Music by VICE

The ABBA Museum, Which Exists, Is Weird as Shit

ABBA: The Museum doubles as the Swedish Music Hall of Fame because ABBA were to Swedish pop music what The Beatles were to rock.

by Drew Millard
May 6 2016, 5:37pm

Photo by Åke E: son Lindman, courtesy of ABBA The Museum

If you’ve never been to Stockholm, I highly recommend you check the place out. The city was built upon a network of 14 islands, connected by bridges that are lovely for biking across. Perhaps most impressive and odd among these islands is Djurgården, whose real estate is almost exclusively occupied by museums. It’s home to Skansen, an open-air space which serves as an architecture museum and zoo. It’s also got Thielska Galleriet, an art gallery dedicated to works from the late 1800s and early 1900s. There’s the Nordic Museum, which seeks to preserve the region’s history, and the renowned maritime museum Vasa. And then there is ABBA: The Museum, which is exactly what it sounds like.

Significantly, ABBA: The Museum also doubles as the Swedish Music Hall of Fame. Sweden’s a country of only about ten million people, which makes their ability to churn out such varied acts as Robyn, The Knife, Entombed, and Refused (all of whom were honored in some way at the museum) all the more impressive. But each of those artists only gets a few inches of space in a room that’s maybe a quarter the size of the ABBA museum it’s attached to. That’s basically a statement on behalf of the Swedish government that if you combined every single good musician their country has produced and will produce ever, they still wouldn’t be as significant to their nation’s musical history than ABBA.

Photo by Åke E: son Lindman, courtesy of ABBA The Museum

From the mid 70s to the early 80s, the two-man, two-woman squad released eight albums which have sold something in the neighborhood of 400 million copies. They wrote “Dancing Queen,” perhaps the greatest song about dancing ever made, and “Waterloo,” perhaps the catchiest song ever to use Napoleon as a central metaphor. Their music was turned into Mamma Mia!, the eighth-longest running show in Broadway history, and a $600 million-grossing movie starring Meryl Streep, who credits the musical’s original Broadway run with helping her beat a post-9/11 malaise. Axl Rose was a fan, which seems about as likely as Rasputin being really into Wordsworth. They’re like Fleetwood Mac, if Fleetwood Mac happened to inspire as much fiercely regional pride as E-40 does in the Bay Area.

Even with the whole thing about the museum, it’s hard to explain just how huge a deal ABBA is in their native Sweden. Think of it this way: Imagine that Nas and Kelis were still together, and they decided to form a group with their close friends Jay Z and Beyoncé. THEN, imagine that in addition to instantly becoming the most famous musical act in America simply by virtue of existing, it was also this group’s unspoken job to become internationally famous and then represent America on a world stage because there had literally never been a famous American band before. Now, imagine it was the 70s, and that group somehow accomplished this insane, borderline impossible goal, several times over, and they were Swedish as fuck. That’s ABBA.

Photo by Åke E: son Lindman, courtesy of ABBA The Museum

These days, many of the most in-demand songsmiths in pop music are often Swedish, but they are mostly behind-the-scenes players. Deviously talented humans such as Max Martin, Shellback, and RedOne all end up handing their freakishly catchy pop songs off to beautiful American pop singers in order for them to become hits. ABBA are avatars of a simpler, more glorious time in their nation’s musical history, when homely homegrown songwriters could band together with their moderately attractive spouses and just sing the damn songs themselves, with everyone wearing high-heeled boots and sparkly outfits and smiling like maniacs whenever a camera pointed in their general direction. Even the emptiness of ABBA’s lyrics has, over the years, proven to be a huge asset for the band. It’s what’s allowed “Dancing Queen” to become a gay anthem, and it’s one of the reasons why Mamma Mia! works so well as a musical. It’s a fine line between writing a song about nothing and a song about anything, and ABBA toed it beautifully.

I believe history will be kind to ABBA; for indeed, ABBA has already written the shit out of it. ABBA: The Museum streamlines and museum-i-fies the basic arc of the band—essentially, the main guys from two of the biggest bands in Sweden became best friends, then each of them married famous singers, then they became a band who pumped out hit after hit until everybody got divorced, then 20 years later Mamma Mia! happened and everybody in ABBA made laughably large amounts of money. There’s the pre-ABBA-ABBA exhibit, which most notably includes half the vehicles that bandmembers Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson’s old bands The Hootenanny Singers and The Hep Stars had toured in—as in, someone chopped each of these dudes’ old cars in half and slapped them on the wall of the ABBA museum. Then there’s the ABBA’s-Rise-to-Fame exhibit, which explains that Ulvaeus and Andersson, along with their respective wives Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad (both of whom were already stars in their own right), kept writing these songs that nobody gave a shit about, until their single “Waterloo” won the Eurovision song contest in 1974 and they became huge. Then there’s a room devoted to the ABBA Golden Years, which includes the mixing board they made most of their albums on. There are exhibits devoted to their manager’s business acumen, their stage costumes, their multitudinous Gold and Platinum plaques, their microphones, their studio setup, and their pre-show ritual.

The ABBA dolls promotional banner on the ABBA: The Museum website

It goes without saying that the place contains more statues of ABBA than you can shake a stick at (“THEY WERE GREAT THEN. THEY LOOK GREAT TODAY. – SEE THE LIFE SIZE ABBA DOLLS AT THE MUSEUM!” the museum website’s banner suggests). On top of all that, there are a bunch of interactive exhibits, all of which are at least moderately confusing. There’s a fake mixing board where you can try and fail to properly mix an ABBA song, a bunch of ABBA karaoke booths, and an amazingly terrifying machine that scans your face and then puts it on a member of ABBA’s body, dubbing it your “ABBA-tar.” There is also, improbably enough, an interactive display that will tell you about Watain. But that display is hard to find, and it’s in Swedish, because it’s tucked into the Swedish Music Hall of Fame, an area so low-priority that the people running the place only bothered to translate a small fraction of its text into English. The ABBA museum, on the other hand, contains English translations for pretty much everything.

Thanks to the ABBA museum, I now know so much random goddamn shit about ABBA. I know that ABBA’s original name was Björn & Benny, Agnetha & Anni-Frid, and in their early years they couldn’t figure out why nobody liked them, only to eventually realize their name sucked. I know that ABBA’s manager Stig Anderson was an extremely stern but often warm man, because the ABBA museum made sure to tell me that. I know that Björn and Benny wrote ABBA’s biggest hits at a kitchen table, because the ABBA museum contains a reproduction of the kitchen where they wrote songs like “Waterloo,” “Mamma Mia,” and “Dancing Queen.” I know that ABBA were pioneers in the nascent field of music video production and their visual signature was including different combinations of each member’s face on the screen, because the ABBA museum plays a documentary about the band’s music videos on a loop. I know that the helicopter on the cover of Arrival (the one that includes “Dancing Queen”) is extremely small, because someone fit it inside of a room in the ABBA museum.

Photo by Åke E: son Lindman, courtesy of ABBA The Museum

More than anything, though, the ABBA museum is a monument to how mind-bogglingly successful ABBA was. Ever since they obtained a non-unforgivably-horrible name, they not only sold unreasonable numbers of records and made unreasonable amounts of money, they legitimized Sweden as a place where music comes from, which means everybody from Ace of Base to Icona Pop to Watain owes them at least a small debt of gratitude (or in Watain’s case, maybe a blood sacrifice).

To this day, ABBA are to Swedish pop music what The Beatles were to rock, or James Brown was to funk—a group that laid out a revolutionary new a set of musical values. If The Beatles invented modern music and James Brown pioneered a pose, attitude, and edge that would be emulated for generations to come, ABBA was basically the Moon Landing for the Ikea-fication of pop. Their music was sort of empty, safe, and meaningless upon first glance, but their melodies were so goddamn bulletproof, their songs so structurally pure, like a diamond or a really nice Malm desk, that you couldn’t help but accept them as geniuses.

And then there’s the insane level of detail that ABBA put into everything they did. “S.O.S.” was written in the key of D-minor, which is very, very difficult to pull off given that, in the words of Spinal Tap’s Nigel Tufnel, it “makes people weep instantly.” Equally impressive is that “Move On” is written in waltz-time—a far cry from the four-on-the-floor rhythms employed by many of the band’s contemporaries. Or that in “Money Money Money,” the group hits a new note every time they sing the word “Money.” Certainly, ABBA didn’t necessarily have to do any of these things, but their museum argues that being ABBA, the people whose job—nay, civic responsibility—it was to make monolithically huge global pop hits, wouldn’t have been worth making unless they’d snuck those little flourishes into their music.

The author's ABBA-tar / Photo by the author

It’s this tendency to view a great work of art the same way one might view a flawless commercial product, with the quirks and personalities of its creators embedded in the craftsmanship of a work rather than through its direct message, that makes lots of Nordic art supremely interesting. For example, if you’d never heard of the Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard, and then someone was like, “Well, the guy just writes books about himself doing normal stuff, the literary devices he employs are kinda cliched, and his dialogue can be really stilted, but he’s considered one of the world’s greatest living writers!” you would probably be nonplussed. But if you actually sit down and read one of his books, you end up getting the point of Knaussgard’s writing, which is completely different from his stated goal of “writing something significant.” (For those keeping score, Knaussgard apparently both hates Sweden and lives there these days, which, go figure. Anyways Karl Ove, if you’re reading this, notice me, senpai!!) And that’s basically the same deal as ABBA—a song like “Waterloo” or “Dancing Queen” isn’t going to hit Bob Dylan levels of depth in its lyrics, but if you listen to them once, they’ll be stuck in your head forever. That’s not easy.

Since the ABBA museum was created with heavy input from the band itself, it contains its fair share of pretty glaring omissions. It only makes passing mention of the Agnetha/Björn and Anni-Frid/Benny divorces that broke the band apart, and its signage quaintly insists that the band is on a hiatus despite the group’s repeated statements that they’ll never record new material or perform live ever again. Though the band had its fair share of detractors (the legendary rock critic Robert Christgau once referred to them as “the enemy”), the museum writes the haters off by tucking a poster containing a pair of ambiguously worded mini-essays all but dismissing Sweden’s left-wing and prog scenes into a corner of one room. In ABBA: The Museum, you must actively search out evidence that there was other Swedish music besides ABBA, and then you will be told that that music was mostly crap.

Photo by Åke E: son Lindman, courtesy of ABBA The Museum

Then there’s the whole thing about the ABBA museum only accepting credit and debit cards, which is pretty normal when you consider that a staggering 80 percent of all transactions in Sweden are conducted via card and the nation is well on its way to becoming cash-free. But then it gets tricky when you remember that the de facto spokesperson for a cash-free Sweden is none other than ABBA’s Björn Ulveas, who in a statement on ABBA: The Museum’s website stressed that going cash-free would cut down on drug crime (which, LOL). Even if you ignore how totally un-rock-and-roll a move that is, there’s something very ominous about the way ABBA: The Museum ignores things that aren’t 100 percent rosy in the world.

Just like being all smiles all the time made ABBA seem way creepier than any shock rocker ever did—seriously, watch the video for “Waterloo” and try not to cower in fear—ABBA: The Museum’s forced march of cheeriness, which presents ABBA as the only Swedish band in the universe until they chose to stop making music and allow other Swedish bands to happen, feels almost totalitarian. I don’t say this to criticize the band or ABBA: The Museum at all, though—it’s a perfect reflection of ABBA as a band, even if it’s a horrible reflection of reality. But honestly, who the hell wants to live in reality? Reality is inconvenient and sad. It’s a place where we are faced with chaos, strife, and eventually death. Both the terror and magic of ABBA is that they figured out how to exist wholly outside of such depressing trivialities, finding immortality in order and cheer.

Drew Millard is a dancing meme. Follow him on Twitter.