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Do Their Mothers Know?

A new DVD collection of ABBA film clips raises some interesting questions about sex, kitsch and pop transcendence

Of course, eventually Björn and Agnetha, and later Benny and Frida, would divorce, detracting a bit from the lighthearted fantasy world of ABBA's visual universe.

But even at this point, there was no overt or implicit sexuality in ABBA's video clips or in the music. ABBA borrowed a lot of dance rhythms from disco, which should have made their music more sensual. Perhaps it was lost in translation -- the members of ABBA didn't speak English as a first language -- or maybe they chose to keep their musical lives separate from their sexual desires. ABBA's songs spoke of love in the abstract, whether in the hopeful ("Take a Chance on Me") or hopeless ("The Winner Takes It All") mode. Perhaps this helped ABBA gain acceptance across so many different cultural barriers throughout the world. At any rate, the songs bubble, they soar, they even throb, but they always remain several steps outside the bedroom.

Many people start listening to ABBA with a certain condescension, tittering at these '70s icons who didn't appear to indulge in any of the excesses surrounding them. Our modern-day willingness to wink at supposedly inane examples of older popular culture turns out to be as clumsy as Agnetha's attempt to wink suggestively in the video. Many have come to ABBA looking for kitsch but have stayed because they've found grandeur.

ABBA built its grandest music on the backs of the most banal forms. From a stockpile of dead metaphors about romantic love, they built dense webs of emotional turmoil. Inherently populist, they created music rich enough to outlive every trend they tried to borrow. Sex would have brought their music down to earth when it was meant to skip lightly across the sky. "Fernando," a song about the romance of fighting for the losing side in a revolutionary war, might not have supported such a soaring melody were there any hint that the characters were lusting for each other physically instead of remembering their nobler, younger selves. "Super Trouper" would have had to drop its most transcendent moment, the utterly magical, yet inherently sexless way Benny and Björn intone "sup-pa-pa troup-pa-pa" underneath the chorus. If we were worried about Björn's carnal desire for the much younger girl in "Does Your Mother Know," we might not be able to leap about with abandon to its pogo-ready rhythms.

Perhaps by the time the penultimate single was released, ABBA had run its course. It's inherently difficult for a group of two couples to remain intimately involved after both have split up. At any rate, Hallström had left the fold, and someone decided it might be a good idea to sex up the video for "The Day Before You Came." Though Agnetha's scorching performance is admirable, this is one of only two clips in which the visuals outweigh the music.

The ABBA story ended definitively in 1982 with "Under Attack," the last single. The song is actually pretty catchy, but it never became a hit. The video features the foursome running around like some soft-focus '80s version of the Three Stooges, ducking behind giant wooden crates in a warehouse. But the very last scene of the video is the most telling: The four members of ABBA walk into the bright, empty light, their silhouettes fading away into a higher plane where they didn't have to reconcile their sublimely shiny pop music with the dirt and mess of lust.

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