It was never obvious that ABBA would make it big. They had quite some baggage as they took to the Eurovision stage to perform Waterloo, clad in hot pants, platform shoes and sparkle. They were Swedes, they were from a folk background, they were married to each other, and they were participating in an event already satirised for its high camp.
Together, they agreed on a simple strategy to break through: whatever happens, grab the audience’s attention – with the look, the moves, the melody.
Their win with Waterloo catapulted ABBA to a global stage. After a faltering start, they began to churn out the hits. It is now just over 40 years since ‘Dancing Queen’, one of their biggest and most enduring pop numbers, was composed. The milestone has made me revisit the world of ABBA, in a bid to understand why their music so endures.
I suspect that within their genius lie secrets, useful to any of us who wish to make a true creative connection with a mainstream audience – be that in the realm of the arts or of brands.
I hereby present seven ABBA insights for your consideration, the result of some
informal-yet-obsessive research over the last weeks.
1. They wrote for themselves. Bjorn and Benny held not a single focus group nor did they seek the advice of others. They composed for their own ears – and sought to create melodies that sounded beautiful to them. That the rest of the world had a similar taste was a matter of happy coincidence. It is worthwhile remembering how widely ridiculed ABBA’s music was by the media back then. But Benny and Bjorn never once believed their own press
2. They toured hardly at all. Touring, it turned out, did not work well with composition. It was energy draining, boring, creativity-zapping. They held tight to the belief that they were musicians first, not performers. Indeed, Benny in a recent interview, refused the mantle of ‘artist’. “The girls are artists”, he replied. “I’m a pianist who writes songs”
3. 90% of the music they wrote was crap. But they had to go through the morass of drivel to arrive at the nuggets. Their songwriting was not in the mode of Mozart, channeling the voice of God – but rather the result of extraordinarily hard work. They only ever recorded the music they thought had merit. There were no B-sides on the B-sides
4. Pop is about melody first, and then lyrics. ABBA saw their job as creating beautiful sound, and would then allow the melody dictate the words. Indeed, they would use ‘dummy lyrics’ in studio as a way to uncover the nuance of a tune, content to backfill the final lyrics late in the process. Those who ridiculed the simplicity of the words fundamentally misunderstood the pop-music contract
5. They kept their own teeth. Throughout the famous music videos featuring side-profiles and close-ups, the band presented themselves as they were: young, energetic, beautiful, and also normal. Not plastic. Not produced. Agnetha had a gap in her teeth. Frida had crooked lower teeth. Bjorn had an overbite. It is unclear whether Benny had any teeth at all
6. There were no passengers. Each of the four was an experienced, working musician before ever they formed the group ABBA. Indeed, their coming together was not a feat of ambition, but one of convenience. Bjorn and Benny were writing melodies and needed some backing-singers for their recordings. They soon discovered that not only could their girlfriends sing better than they, but that together their voices blended in a perfect meld. Each was rendered better by being together
7. They stopped when it ceased being enjoyable. Many assumed that the pressure of being in a mega band precipitated their divorces in the early 1980s, and hence the group’s dissolution. Benny and Bjorn claim the contrary. According to them, by being part of ABBA their relationships were sustained for longer. The bond of their common enterprise, and the great joy in creating music which touched the world, became their glue. Until one day they had to admit it was no longer fun. And they knew their time was through.