Many moons ago, before Meryl Streep danced around a Greek island in overalls or Colin Firth traded his dignity for a spandex jumpsuit, a group of Swedish teenagers single handedly resurrected ABBA's biggest hits.
Mamma Mia! wasn't yet a movie franchise or even a Broadway show, and Cher hadn't released an album of ABBA covers. The original Swedish foursome remained a boomer relic, a group beloved by Swedes and remembered fondly by the world but far from the forefront of pop-culture relevance for a new generation.
Such was the stage for the dawn of the A*Teens.
While Britney Spears, NSYNC, and the Backstreet Boys dominated pop music of the Y2K era, slightly down the ladder (though first in the hearts of many), acts like O-Town, S Club 7, Dream, and Dreamstreet found their own niche. But none of them could claim origins so fantastically specific as the A*Teens—composed of Dhani Lennevald, Sara Lumholdt, Marie Serneholt, and Amit Paul—who began as an ABBA cover band and transcended into contemporary bubblegum pop legends.
"We were just kids who loved singing and dancing," Lennevald (aka the blonde, spikey-haired one) told VICE via Zoom from a Stockholm recording studio. "We would sometimes stop and just be like, 'I can't believe that this is happening for us.' It was such a beautiful and proud moment of my life."
Theirs is not a story of scandal and sordid rock 'n' roll mayhem, but it is a tale of wholesome Scandanavian success and friendship. Lennevald opened up to VICE about the A*Teens' rise to global fame and why they’re still "on a break” decades later.
The A*Teens were never supposed to leave Sweden. When Universal Music decided to put together a teen pop group ahead of the 25th anniversary of ABBA's 1974 Eurovision win, the grand plan was to see them perform old ABBA hits at local amusement parks and outdoor venues around Sweden over the summer of 1999. Like ABBA, the group would be made up of two boys and two girls, and they'd target the lucrative teen market.
"ABBA agreed to it because the way the label sold it to them, I think, was that they wanted to show young kids the magic of their music in a new way," Lennevald said. "Like, let's take all those young and confused kids and shove this music in their faces."
To make the group's purpose excessively clear, they'd be called the "ABBA-Teens." If the experiment worked, Universal would find other teenagers in neighboring Scandanavian countries and launch local versions of the ABBA-Teens there. A Finnish group, a Norweigen group, and maybe, eventually, they'd journey overseas and create an American one. But first, they'd need to find the talent.
In 1998, Lennevald, Lumholdt, Serneholt, and Paul were all after-school students at Lasse Kuhlers, a Stockholm dance school where, for years, they'd diligently rehearsed ballet, jazz, and hip-hop moves, with a side of singing and acting, alongside dozens of other pupils. The then-14 and 15-year-olds took it seriously but didn't have any specific path to achieving stardom. (This was no elite K-Pop training center.) So, when Universal held auditions for the ABBA-Teens at Lasse Kuhler, the foursome jumped at the chance and were quickly matched as the ideal group during rounds of tryouts.
"I had known all of them since I was 12, so we stuck together," Lennevald said. "I think Universal saw that natural connection."
The news was kept under wraps while the teens recorded their album of covers called The ABBA Generation, until the spring of 1999, when the label made the big announcement in the most unflattering way.
"They had taken our passport pictures and put them on the front of the daily newspaper with a headline about how we were going to resurrect ABBA's music," Lennevald said. "I was in eighth grade, and when I came down to lunch, every table had a copy. It was very embarrassing. People were like, 'Oh, we can't hang out with him. Dhani is not cool.' But that's the thing about Sweden, and maybe it's like that worldwide, if you're doing something that isn't really cool, you're a dork—until you become very successful."
From the instant they dropped their first single, listeners couldn't get enough. In April 1999, their version of "Mamma Mia" went straight to No. 1 on the Swedish charts (and eventually quadruple platinum), and a documentary crew jumped at the chance to follow their local tour. Suddenly, they had clout, and the label began reassessing its expectations for the future of the group.
They changed their name to simply "A*Teens," banking on the idea that they could release original songs and wouldn't need to be tied exclusively to the ABBA catalog for long. And though The ABBA Generation album was widely panned when it dropped in August 1999, it didn't matter. The kids were on a roll.
"The ABBA stuff was something that we signed up for and it felt like, 'Okay, thank you for trusting us to deliver this to the people,'" Lennevald said. "But when we did our own stuff, it felt like we became our own. It just felt so good."
Over the next four years, the A*Teens dropped three albums of original songs: 2001's Teen Spirit, 2002's Pop 'til You Drop, and 2003's New Arrival. The albums (all streaming now) are full of certifiable bops worthy of today's playlists. There are the big hits, like "Upside Down" and "Floorfiller," and endless deep cuts brimming with optimism and pep, like "Halfway Around the World" and "A Perfect Match." There's also a track called "Slam" that feels like a direct inspiration for The Office's "The Scarn."
Along the way, they recorded covers of Elvis' "I Can't Help Falling In Love" for the Lilo and Stitch soundtrack and a random collaboration with Alice Cooper on a remake of "School's Out," for which the rocker journeyed to Sweden and spent four days in the studio with the teens.
"I still can't get my head around it. He's a legend, and he was telling us stories about when he was supposed to fake put a sword through his leg, but he actually did it and cut himself," Lennevald said. "We were like, 'Oh my god.'"
Despite their manufactured origins and polished veneer, however, Lennevald stressed that the A*Teens had more creative autonomy than many realize.
"We came together through casting with numbers on our chests. So, sure, we were truly a product," he said. "But what it turned into and the whole dialogue we had with the label and the producers and the writers, I think that was incredible. We had so much freedom and creative input on everything from the music to the visuals and the way we wanted to work."
Clearly, the A*Teens' cherubic faces and unbridled enthusiasm could not be confined to Nordic tundras. They were destined for international fame. By 2000, they were opening for Britney Spears on a slew of shows during her "Oops... I Did It Again" tour across the U.S. and Canada, and went on to co-headline a U.S. tour with Aaron Carter. While they didn't get to spend much time with Spears on the road, two years later they did run into her while shopping at the Beverly Center in LA.
"We were in a store and we heard, 'Aren't you guys the A*Teens?' We turned around and it was Britney," Lennevald said. "We were like, 'Britney Spears fucking recognizes us.' It was cool that we'd left a little bit of an impression on her that she remembered us."
The A*Teens continued touring abroad to satiate their growing fanbase, which was especially rabid in South America. "When we went there, we had police escorts everywhere," Lennevald said. "There would be people climbing over the hotel walls. They had to close off whole levels at the hotels just for us with armed guards. It was just insane."
But according to Lennevald, the most outrageous thing he did as a teen pop star was order copious amounts of breakfast food from the room service menu at a luxury LA hotel.
"The label said just put breakfast on the room tab and they will take care of it, so that's what I did. But the menu didn't say any prices, so every day I was like, 'Okay, this looks good, that looks good.' Pancakes, scrambled eggs, fruit plate, yogurt, sometimes oatmeal," he said. "It was probably $20 for pancakes! So, I had a $100 breakfast every morning for three weeks. That's the most rockstar thing that happened. Oatmeal and fruit salad, not champagne and cocaine. We were the most boring, innocent people ever."
And unlike ABBA, Lennevald maintains none of A*Teens ever dated each other.
"That would have been the most obvious thing. But because we had known each other for so long, it just turned into a brother-sister type of relationship," he said. "I could be like, 'Oh, I'm so fucking sick of her or him or all of them' at times. The girls would get a bit annoyed at me and Amit because we got to sleep longer while they had their hair and makeup done. And then sometimes the girls would analyze each other, like, 'Her hair looks better than mine today.' But I think it was incredible how freaking well we all got along."
A Permanent Break
By 2004, the tide was changing. As music pirating continued to rise and digital tracks took over, CD sales slumped for most artists, including the A*Teens. Plus, they were exiting their teen years, and while they joked about becoming the "A*Dults," it was the end of the road. After a final greatest hits album release, the A*Teens announced they'd be taking a break in 2006 as they pursued various solo endeavors.
"We all felt like we wanted to try something new. It felt like when you're growing out of a shirt, and it doesn't fit as well anymore," Lennevald said. "We were like, 'Okay, let's take a break.' But I guess we're still on a break."
Though they never officially disbanded, it's unlikely the group will be getting back together any time soon. "Maybe if it was for some incredible charity thing," Lennevald said. "Otherwise, I don't see the point of it. I wouldn't do it for money."
Still, he stressed that there's no bad blood between the former bandmates: "We didn't fall out. We're just all living different lives."
Lumholdt, Serneholt, and Paul are all parents now. Lumholdt lives in England and is a competitive pole dancer and teacher. Serneholt has a Swedish podcast. And Paul studied at the London School of Economics and joined the family business, working in energy tech.
For Lennevald, now 36, the end of A*Teens meant the start of a different music career. He had a Justin Timberlake-esque solo release with 2004's "Girl Talk," and eventually moved to LA and focused on writing and producing, working with Red One, Lupe Fiasco, and Avicii. He's now back in Stockholm and dating singer Alice Chater, and this spring he'll release an album of "melodic techno" and house music, or what he dubs "clubbable" tunes under his own name, as well as his Dharc banner with friends. He also plans to provide vocals on "experimental" commercial tracks later this year as part of his Inv0lved producing work.
But his A*Teens roots still run deep.
"'Mamma Mia' and 'The Winner Takes It All' are on one of my feel-good playlists on Spotify. And when I'm in an Uber or something and I hear ABBA, I just get a smile on my face," he said. "Everything about ABBA will always have such a special place in my heart. It was such a humbling and appreciative experience, just doing what you love and doing it with friends."
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