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At first listen, it can seem like “Dancing Queen” is everything that rock and roll is not. It was dedicated to a Swedish queen on the day before her wedding. It was recorded by two happy couples (one of them married!). John Denver’s Swedish doppelganger and a guy born in a fishing sweater collaborated to write and produce it. And it’s Republican John McCain’s fist-pumping favorite. Check. And. Mate.
But the 1976 single climbed to #1 on the charts in thirteen countries, Rolling Stone placed it on its list of 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (at #171, no less), and surveys show that it’s a jukebox favorite. And—don't be shy, you can admit it to us—you probably love it. You might be one of the millions who discretely hits J-9 and then rolls their eyes in feigned disbelief when that unmistakable piano slides out of the jukebox. You might be one of the millions who wouldn’t be caught dead lining up for it at the theater, but who still put Mamma Mia! on their Netflix queue long before the film went to DVD. You might even be one of the millions upon millions who have contributed to the stage version of the musical making BILLIONS OF DOLLARS.
Billions. With a “b.”
No one can live with a secret like this. It’s time to come out of the ABBA garderob (that’s Swedish for “closet”) and figure out how to reconcile your serious hard-rocking self with this peppy 1970s tune.
Yes, YOU can dance! YOU can jive! YOU can have the time of your life!
Let’s begin by talking about influences. Maybe “Dancing Queen” and/or ABBA have respectable rock and roll roots. ABBA writers/singers/musicians/everythings Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus claim to have been inspired by the boogie woogie-blues-rock fusion of Dr. John. They were impressed most by the Doctor’s 2003 tribute to New Orleans, Dr. John’s Gumbo.
OK, that works. Dr. John is a credible artist. As a musician, he’s incredibly good, and the Night Tripper’s live performances are just plain scary. But be careful about heading down the “ABBA has serious roots” track. In addition to Dr. John, the Swedish song-chefs also emphasize the influence of disco king George McCrae, and you don’t have to listen too hard to hear more “Rock Me Baby” than “Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya Ya” in “Dancing Queen.”
Dancing Queen, King, Princess, Whatever
Let’s try a different tack. Maybe there’s a political angle that will square this song with your rock and roll credentials.
Many people know that the song has something to do with Queen Silvia and King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden, but as any ardent ABBA-ite—ABBAfile? ABBAnatic? ABBAlöver?— will tell you, the song was not written for the soon-to-be Queen, nor was it performed at her actual wedding. ABBA began working on the song months before the couple announced their engagement, and while they were invited to sing to celebrate the couple, they performed during a televised concert the night before the royal ceremony, not on the day of.
But there is a bit of rock and roll romance in the relationship between Silvia and Carl “Insert Roman Numerals Here” Gustaf. Silvia was a commoner working for the Olympic Committee when she met the future king in 1972. When Carl Gustaf announced their engagement in 1976, many traditionalists criticized the monarch. Sure, Silvia’s great-great23 grandfather was King Alfonso III of Portugal, but her great-great23 grandmother was his concubine, not his queen. On the other side of her family, Brazilian Silvia is descended from an Amerindian chief, which is kinda the same thing as royalty, but only in the way that your pet iguana Reggie is kinda the same thing as a T-rex.
Carl XVI Gustaf went through with it anyway, though, which sounds pretty rock and roll to us.
(Side-note: 38 years later, in a flurry of press that would make Gossip Girl blush, Queen S and King CXVIG’s daughter, Crown Princess V—er, Victoria—also married a commoner. Her betrothed, Daniel Westling, was her personal trainer. Through some creative genealogical gymnastics, it was discovered around the time of the wedding that the future Prince Daniel, Duke of Västergötlandingërfinkldotte,* was distantly descended from medieval nobility, so it was all good.)
(*NOTE: not his official title.)
Anyway, since becoming Queen, Silvia has won over many of her worst critics. She has conducted herself with real dignity and has thrown her royal weight behind a number of philanthropic causes.
Cool. So ABBA supports a beloved royal family. Not exactly rock and roll, but it’s definitely something we can work with.
Although, before you ride this political pony too far, you should know that for years rumors have circulated that Queen Silvia’s father had ties to the German Nazi party. Born and raised in Heidelberg, Walter Sommerlath moved to Brazil while a young man but returned to Germany in 1939. His political affiliations are unclear, but he did run an arms plant that served Germany’s World War II war machine.
Rough. At least Sweden stayed neutral throughout the war. In fact, they even aided in the rescue of several thousand Jews from Denmark. That’s certainly not nothing.
The Heart of Rock and Roll
But back to ABBA: politics may still be the path to their song’s (and by extension, your) respectability. Since its release in 1976, the gay community has embraced “Dancing Queen”. The San Francisco Gay Men’s Choir covered the song in 1997, and one survey of “gay classics” ranked the ABBA hit above Diana Ross’s “I’m Coming Out” and Miguel Brown’s “So Many Men, So Little a Time.”
Rock and roll is all about political movements, right? Woody Guthrie’s music was simple, but he inspired millions. Bob Dylan uses the same three chords on every song, but the man’s a poet. ABBA’s music may verge on trite, but its message was ahead of its time—with “Dancing Queen,” the Swedish visionaries went where few others were willing to go.
Slow down Hondo. Now you’re pushing it. Your politics are admirable, but you really can’t pour too much of all this into ABBA or the tune. ABBA’s dancing queen was the old school type. ABBA was talking prom dates and debutants, not drag. And while Björn and Benny did sport more than their share of one-piece polyester jumpsuits, they were making a bad fashion statement, not a progressive political statement. While “Dancing Queen” has certainly become a rallying song for gay pride, it wasn’t written with that in mind; it’s unfair to ascribe qualities to a song that simply aren’t there.
It’s Gotta Be Rock and Roll Somehow
Let’s try one last approach. Maybe ABBA’s backstory is Rock and Roll. Did they get their start at the Kaiserkeller in Hamburg? Were they at Monterey in 67 or Woodstock in 69?
Not exactly. Benny Andersssssson and Björn Ulvaeus met in 1966. Benny was playing with The Hep Stars; Ulvaeus was member of the Hootenany Singers. One of their first collaborations was "Ljuva sextital," which despite its suggestive-sounding Swedish title actually means “Sweet (or Happy) Sixties.” Rock on. The two met their band mates and future wives in 1969 (a good year for rock and roll). Agnetha Fältskog (the blond ABBA) had been working as a Connie Francis-inspired pop singer since age 17. Norwegian-born Anni-Frid "Frida" Lyngstad (brunette ABBA) had burst onto the Swedish scene at age 21 by winning a national talent contest.
In 1971, Fältskog and Ulvaeus (blond ABBA and John Denver doppelganger) were married. In the same year, Lyngstad and Andersson (brunette ABBA and fishing sweater) moved in together (they would not marry until 1978). In 1972, the four released their first single as Björn, Benny, Agnetha & Anni-Frid, which isn’t as clunky in Swedish as it is in English* (*yes it is). By 1973, the quartet had begun to call itself ABBA, though the name-choice did not come without controversy. Permission had to be secured from Sweden’s other Abba, a large fish-canning company (no, seriously). But it was the only name that made sense. BBAA is hard to say, and BAAB and BABA sound dumb (although King Carl IVX Gustaf, who is dyslexic, reportedly still calls the group BABA).
The band’s big break came just two years later when it took the Eurovision championship—think American Idol meets the World Cup—with “Waterloo,” a pop song that somehow turns Napoleon’s famous defeat into a love song. The band had considered entering another song, “Hasta Manana” (the Swedes have no linguistic shame) but “Waterloo,” with its Napoleon-meets-disco-meets-glam fusion, proved the wiser choice. The history-grounded judges loved the song, and European fans did as well—“Waterloo” reached #1 in Britain, West Germany, Belgium, Finland, Ireland, Norway, and Switzerland. (In the US it reached #6 on the Billboard Hot 100.)
Other hits followed—“SOS,” and “Mamma Mia” both reached #1 somewhere, and other songs scored in the Top 40. Yet realizing that perceptions were everything, the band released a “greatest hits” album in 1976. It was a nervy move, but it paid off—especially when one of the album’s songs, “Fernando” (formerly released only in Swedish), gave the band its biggest hit since “Waterloo.”
All of this set the stage for “Dancing Queen.”
It’s not exactly a “grinding your way through the nightclubs” rise to the top. Nor is it an “even in the tough times we knew we had to be true to our music” backstory. Benny and Björn were more calculating than inspired in crafting the song that won Eurovision and carried them to international stardom. In fact, their first version of “Waterloo” had a more jazz-rock sound. But knowing the success of disco, and impressed by the growing popularity of British glam rock, they modified their contest entry accordingly.
Nor was this a one-time concession to the market. A keen eye to commerce is an ABBA trait; it may have started with “Waterloo,” but it reached a painful climax in one of ABBA’s last hits, “The Winner Takes it All,” a too-personal exposure/exploitation of Fältskog’s and Ulvaeus’s marital collapse.
In other words, ABBA is what it is, and “Dancing Queen” is simply a catchy song. There really is no backstory—personal or political—that can add much depth or texture to the 1976 mega-hit. Which means you’re stuck. You can either hide in the shadows, cue up the song on YouTube, and dance pathetically in front of your mirror when no one is home, or you can muscle up and admit you’re a sucker for a soaring melody with a disco beat. You can cling like a coward to the pig-headed idea that a hard rocker has no room on his playlist for an innocent pop song, or you can admit that “Dancing Queen” takes you back to the moment at your cousin’s wedding when you ruled the dance floor, smooth-swaying, foot-stomping royalty. That’s what, according to one highly dubious source, Queen Elizabeth II of England has done. Without hesitation, without equivocation, she openly admits to getting her swerve on with the ABBA classic “because I am the Queen and I like to dance.” To paraphrase Mick Jagger, we know it isn’t rock and roll, but we like it.