Saturday, September 10, 2016

A Is For . . .

Songs A to Z

My 26-day challenge to myself -- write about a different band every day, working from A to Z. And just to prove that I'm not gonna be all high-falutin' about it, my first choice is: 

ABBA / "The Winner Takes It All"

When ABBA's fourth album Arrival  came out in 1976, I was living in the UK. You could not avoid that LP at the time; it was HUGE. Every third song played at every party and disco we went to was “Dancing Queen”; I can still do the line-dance we invented for it. But it didn't stop there: "Money Money Money," "Fernando," "Knowing Me Knowing You" -- every song on that album is etched in my memory.

But in 1980, when ABBA released Super Trouper, I'd moved to New York City and was listening to cynical New Wavers like Elvis Costello, Graham Parker, and the Talking Heads. When this single came on the radio (yes, I still listened to the radio), I probably shrugged it off as sentimental schmaltz.

And yet, and yet -- that lump in my throat could not be denied.

I'll come clean now: it's my favorite ABBA song of all time.

Now, in 1980 I had no idea of this song's backstory. Only years later would I see a documentary about ABBA that explained to me the tangled love lives of the band's four members, Benny, Bjorn, Annafrid, and Agnetha. According to that film, Bjorn wrote this song to pour out his grief over his divorce from his wife Agnetha. But ABBA songs were almost always sung by the ladies -- and in this case, Agnetha was the one who had to sing it.  That means she had to sing a song about her ex-husband's feelings about being divorced from her.

Give the lady credit: she nailed the emotions in this song.


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, Agnetha sings fatalistically, "The gods may throw the dice / Their minds as cold as ice." How Norse is that? But if the pain hasn't gone away yet, they've both accepted the reality of the end.

Movie-music arpeggios and yearning chord shifts step in to take the place of ABBA's usual bright pop reflexes. 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." (Bjorn clearly liked that image of walking through a house to symbolize divorce: he'd used it already in "Knowing Me Knowing You"). 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 now-regretful memory of pillow talk.

Oh, 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 are 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 Agnetha lags behind the beat, singing those lyrics almost woodenly, numbly.

The refrain reiterates that he's the winner, walking away with everything, and she's 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 wrote this to express his own regrets, who was the winner who took it all?

Agnetha told a reporter in 2013: "There is so much in that song. It was a mixture of what I felt and what Bjorn felt, but also what Benny and Frida went through."

So how did Bjorn 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?

Wheels within wheels. And how can we not love this band?

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