The Number Ones

The Number Ones: ABBA’s “Dancing Queen”

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

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ABBA – “Dancing Queen”

HIT #1: April 9, 1977

STAYED AT #1: 1 week

You’re John McCain. When you were 21 years old, you were flying a bombing mission over Hanoi, and a missile shot your plane down. You ejected from your plane, broke two arms and a leg, then landed in a lake and almost drowned. The soldiers who took you prisoner crushed your shoulder with a rifle butt and bayoneted you in the groin.

You were interrogated, beaten, denied medical care. You spent two years in solitary confinement. When your father was named commander of all the American forces in the Vietnam war, your captors tried to send you home. But adhering to the military code of conduct, you refused release, since other soldiers had been kept prisoner longer than you. So instead, you were tortured for years, beaten at regular intervals. And after five and a half years, when the war finally ended, you returned home to a country that had fundamentally changed.

You missed the cultural upheavals of the ’60s. While they were happening, you were being tortured. You’re unmoored, not sure how to return to American life. You remain in the Navy, go through physical therapy, take command of a training squadron. You cheat on your wife, who you married before your capture.

You don’t pay a lot of attention to music. Music has changed, and you weren’t around while that was happening. But one day, you hear a song. Two Swedish women are singing, in imperfect but somehow also perfect English, about a 17-year-old girl on a dancefloor. The music is bright and effervescent, and the voices are almost rapturous with joy. But there’s an undercurrent to them, too, a sort of bone-deep melancholy. Those voices celebrate youth even as they mourn its loss. They stack melodies on top of melodies, rising on the music like currents of air. You love this song.

More than three decades later, you are running for president, and somebody from Blender magazine asks you to name your favorite songs. You oblige, and you name that song, ABBA’s “Dancing Queen,” as your favorite song of all time.

A few weeks later, the historian Walter Isaacson tries to snark-attack you about your pick. He asks you, “What were you thinking?” You’re John McCain, and you’re not going to take any of this shit from Walter Isaacson. You allow that your cultural experience is pretty particular: “If there is anything I am lacking in, I’ve got to tell you, it is taste in music and art and other great things in life. I’ve got to say that a lot of my taste in music stopped about the time I impacted a surface-to-air missile with my own airplane and never caught up again.”

But you also know that ABBA rules, and you’re happy to tell Walter Isaacson this: “Now look, everybody says, ‘I hate ABBA. Oh ABBA, how terrible! Blah blah blah.’ How come everybody goes to Mamma Mia? Huh? I mean really, seriously, huh? ‘I hate ABBA, they’re no good, you know.’ Well, everybody goes. They’ve been selling out for years.”

You’re John McCain, and you are catastrophically wrong about so many things. But you are goddamn motherfucking right about ABBA.

“Dancing Queen” is a puzzle. It’s about dancing, but it’s not really a dance song. It’s about loving rock music, but it’s not a rock song. It’s a party song and an elegy. And it’s perfect. It’s not the only perfect ABBA song. But perhaps thanks to that same sense of snobbery that John McCain encountered, it’s the only ABBA song that ever hit #1 in the US. If we had to pick one ABBA song, we picked the right one.

To be fair, nothing about ABBA’s genesis suggests that the group ever had a shot at conquering America. The four members of ABBA were all songwriters, and they’d all had Swedish hits, either solo or with their old bands, before they started the group. But they came from distinctly European musical traditions. They’d absorbed English glam and the ’60s pop of Phil Spector. But as this Guardian piece points out, they’d also absorbed Italian balladry, Swedish folk music, and the sentimental German music-hall genre known as schlager. They sang in English, but English was very clearly not their first language.

Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, ABBA’s two chief songwriters and producers, had been making hits in Sweden since they were teenagers in the ’60s — Andersson with his imitation-Beatles rock group the Hep Stars, Ulvaeus with his skiffle group the Hootenanny Singers. One singer, Agnetha Fältskog, had hit #1 in Sweden at age 18 with a schlager song that she’d written. The other, Frida Lyngstad, was also releasing schlager singles from a young age, but she didn’t have a big hit until she started working with Andersson and Ulvaeus, who’d started writing songs together.

Eventually, Fältskog married Ulvaeus, and Lyngstad married Andersson. They all got together and formed a group, naming it ABBA — the first letters of all their first names mashed together. (Abba was also a brand of pickled herring in Sweden; the group had to license the name from the company.) In 1972, ABBA entered a song called “Ring Ring” into a Swedish song competition, hoping that the song would go on to compete in the Eurovision Song Contest. The judges shot it down, but the track still went to #1 in Sweden.

The next year, ABBA entered another song, the glam-influenced “Waterloo,” into the contest, and they made it in. ABBA won the Eurovision contest, and it became a European sensation, hitting #1 in three different countries, including the Eurovision host nation of the UK. Even in America, where nobody pays attention to Eurovision, “Waterloo” was a hit, peaking at #6. (It’s a 9.) And by some grand cosmic coincidence, the same day that ABBA debuted “Waterloo” at Eurovision, their countrymen Blue Swede hit #1 in America with a cover of BJ Thomas’ “Hooked On A Feeling.” Blue Swede were the first Swedes ever to hit #1 in the US. ABBA would eventually be the second.

After “Waterloo,” ABBA became global sensations. They were huge all over Europe, of course, but they were huge elsewhere, too — Australia, South Africa, Japan. But after “Waterloo,” America was largely immune. The ABBA songs that dominated the rest of the world charted in the US, but they didn’t make the top 10. “Mamma Mia” peaked at #32. “I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do” and “SOS” both peaked at #15. “Fernando” peaked at #13. But “Dancing Queen” went all the way. “Dancing Queen” was undeniable.

“Dancing Queen” isn’t a disco song, but it has disco somewhere in its DNA. Andersson and Ulvaeus, who wrote and produced the song, were inspired by the beat of George McCrae’s “Rock Your Baby.” But where “Rock Your Baby” is thin and propulsive, “Dancing Queen” is slow and lush and dramatic. Andersson and Ulvaeus, notorious studio perfectionists, piled sound on sound, melody on melody. The first thing we hear, a finger running down a piano keyboard, is a total Elton John flourish. When the song kicks in, it’s absolutely piled with instruments — keyboards, strings, something that sounds like a choir of backing vocals even though I think it’s just a synth.

Ulvaeus and Andersson listened to that backing track again and again until they started to see the image of a girl losing herself on a dancefloor. The lyrics that they wrote are clumsy and strange. They’re words that no native English speaker would ever even think to combine: “Getting in the swing / You came to look for a king.” “With a bit of rock music, everything is fine.” “The music’s high.” “You can dance. You can jive.” But those words do their job. They conjure an image. When you close your eyes, you can see that girl, too. Maybe you can be that girl.

When Andersson played that backing track for Lyngstad, she broke down in tears. She hadn’t heard how she’d sound on the song yet. She just knew. Years later, Lyngstad told The Guardian that she cried “out of pure happiness that I would get to sing that song, which is the absolutely the best song ABBA have ever done.”

You can hear that. “Dancing Queen” only works if Lyngstad and Fältskog put everything into the song. You can’t be neutral with “Dancing Queen.” You have to belt it, and you have to put feeling into it. “Dancing Queen” isn’t a song about apocalypse, or even about romantic desolation. It’s just a night out in a nightclub. But if you’re 17, if a nightclub is the only place where you really feel at home, then the importance of that night is massive and all-consuming. It obliterates everything else.

Something similar happens on 50 Cent’s “In Da Club,” a song that will eventually appear in this column, though the dynamic is different. On “In Da Club,” there’s no urgency in the vocals. 50 is calm and casual, babbling in singsong, telling you to come give him a hug. But the beat sounds like what’s playing on a James Bond soundtrack when the train with the nuclear bomb is about to crash into the station and Bond has five seconds to defuse it. Clubbing can be epic, and the best songs about clubbing treat it as such.

Early on in “Dancing Queen,” Lyngstad and Fältskog are ebullient, dramatic, incandescent with happiness: “Friday night, and the lights are low / Looking out for a place to… gooo.” But when they hit the chorus, there’s a sort of desperate longing in their voices. They remember being that girl, and they miss being that girl. They love that girl. They want nothing but the best for her. They’re happy that the girl exists, that the nightclub exists, that the girl gets to feel like she does. But there’s a devastating sense of loss somewhere in there, too. It’s unstated, but it’s there in the way those voices soar and crash together. They need you to feel the beat from the tambourine. It it absolutely vital that you feel that beat.

“Dancing Queen” is pop music operating on its highest possible level — when everything is working in concert with everything else, when the meaning is so bold and bright and powerful that it doesn’t even have to state itself. ABBA never made another song quite like it, but a lot of people tried. This Guardian piece notes some of its echoes. Elvis Costello, who once said that “Dancing Queen” is “manna from heaven,” took the piano part and used it on his 1979 single “Oliver’s Army.” Chris Stein of Blondie, a band who will soon appear in this column, acknowledges that Blondie were trying to come up with their own “Dancing Queen” when they recorded their 1979 “Dreaming.” MGMT took the languid, dreamy “Dancing Queen” tempo and intentionally replicated it on 2008’s “Time To Pretend,” the best song they’ve ever written.

“Dancing Queen” wasn’t only huge in the US. It hit #1 in countries around the world. “Dancing Queen” was #1 in Japan, Mexico, Rhodesia, Brazil. In Australia, “Dancing Queen” was #1 for 14 weeks, tying a record set by “Hey Jude.” Queen Elizabeth II reportedly once said this about “Dancing Queen”: “I always try to dance when this song comes on. Because I am the Queen, and I like to dance.” The song was the peak of a planet-wide imperial era. Even in America, resistance was futile.

ABBA would remain massive around the planet for the rest of the group’s lifespan. In America, though, ABBA only scored two more top-10 hits. 1978’s dizzy, exploding-with-melody “Take A Chance On Me,” peaked at #3. (It’s a 10.) And the heart-struck 1980 breakup ballad “The Winner Takes It All” — released just after one of the ABBA couples divorced and just before the other one did — peaked at #8. It’s an 8.

ABBA broke up in 1983. Andersson and Ulvaeus kept making music for a while. Together with the Broadway lyricist Tim Rice, they recorded the 1984 concept album Chess, which became a Broadway musical in 1988. One of the singles from Chess was “One Night In Bangkok,” quasi-rapped by the stage actor Murray Head. “One Night In Bangkok” peaked at #3 in 1985. It’s an 8. Meanwhile, both Lyngstad and Fältskog went solo. In 1982, before ABBA even broke up, Lyngstad, recording simply as Frida, recorded the solo album Something’s Going On with producer Phil Collins, someone who will eventually appear in this column. Frida’s song “I Know There’s Something Going On” only made it up to #13 in the US, but it’s a banger.

ABBA lingered in the cultural imagination long after they broke up, and it’s entirely possible that they’re bigger in America now than they were when they were still active. Mamma Mia, a musical made from their songs, became a long-running Broadway hit that spun off two movies. The 1989 greatest-hits collection ABBA Gold sold some 30 million copies globally, and six million of those sales were right here in the US. At a certain point, it stopped being cool to act like ABBA weren’t great, though maybe Walter Isaacson didn’t get the memo.

And while America might’ve mostly resisted ABBA while the group was still active, this country would eventually embrace bright, euphoric, strange, precise Swedish pop music. In the ’90s, a group of producers centered around Stockholm’s Cheiron Studios, including people like Denniz PoP and Max Martin, would learn the lessons of ABBA and crank out an absurd string of chart-dominating monsters. Songs from the Cheiron braintrust will appear in this column many, many times.

As for ABBA themselves, the members of the group swore for years that they’d never reunite. They didn’t seem interested at all, and they’re the rare ex-bandmates who absolutely don’t need the money that a reunion would bring. But last year, out of nowhere, they announced a reunion and said that they were working on new music. On the one hand, nobody needs hologram versions of ’70s pop stars. On the other, we could be looking at a whole new frontier in ecstatic melancholy. We’ll learn if we can still feel the beat from the CGI tambourine.

GRADE: 10/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s U2, a band that will eventually appear in this column, covering “Dancing Queen” at a 1992 Stockholm show, with Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson joining in:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s “Dancing Queen” soundtracking the emotional, triumphant ending of the 1994 film Muriel’s Wedding:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Meryl Streep, Christine Baranski, and Julie Walters singing “Dancing Queen” in the 2008 Mamma Mia movie:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Metallica’s Kirk Hammett and and Robert Trujillo unlistenably covering “Dancing Queen” at a 2018 show in Stockholm:

(Metallica’s highest-charting single is 1996’s “Until It Sleeps,” which peaked at #10. It’s a 7.)

Tags: ABBA