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The Boston Phoenix How Swede It Is

All things ABBA

By Douglas Wolk

MAY 8, 2000:  It's unclear how a Swedish bubblegum tune about a teenager at a dance became something like the Australian national anthem. But when the Loser's Lounge band struck up ABBA's "Dancing Queen" at a New York show last year, the Australian contingent at the table next to mine rose as one, their hands over their hearts. Somehow, ABBA have inspired an international fandom that's both proud and indignantly protective.

The Texas fan site Benny's Page is a dumfounding exegesis of how, though of course Agnetha and Anni-Frid were equally important, Benny Andersson carried just a little more weight than Björn Ulvaeus, and how part of the band's appeal was that "there were no drugs, wild sex parties or other bizarre occurrences usually associated with such successful rock and pop acts." And when Erasure released ABBA-Esque, an EP of covers, the Australian ABBA tribute band Björn Again riposted with an EP of their own, Erasure-Ish. There's even a British band, GABBA, that's brought together the styles and iconography of ABBA and the Ramones -- their repertoire includes the likes of "Voulez-Vous Danser avec un Cretin" and "The Pinhead Takes It All."

But it took some more Swedes to come up with a terrifyingly obvious idea: bringing together the visions of ABBA inventor Stig Anderson and Backstreet Boys/'N Sync creator Lou Pearlman. The A*Teens are four Swedish teenagers (two girls, two boys), very much in the Spice Girls/LFO vein, whose repertoire consists entirely of ABBA covers. They were originally called the ABBA Teens until they ran into legal trouble; their debut album, The ABBA Generation, is due out on MCA next week. The adorable video for "Dancing Queen" is already on TV, and they're opening for Britney this summer.

The album is a horror, but it's also very difficult to resist. The arrangements are almost the same as the ABBA originals, aside from pumped-up tempos and some unnervingly of-the-moment production touches (like the "Believe"-style vocoder applied to the "ohh-ohh" before the chorus of "Mamma Mia" and the aerobics-friendly synth squiggles all over the album). But the sad fact is that ABBA's songs make better teen-group material than pretty much anything written in the last 10 years -- they're stupid, yes, but complicated stupid. Ulvaeus and Andersson wrote some of the most harmonically intricate hits since Tin Pan Alley fell out of favor. They don't just grab the ear, they worry it like a cat with a bird in its jaws. Add that to the brain-stem attack of circa 2000 pop production and The ABBA Generation ends up being the most shamelessly manipulative album I've ever heard. I can't stop hitting the "play" button to deliver the little pleasure pellet.

This is not the place to look for seriousness of purpose. Sara and Marie don't look genetically engineered, the way their role models did -- they look, and sound, computer-generated, apart from the vestigial accents that sometimes turn their phrasing into glossolalia. ("Here I would have thanked my boyfriend," Sara remarks in the liner notes, "but unfortunately I don't have anyone yet, but one day I think I'll have one, I hope.") It's not terribly clear what the role of Amit and Dhani in the A*Teens is, since they're not audible on the record aside from the chant at the beginning of "Take a Chance on Me" -- as my friend Lisa wonders, "Do they play any instruments or just pout and try to ride that fine line between being homoerotic and heteroerotic?"

The only band who've ever seriously attempted to be "the new ABBA" are also Swedish: Ace of Base, whose new Greatest Hits (Arista) documents eight years of diminishing returns. (They also appear to be even less of a "band" than the A*Teens -- former Nazi youth gang member Ulf "Buddha" Ekberg is still in the photos, but he's entirely absent from both writing and performing credits on all the post-1992 hits.) Their earliest singles still hold up -- adding a dancehall backbeat to the well-scrubbed pop formula was a great move (even though it led a friend of mine to nickname them "ABBA Ranks"), and the ambiguously mystical lyrics and ingenious major-minor shifts of "The Sign" make it tick like a watch. "Beautiful Life" sounds important now in a way that it didn't back in 1995 -- its Möbius-strip chord progression and snapping, slightly frantic arrangement point the way toward just about everything on Total Request Live. But songwriter Jonas Berggren ran out of steam and started pastiching other generic styles, like the Motown ripoff of 1998's "Always Have, Always Will" and the half-baked Euroshuffle of the new "C'est La Vie." By the time they started covering Bananarama, the game was over. AoB's Waterloo in aspiring to ABBAhood was concentrating on image and style: the only way to get there is with songs so solidly built that they're impossible to screw up, even by computer-generated teenagers.

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