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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

It all begins with four people standing in front of a white backdrop, a sparse setting that emphasizes the joyous exuberance of the featured song -- "Waterloo," which won the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest and launched ABBA's career. In lieu of a tour, the band made a film clip to accompany the song. Benny Andersson sits at an upright piano while Anni-Frid "Frida" Lyngstad, Agnetha Faltskog and Björn Ulvaeus stare straight ahead in a line, facing an imaginary audience and seemingly oblivious to the camera, which zooms and cuts and swivels as if animated by the bouncy confection of the music. They attempt a little dance routine, which far surpasses their choreographic skill, and this makes them giggle.

By 1982, with the release of ABBA's second-to-last single, "The Day Before You Came," it's almost over. By this time, MTV had begun making inroads into defining pop culture, and videos were more complicated and supposedly more sophisticated. Agnetha -- let's face it, we're all on a first-name basis with the members of ABBA -- gets on a train and either flirts or thinks about flirting with a nice-looking young man who doesn't quite reach the train before it leaves the station.

This video, interestingly enough, contains the sole moment of genuine eroticism in the 35 clips collected on the newly released DVD, ABBA: The Definitive Collection (Polar Music International). At one point, Agnetha lets her imagination carry her away, and a close-up of her brightly lit face appears against a dark background, as a man's fingers slide slowly down her nose, pausing to pull back her lower lip just a bit and caress her neck. She wears an expression of knowing bliss, and the back of his head moves in toward her face as they begin to kiss before she returns to the "reality" of her train trip.

That's it. Thirty-five film and video clips for 31 different songs -- the DVD contains three Spanish-language renditions and a bizarre, baroque-costumed command-performance video of "Dancing Queen" -- and the only other time sex is even obliquely referenced comes when Frida and Agnetha take turns winking, ostensibly for the purpose of seduction, in the clip for "Take a Chance on Me." Both winks are immediately undercut: Frida bounces innocuously to the music as she listens to it on the headphones in the recording studio; Agnetha, who always tries so hard to appear concerned with the lyrics, puts so much effort into her wink that she appears faintly ridiculous.

It's hard to imagine a time when pop music videos weren't loaded with sexual imagery and harder still to fathom that ABBA, now associated with the decadent '70s, was purposely marketed as a clean-as-a-whistle alternative to punk, funk, heavy metal and disco. But ABBA, the first Swedish act to win the Eurovision Song Contest, achieved worldwide stardom, automatically topping the charts with every release in every country except the United States, by building on an initial fanbase of teenage European girls.

"Waterloo" picked up the basic template of English glam rock, welded it to a Phil Spector-inspired wall-of-sound production and bounced its way into people's brains. It shouldn't have been such a memorable song, but the melody is just tricky enough, the harmonies just open enough, to subvert the very silliness it was meant to imply. This technique became the formula for ABBA's career: Work in the realm of pop, but don't be afraid to mess with song structure, build elaborate melodies that explode into bright choruses, pile on intricate vocal harmonies and counterpoint, and always remain aware of the rhythmic vitality that could be borrowed from contemporary genres such as disco and R&B.

ABBA was huge in the '70s, but since breaking up, the band's become unstoppable. ABBA songs have galvanized movies such as Muriel's Wedding and theatrical musicals such as Mamma Mia!, as well as spawning at least two successful tribute bands, the A-Teens and Björn Again (the latter group recently played to a worshipful audience at the Pageant last week). The ABBA phenomenon becomes even more amazing in light of these films and videos, which underscore how impossible it would be these days for such a band to get any play on MTV or VH1. Frida and Agnetha are beautiful, if unconventionally so, but they never learned to dance very well. All four members of the group frequently burst into spontaneous laughter during these clips, as if the idea of standing in front of a giant snowman while a wind machine blows your hair into your face may actually be more funny than symbolic, and no one is exactly buff. Perhaps most important when judged by the rules of contemporary pop music, ABBA uses dance rhythms to support the songs; the band doesn't write songs to support the dance rhythms.

In the 1970s, however, ABBA didn't face any of these obstacles, nor did the members have to worry about producing videos full of clichés. The clichés hadn't been invented yet, and ABBA was up for any outlandish idea director Lasse Hallström wanted to try. Hallström, who directed the lion's share of these clips and then went on to direct movies such as My Life as a Dog and Chocolat, developed a consistent visual vocabulary for ABBA. He loved close-ups of Benny's hands on the piano keyboard. He liked to set two members of the group in counterpoint to each other, looking in different directions or facing at right angles. He frequently showed a human side to these big stars, with scenes of them wandering the streets, playing board games at home, having a picnic in a park. There's a strong suggestion that Hallström thought of these as elaborate home movies documenting the lives of two couples in love.

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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