Long, long ago, before iPhones and thus before the memory of most South Africans, there was a Belgian airline called SABENA. It was a rotten airline. Various people suggested that the acronym stood for “Such an Awful Bloody Experience — Never Again!”. The airline no longer exists, which presumably means that all airlines have now improved. (Joke. At least SABENA planes didn’t go down in balls of fire, a quality modern airlines encourage by outsourcing their maintenance to the lowest bidder.)
What does ABBA stand for? In the Creator’s estimation, “Another Banal Boost for Apathy”.
If you look back to the 1970s (not a pleasant thing to do at the best of times — the ties! the shoes! the furniture!) you will note that there was a certain debate about what was then called disco music. In a crude sense the debate was between people who were prepared to say “Disco sucks!”, and those who were not. Often both sides went to places with flashing lights to dance to (if you’re shy), dressed in absurdly elegant outfits which could not survive a visit to the workplace, and tried to organise quickies with other people dressed in comparably elegant outfits. In a strange sense, the disco movement was a side effect of the gay liberation movement, in that everybody who want to the disco, whatever their gender or sexual orientation, was acting gay. (Or, to be precise, acting like caricatures of gays — and that includes gays at gay discoes listening to gay music in a distinctly gay manner, you know, gay-like.) This is why bands like ABBA, whose members appear to have been rather pathetically heterosexual, nevertheless managed to become iconic gay figures. Harrumpff.
Thing about ABBA’s music is that it is quite listenable. Strange, how potent cheap music is — huh? It is also danceable and, tell the truth, people in stretchy outfits flinging themselves about are not necessarily bad for the libido, whatever you want done with your genitals. The disco beat was inescapable, and indeed, was the ancestor of most dance music over the past twenty years or so. Anything which does DOOSH-thrump DOOSH-thrump or THHONK-diddy-diddy-THHONK-diddy-diddy or even KERWHAMshhBAM KERWHAMshhBAM owes an enormous debt to disco and to ABBA. (Think of Moby in platform heels. Not hard to do, is it?)
This strongly suggests that the “Disco sucks!” crowd was defeated. But not exactly. Firstly, there were those who were trying to do exactly the same as Black Box and Gloria Gaynor were trying to do, but had already established their own style which couldn’t fit in with disco. Bowie, who didn’t really have a style of his own, could go disco; Queen acted as if disco had been invented for them (which in a personal sense it had) but Black Sabbath could hardly go disco, any more than the Village People could go New Romantic (and more tragically than comically, they tried). So there were people who disliked disco not because it was any more vapid and vacuous than what they themselves were doing, but rather because they couldn’t take advantage of it, and other people were making the money and getting the hot chicks, and they hated that. Fair enough. Such motives drive the capitalist system (preferably over a cliff).
But of course there were other elements on the popular scene, one of which derived from elements of the Beatles and the Stones and the 1960s Kinks, and the Velvet Underground and early John Lennon ensovoorts, and these were the people who were actually singing about the real world. This is, of course, to introduce a whole new element which is almost irrelevant either to disco, to disco’s successors, or to a lot of the so-called hard rock which purported to despise disco. This element is the lyrics.
You cannot listen to disco music while paying attention to the lyrics. Exposed to them, you either must vomit or cringe, and too much attention to the lyrics causes bleeding from the ears and uncontrolled voiding of the bowels. Much of the purpose of bouncing around on the floor is to protect one’s psyche from the words one might otherwise inadvertently acquire. On the other hand, radical music is all about the lyrics; the music and the dancing is the bait on the hook to bring you into a new perspective. Not always an attractive perspective, as with white supremacist pop/rock, but you get the idea. Consciously ideological popular music, as opposed to disco which is fundamentally music to rescue you from having to think ideologically — or indeed at all.
Fairly hard music, mostly; the Clash being the characteristic example. (Interestingly, the soft-left leader in the British Labour Party, Tony Benn, once thought of having a meeting with them; from his diaries, it’s clear that he had never heard them or indeed heard of them. Benn’s late-70s diaries also mention Tom Robinson, whose gentler music and clumsily lucid lyrics would have appealed to an Old Labourite.) Even Fredric Jameson approved of the Clash, or at least of what he considered to be their project (whatever that might have been in what Jameson would call praxis).
The interesting thing about that music was how it disappeared. Patti Smith and even Talking Heads eventually folded up (granted, Patti came back from the dead after her husband died). It’s possible to suppose that there was a gigantic conspiracy on the party of the disco freaks, which passes the time, but that’s not very likely. Much more probably, however, there was a conspiracy on the part of the public to buy music which didn’t make them think (OK, Patti’s music mostly makes you think she needs therapy or medication, but still, thinking’s thinking), and of course on the part of the evil record companies (everybody hates record companies — you can blame them for everything from global warming to Paris Hilton).
Of course that music made a comeback in the 1990s with the modestly rebellious movement which some people called grunge and others attributed to Seattle. Even so, note that apart from a few flimsy existentialists like Green Day and ostentatious radicals like Rage Against The Machine, one striking thing about that movement is how it has been depoliticised in retrospect. One is not supposed to think about radicalism and culture combined together, any more than one is supposed to think about the destroyed Rivera murals of Rockefeller Center.
Which brings us down to the fact that a couple of years ago some Americans decided that it would be a keen idea to make a musical based on the music of ABBA. This had already been done to the poor Beatles in the era of disco, when the original copyrights ran out and a group of zombie musicians from the eighth circle of hell produced a movie — a sequence of images on plastic tape intended to be projected on a screen along with a sound-track, that is — called Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. (It was a flop.) Nowadays copyrights don’t run out, but no doubt calls were made and the right people were paid and so the musical went ahead. It had essentially no plot, no message, no talents worthy of the name, but it had a lot of the songs which were communally cringed at in 1975-1981, and the musical, called, as if you don’t know, Mama Mia!, was a huge success. (Possibly some New Yorkers went to it thinking it was about Woody Allen’s love life, but they obviously stayed to sing along and sway. Do not think too deeply about New Yorkers singing.)
This shows that the late 1970s were an era of better taste than now, which is horrific but not surprising.
Now, of course, this has been made into a film. As we all know by now, nobody involved in film in the continental United States has any capacity for original thought (it appears there is some covert Constitutional prohibition of this) and thus every new film, whether intended for Metroplex, CD-ROM, Internet or Sundance Festival, is a tawdry piece of pap recapitulating something done better a long time earlier, including the pieces of pap which recapitulate the work of Andy Warhol (himself no mean pap-regurgitator) and the ones which reveal to a horrified world that there are such things as homosexuality. So there is nothing at all unusual about a bad stage musical entirely dependent on the dubious composing talents of a successful but uninspired band thirty years ago (which probably means, dependent on the those who once danced to that music suffering from only selective Alzheimer’s), being turned into a bad movie based upon that stage musical, the whole showing an absence of interest in plot, etc.
It is, if you are interested in such things, moderately interesting that Meryl Streep is in it. Hell, we are probably lucky that Johnny Depp isn’t in it. (We are assured of the astonishing fact that she can sing; gentle reader, consider that this is supposed to be, and is, something unusual appearing in a musical.) The revelation that fifty-nine-year-old women can dance, which has been trumpetted on various front pages, comes as no surprise to anyone who has been to weddings of respectable people; at such events it is always the fifty-nine-year-olds who drag luckless younger males away from the bar and force them to make ninnies of themselves on the dance-floor, a kind of revenge for the collapse of feminism in the 1980s. What happens subsequently in the shrubbery is nobody’s business — suffice to say that instead of worrying about teenage Satanism our press should be troubled about the pushers of those pushing sixty.
Suddenly one remembers, however, that Streep was an extremely prominent actress in the late 1970s. No doubt many of those who boogied to “Dancing Queen” and “Thank You For The
o Ahura Mazda, spare me from these Ahriman-inspired tunes coming into my head
Music” had posters of the awe-inspiring Meryl, who was rumoured to be able to act, an episode unprecedented in the history of the moving picture, on their walls. And they also probably wore leg-warmers; let us neither forgive, nor forget. So, in short, another confirmation of the generation that this movie is intended to exploit.
People try to put us d-down (Talkin’ ’bout my generation)
Just because we g-get aroun’ (Talkin’ ’bout my generation)
Now, this generation may not be the Creator’s, but the point is that this was the generation which supposedly put the theories of the 1960s (the youth-culture explosion that Pete Townshend was prefiguring there) into practice. And that was the horror of the 1970s. But now we are seeing this failure at second remove; parody turns into blank parody, or pastiche, without any irony or ideological content (something not hard to do when you are dealing with ABBA’s music and lyrics), as the aforementioned Fredric Jameson would witter. And the newspapers are telling us that it is our duty to our gender, or our patriotism, or the bank accounts of the rich and famous, to go out and watch the movie, spending money on it, and perhaps buying the sound-track afterwards.
So that our masters can simultaneously dance a jig on the grave of the radical past, piss into the coffin of dead radicalism, manufacture a supine submission to authority and commercial power, destroy all concepts of aesthetics and taste, and make an enormous amount of money out of it.
Bliss is it, in this dawn, to be alive — and to be young is very Heaven!