Why is ABBA ‘cool’ again?

Down a dark alley on a Saturday night, a warehouse fills with sequins. A disco ball, suspended from exposed pipes, reflects a sea of writhing figures. The air is thick with lyrics screamed at no one and everyone, a sort of mass worship as the beat troughs and peaks. The dancers are a troupe of flares and glitter and sweat. Have I stumbled into 1979?

The Disco Wonderland, billed as the world’s greatest ABBA tribute night, is a sold-out event that travels across the UK every year, in homage to the much-loved Eurovision winners of 1974. It would make sense to find a cohort of Generation X and baby boomers grooving away under the neon lights, seeking a night of nostalgia and throwback tunes from ‘the good old days.’ However, this demographic is nowhere to be seen. Instead, the event sells tickets almost exclusively to the under-30s. It is an interesting phenomenon that occurs across the music scene; young people are listening to the same music as their mum and dad. 

Scientists think they know why. Experiments show that music already familiar to us is viewed more favourably because it is associated with emotions and memories. Music is extremely evocative, a portal into the hippocampus. Hearing songs we love has the ability to transport us back to school discos or dancing round the kitchen. Perhaps they can even take us beyond our own childhoods to a time we’ve only ever heard about; the glory days of our parents. A world pre-social media, pre-Trump, post the Sexual Revolution; a golden age for many. 

The 70s and 80s were immortalised in great music. It’s near impossible to attend a party without hearing the songs of Bowie, Elton John, Madonna or Queen. Creating so much more than a few number ones, their music became a community for the queer kids, the outcasts, the people who just didn’t fit in. Bowie wrote about how difficult it is to be accepted by your family: “oh you pretty things – don’t you know you’re driving your mamas and papas insane?” Madonna was the radical big sister everyone wanted, wild with hedonistic femininity. Freddie Mercury was a strange looking kid from Zanzibar who sold over 250 million records. These artists were not afraid to be different, this difference is still championed today.

Or is cinema responsible for their immortality? By the end of 2018, Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again (the sequel to ABBA’s record-breaking musical), Rocket Man (an Elton John biopic) and Bohemian Rhapsody (the story of Queen) all will have hit the big screen. Films such as these ensure that young people are not excluded from music of the 20th century and regenerate interest in songs that might otherwise fade from view. 

“It really could be 1979,” I think, as I twirl around to Dancing Queen in the Liquid Rooms. The atmosphere is ecstatic; no wonder it’s a sell-out. The crowd goes wild when the DJ plays ‘Super Trouper’ for the third time. We’ve been here for four hours and there is no sign of stopping. At every chorus the DJ drops the vocals, raising his hands like a messiah. A thousand people fill the space with lyrics we’ve known forever, completely out of tune, out of breath. It’s a religious experience. We stumble home at the end of it, tired but happy.

Our generation may be perceived as debt-saddled and prospect-poor, with an addiction to avocado toast and thumbs that just will not stop scrolling. But this shows we’re not that different to the generations before us, especially when it comes to music. After all, in the words of Agnetha Fältskog, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson and Anni-Frid Lyngstad: nothing can capture the heart like a melody can. 


 Image: Fernando Pereira in the Dutch National Archives via Wikimedia Commons

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