Friday, December 18, 2009

ABBA: An Apology

There has been some grumbling about ABBA's induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Of course, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is bullshit, so whether or not they belong there doesn't concern me. But there's one aspect of this complaint that I take issue with: the artistic status (or lack thereof) of pop music, and pop's relation to rock.

ABBA embodies pop music at its fizziest and most effervescent. They certainly are a far cry from Hendrix, the Stones, Bob Dylan, and the like. This much is true. But those rock "purists" miss something when they bemoan the celebration of pop music. Pop and rock have always been intertwined, as have R&B and rock, hip hop and rock, folk and rock, soul and rock, country and rock, blues and rock, and on and on and on. In fact, I can't think of any artist or band that represents "pure" rock and roll. That genre just doesn't exist. Rock is a word that always requires an antecedent, a musical inspiration apart from itself. Let's take my aforementioned examples: Jimi Hendrix made blues-rock, the Stones R&B-rock (and sometimes soul-rock, blues-rock, and country-rock), and Bob Dylan folk-rock.

ABBA is not rock music, strictly speaking, but the group has its lineage in the music of Phil Spector and the girl groups of the sixties. Those groups' influence on rock music, especially on the Beatles and the Stones, was undeniable. Listen to ABBA's "Waterloo," arguably their greatest song (see below). No other song channels and matches the glory of Spector's Wall of Sound. Further, ABBA, even at their most syrupy ("The Winner Takes It All," "Fernando"), wrote breathtaking melodies. Rock music has always sought to match pop's knack for melody, albeit with thrashing guitars, loud drums, and large doses of go-fuck-yourself attitude. That's why a band as seemingly anti-pop as Sonic Youth can worship the music of the Carpenters and still seem cool.

I think the problem some people have with ABBA is that their music is so universally loved, a crime only the Beatles are allowed to get away with. But let's not forget that the Beatles were first and foremost a pop group, and they are loved for their gorgeous melodies. Maybe ABBA will never be accepted as being cool. But their music is better than cool. It's wonderful.