Here's something I learned last weekend: you could search to the ends of the earth, see bleeding sunsets, crystal-clear oceans, cavernous blue skies and vistas stretching further than you could ever conceive, and still, the closest you would ever get to finding the meaning of life would be in a sweaty club in Hackney, jostling your body against others' and shout-singing along to ABBA's many hits.
I learned this because last Friday, in a culmination of months of anticipation, I went to the second-ever ABBA After Midnight, an east London club night where you pay a fiver for an advance ticket to go and stand in a room and listen/dance/lip sync for your life to exclusively ABBA songs. For over three hours. And despite being, in the words of its organiser, "basically thought up while drunk by myself listening to 'The Winner Takes it All'", both events so far have sold out in advance – and the second had to be moved to a larger venue due to demand for the first.
Maybe this sounds familiar: pop theme nights, especially in London, are more common than Prets. But ABBA After Midnight is different – it's transcendent. Have you ever been in a room where you're just one of a few hundred people all screaming word-perfect renditions of "Waterloo"? Have you seen people arm in arm with their friends, glassy eyed, singing along to "The Name of the Game"? Or have you powerfully slutdropped to "Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!"?
As of a few days ago, I have done and seen all of these things, and I feel pretty secure in saying that in a way, I understand more about life, escapism and music now than I did before. But I also have to ask this: why now? Why, in big, foreboding 2017, where we have iPhones and trap music, are people so desperate to attend a night centred on a Swedish pop group from the 1970s?
I don't think we have to go very far back to find one answer to this question. Over the last few years, there's been a shift, potentially for the first time ever, towards a critical acceptance – a critical championing, even – of pop music. Pop has always been commercially successful, but until relatively recently it was rarely viewed as being worth critical attention, its output somehow outside the more "credible" remits of commentary (perhaps this in some ways related to its typical audience of young women, whose interests are rarely accepted into the cultural consciousness with any seriousness though responsible for launching many a career).
Justin Bieber's 2015 single "Sorry," for example, feels like a watershed moment for pop's critical status. Here was a familiar, often derided pop star, whose popularity had been entirely bestowed on him by the benevolence of teen girls, making a comeback with a song so undeniably good that critics could barely resist it, let alone rubbish it. Brad Nelson for Pitchfork suggests that "Sorry" is "one of [Bieber's] best performances to date" with a vocal that "weightlessly fall[s] through textures". Billboard's Kenneth Partridge calls it a "redemptive emo-dancehall jam", using a mish-mash of more critically accepted genres to refer to Bieber's achievement, which, like it or not, had both feet planted firmly in pop's camp.
Bieber isn't the only recent pop star to achieve critical acclaim. Another who comes to mind is Carly Rae Jepsen, whose Emotion came earlier in 2015 and was a commercially unsuccessful pop record, but given a second wind thanks to its highly enthusiastic reception by the music press. But Bieber's post-Purpose critical 180 gives us an insight how seriously pop can be taken by the industry powers that be.
I think it's fair to say that perhaps what blocked criticism's embrace of pop for so long is the exact thing that makes it unique among other music genres: the fact that it allows for the possibility of perfection. Indeed, it is often crafted with perfection in mind, which can result in blandness. Pop is, for better or worse, formulaic: there are choruses, there are bridges and key changes, all ready to be slotted seamlessly together like pieces of a glamorous jigsaw. When pop is done wrong, therefore, it's inane, boring and samey, but when it's right, when it is perfect (think of ABBA's own "Dancing Queen" if you need an example), pop can be magic – it can take you somewhere.
Truly perfect pop songs are full of possibility. In the same way that ABBA blended elements from funk, soul and even rock to innovate new sounds, even today pop's most successful songwriters are constantly changing tack (in a profile on ABBA's fellow Swedish hitmaker Max Martin, writer Jan Gradvall suggests that "a successful formula might work for a few months, perhaps a year, but after that, it's spent and can't be used any longer.") Despite its constant search for newness in sound, however, pop will always fall back on the security of established structure, and it is this meshing of the known and the unknown that makes the genre feel so safe and exciting all at once.
Traditional perfect pop songs draw us in with inventive sound paired with irresistible verse-chorus-verse-bridge-chorus routines. They whisk us away in their simply-worded stories of love or heartbreak or loss or living, letting us exist only in relation to them for the three minutes that they're playing. And maybe this element – this escapist aspect – of pop further explains just why people are clambering over each other to listen to ABBA in a small room with a ceiling paved with gold glitter in east London.
When I chatted to ABBA After Midnight's organiser Conrad, he said he thought the night had been so successful because "ABBA tunes are just pop genius that everyone knows, even if you've never knowingly sat and put an ABBA record on", and maybe it is just that simple. But I'd also be inclined to say that the combination of 70s nostalgia and the escapist reverie that they offer are particularly welcome right now. After both Brexit and Trump's election win, the internet was flooded with hot takes along the lines of "at least punk will be really great now!" But I'd argue that pop, with all its structure in the face of political chaos (as well as its overt camp and femininity) is also a form of musical resistance against the forces of fascism – because it gives us the chance to get away. And ABBA, the constant innovators, the wearers of genuinely horrendous sleeves, with their many perfect pop songs, offer us that chance most of all.
There was a moment last Friday, around 1.30AM, when ABBA's breakup anthem "Knowing Me, Knowing You" was played, and I felt tears prick the back of my eyes. And though it's possible all that all the glitter and beer were making me emotional, I think it was something else too. There's a special feeling you get when you're just one of a few hundred people shouting the same lyrics – it doesn't matter who you are, and you don't need to be yourself. You're just a person making noise inside the same song as everyone else: you can exist wherever and whenever you want. And in these times of uncertainty, the ability to be temporarily taken away is invaluable. That is the power of perfect pop. That's what perfect pop can do for you.
You can find ABBA After Midnight on Facebook.
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(Lead image by Frankie Fouganthin / Wikimedia Commons)