Sunday, July 14, 2013

"The Winner Takes It All" / ABBA

What -- she's gone for six weeks and then she comes back to write about ABBA?

But you see, while I was gone I went to Sweden, and what was the first thing I heard as I entered baggage claim at the Stockholm airport?  Agnetha's and Frida's voices, blending in their inimitable way, belting out "Take a Chance on Me." Was that perfect or what?

After all, ABBA is Sweden's greatest gift to the world, right up there with Volvo, Ikea, and Pippi Longstocking. So why not pipe it into the concourse just so you know you're really in Sweden?  Okay, so it was being played for a specific purpose: to promote the new ABBA Museum that just opened on Djurgarden. But hey, it worked -- I dragged my family to see the exhibit as soon as possible.

The museum was slick and entertaining, just like ABBA, and I suspect that my kids didn't come away as converts to the ABBA sound. They grew up in the post-punk indie era; how could they possibly hear how fresh ABBA's sound was when they first hit the scene? But it struck me anew, and seeing it in Stockholm really brought home what an achievement it was for a foursome from Sweden to take the world by storm back in 1974, winning the Eurovision Song Contest with their breakout hit "Waterloo."

Don't you dig those costumes?  In 1974, Eurovision contestants were still appearing in dirndls and lederhosen; the sequins and fringes and tight satin pants blew all that away. One of the coolest things about the ABBA museum was the room full of their stage costumes.  And it wasn't just the girls, either; Benny and Bjorn styled around in jumpsuits and capes that would put Liberace to shame. Frida in particular was hugely interested in how they looked on stage. They didn't dance much, and they didn't have the kind of pyrotechnics that today's headliners are expected to have. But for 1974, they were cutting-edge.

It's not like I haven't written about ABBA before -- you may remember my fondness for "Dancing Queen" and "Knowing Me Knowing You." Both of those tracks came from the only ABBA album I actually owned, Arrival, which also included the somewhat darker "Money Money Money" -- a song that was as close to social commentary as these Swedes ever went. (It also featured Frida's throaty contralto instead of Agnetha on lead vocal, if you're keeping score.)  Considering that Frida later married a German prince and is now living with a British viscount, I'd say she knows something about the topic of marrying money. 

But over the years, the ABBA song I keep coming back to is "The Winner Takes It All."  A later track, it appeared on 1980's Super Trouper, which was released after half of the group -- Bjorn Ulvaeus and Agnetha Faltskog -- had filed for divorce. (Anni-Frid Lyngstad and Benny Andersson were still hanging in there, but they would divorce in 1981.) Bjorn was the band's lyricist, and though he denies that this song was written about their divorce, I'm not buying it. The pain of splitting from a life partner runs through every bar of this song. And you can't tell me that Agnetha's delivery doesn't reflect some genuine heartbreak.

Wistful resignation runs through this song -- "I don't want to talk / About the things we've gone through / Though it's hurting me / Now it's history." Later on, she sings fatalistically, "The gods may throw the dice / Their minds as cold as ice." The pain hasn't gone away yet, but they've both accepted the reality of the end.

Or have they?  Gone are the bright bouncy syncopation, the cheerful pop hooks; this song swells with movie-music arpeggios and yearning chord shifts. Looking back on the past, she feels blindsided: "I was in your arms / Thinking I belonged there / I figured it made sense / Building me a fence." And just for good measure -- a twist of the knife -- she carries this on in the next couplet, "Building me a home / Thinking I'd be strong there." I trusted you, buddy, and look where it's left me.

In the third verse, the Other Woman enters the picture. (Ah, betrayal and jealousy rear their ugly heads.) "But tell me does she kiss / The way I used to kiss you? / Does it feel the same / When she calls your name?"  I love how Agnetha softens her voice for this verse, drops into that intimate register to summon a memory of pillow talk. That's got to evoke a twinge of regret.

And in the last verse, she makes sure he knows how selfless she's being -- "I don't want to talk / If it makes you feel sad . . . I apologize / If it makes you feel bad." Wait -- he left you for another woman, and you're apologizing to him?  I've always been torn by this verse, wanting her to stand up for herself, and yet totally getting how wrecked she is -- "Seeing me so tense / No self-confidence." I love how she lags behind the beat, singing those lyrics almost woodenly, numbly.

The refrain reiterates that the man is the winner, walking away with everything, and the woman is the loser. (Bjorn and Agnetha insist that neither of them was the loser in their divorce; this is just a song, people.) Still, I have to wonder. If Bjorn was the winner, how did he write a song with such insight into Agnetha's pain?  I can only imagine how it felt to hear her sing it over and over again, at concert after concert. So who's the winner in the end?


Wakeup said...

Nice thoughts. I envy your trip to the museum.

Each New Year's Day we have a complete listen of their catalog. An odd little tradition, and I don't recall how or why it began, but it seems to be a good way to start the year afresh.

Holly A Hughes said...

I love that idea!

NickS said...

It is a good song (and Merryl Streep sung it well for one of the climactic scenes in Mama Mia -- note you can also find the soundtrack version on youtube, with better sound, but I think it's neat to see how Streep plays it).

Depending on my mood, I sometimes go back and forth about the idea that Abba songs can have surprising emotional depth for being such catchy pop confections. Occasionally I want to quibble that they just gesture in the direction of emotion without getting to close.

Mostly, however, I agree that there are a surprising number of Abba songs which deserve and reward attention. I appreciate songwriting in which complicated emotions are expressed in simple, straightforward declarative statements and ABBA is does that well -- For example, "Though it's hurting me / Now it's history." or, "All I do is eat and sleep and sing / Wishing every show was the last show."

In this case I would add that, as a piece of pop songwriting "The Winner Takes It All" deserves a great deal of credit for using the metaphor of gaming as a structure for the song (cards, dice, judges) without getting carried away with it. So often, it seems, when a writer comes up with a good metaphor it's impossible to let go (It isn't a perfect example, but Suzanne Vega's, "No Cheap Thrill" comes to mind).

In fact, reading the lyrics now, I see that it alternates between stanzas in with gaming imagery in which she is saying, "I accept this for what it is and no more needs to be said" and stanzas in which she directly expresses her pain ("I was in your arms / Thinking I belonged there", "But tell me does she kiss / Like I used to kiss you?", and "I don't wanna talk / If it makes you feel sad.") which don't reference gambling.

That is a very, very nice bit of songwriting.

Note 1: I do like the idea that the international arrivals gates at airports should play music which is particularly associated with the county. Arriving in the US you might hear Elvis, for example, or Chuck D (okay, probably I'm the only one who found that amusing).

I would feel slightly bad for Australia which would probably have to play either Men At Work or the Divinyls.

Note 2: Two favorite ABBA covers in which the performers really dig in emotionally. Teddy Thompson singing "Super Trouper" and Sinead O'Connor singing "Chiquitita"