There’s no doubt that ABBA is one of the most successful music groups of all time. The amount of iconic songs that the Swedish 4-piece has put out is absolutely ridiculous. “Dancing Queen.” “Mamma Mia.” “Chiquitita.” “Money Money Money.” “Fernando.” “Take A Chance On Me.” “Super Trouper.” “Lay All Your Love On Me.” I could go on.
The group’s sound (on the off chance someone has managed to go the past 50 years without hearing an ABBA song) is dominated by catchy hooks, silky vocal harmonies, glittery piano, cinematic chord progressions, and surprisingly funky bass lines. In honor of the best pop group the world has ever seen, let’s take a look at how they got their start, and their impact on pop music, nearly 50 years after they bombastically burst onto the scene.
ABBA got their start through the Eurovision song contest way back in the 70s. Songwriters Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus wanted to make it out of their cold Scandinavian home country, and they knew Eurovision was the way to do it. In 1972, the two songwriters started entering songs into Sweden’s qualifying competition. In 1973 the duo formed a band with their wives, Anni-Frid Lyngstad and Agnetha Fältskog, and used their four initials to come up with their new group’s name. ABBA was born. In ‘74, the group entered the Swedish qualifiers and won. They were headed to Eurovision with their song, “Waterloo.”
THE WORLD OF MUSIC, B.A.
In order to understand the impact that the group had on pop music, we should take a look at the state of the genre before the group. For a glimpse into the world of pop B.A. (before ABBA), take a look at the winner of the Eurovision contest in 1973, one year before ABBA exploded with all the glitz and glam of modern pop.
In ‘73, the winner was Anna-Marie David of Luxembourg. Her song, “Tu Te Reconnaîtras,” is incredibly powerful and emotional and is by no means a bad song, but it is a bit, shall we say, boring. It is very much in the vein of the crooner style of vocal pop made popular by the likes of Frank Sinatra and feels very conservative and reigned in. Keep in mind that this is 1973: the world of rock music was full of over the top performances by the likes of Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Elton John, David Bowie, and Queen.
Another important note to make about this song is the language it is sung in. French. By singing in a language other than English, the song was incredibly unlikely to make waves in the largest music market in the world. Because of the language it is sung in, the song’s success was limited to European countries and it never made it across the pond to the United States.
ABBA saw these trends and decided to upset the status quo. They made two conscious decisions to stand out amongst their Eurovision competitors. First: they sang in English. Traditionally, countries competing in Eurovision sung a song in their native language. ABBA, with their sights set on world domination, knew that a number 1 hit had to be sung in English.
Second: they mimicked the look of rock. Taking inspiration from glam rock pioneers like David Bowie and T. Rex, ABBA (including the orchestra conductor, who donned a Napoleon costume) wore outfits straight out of a 70s rock concert that made them stand out. Combine all of this with the goofy subject matter of their song, and you get a recipe for success.
Following their Eurovision win, the group went through a year-long period where they struggled to find their footing. Their shows, singles, and albums weren’t selling as well as they hoped, and it seemed like ABBA fever had subsided. Luckily, though, the lull was temporary. The group released their self-titled album, supported by the single “SOS,” to critical acclaim. The markets, on the other hand, were less receptive.
The album received lukewarm sales, yet music critics and record companies saw the diamond in the rough that was ABBA. It was only a matter of time until they dominated the world. The next stop on their path to superstardom was the release of their 1976 compilation album, Greatest Hits. The album reached the number one spot in 13 countries worldwide, and put ABBA on the Top 50 chart in the US for the first time. ABBA fever had reignited. The world had fallen in love with their outrageous outfits, their flamboyant and catchy songs, and their rock-inspired stage presence.
Where would the world of pop music be today without ABBA? Take a look at any modern pop star today and we can see glimpses of ABBA in the way they present themselves. The outfits, the stage presence, the branding, and the personality behind the music is something that was absent in pop before ABBA. The Lady Gagas, Dua Lipas, and Doja Cats of the world are all walking along a path paved by ABBA. These Swedes are truly some of the most important people in music history.