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 Giving Up the Fight

Blacklight Bar

What kept the U.S. from liking Abba for three decades? One longtime fan has the answer.

by Belinda Luscombe in Time

Abba
t Waterloo, as you may have heard, Napoleon did surrender. Oh, yeah, and America has met its destiny in quite a similar way. Having held out admirably for decades, the U.S. has at last fully succumbed to the charms of the stickiest thing to come out of Scandinavia since the sauna. When 14-time Oscar nominee Meryl Streep is in 3,000 cinemas nationwide singing "Dancing Queen," it's time to break out ze white flag, mes frères.

This capitulation is perhaps a more important moment in U.S. history than it first appears. I have a theory: a country enjoys Abba's music in inverse relation to its own global significance. I observed this firsthand growing up in the world's most Abbaricious country, Australia. In 1976, 54% of my compatriots watched the local TV special The Best of Abba. That's as many of them as watched the moon landing. The album of the same name is still Australia's best-selling ever.

Mamma Mia! - The Movie
Released on July 18, 2008, the Abba-inspired movie Mamma Mia! The Movie stars Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan, Amanda Seyfried, Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgard. Among its three producers is actor Tom Hanks.
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The rest of the world soon caught the bug. Except the U.S. When the band finally toured here in 1979 (ABBA, SWEDISH QUARTET, IN NEW YORK DEBUT, observed the New York Times), critics compared the foursome unfavorably to Fleetwood Mac, the Eagles and the Beach Boys.

But where is your precious Fleetwood Mac now? Does the Internet list more than 50 Eagles tribute bands? (Or any with as good a name as Abbaration?) Did the Beach Boys have a musical on Broadway? They did, actually. It died. Meanwhile, Mamma Mia! has been on Broadway since October 2001. Note the date -- a moment when American sorely needed comfort food. It was as if the country had sent out a national SOS and Abba supplied the perfect rescue vehicle: "SOS."

Yes, it's easier to revive the things that were reviled the first time. The Beatles and Shakespeare need no comeback and thus have less nostalgia value. But Abba has been making these incursions into American culture (Muriel's Wedding! The Gold album!) for 35 years. That persistence suggests the band offers an appeal beyond the obvious one of watching unathletic people in white catsuits and platform boots. Why the cultural valence?

Oh, we could talk about the deceptive simplicity of Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson's melodies. How their exchange student lyrics imbued the songs with an innocence that is one of pop's purest pleasures. How the really powerful cultural forces are those that make you forget your dignity. (Yes, Meryl, we mean you.) We could observe that Abba's music is best enjoyed by those who know that events are not entirely in their control. Hence America, the unassailable superpower, had no use for it until recently.

Or we could just admit that America was overpowered, like Napoleon, by the strategic superiority shown in "Waterloo," a song about 19th century Belgium that makes you want to dance. Sometimes, as the song says, you feel like you win when you lose.  




 Rocket Man hits "50"

Blacklight Bar

by Dave Karger in Entertainment Weekly

Cartoon drawing of Elton John
n July 21, 2008, rock icon Elton John became part of music's most exclusive clique: After his Essex Junction, Vt., show, he'd played live in all 50 states. Here, Sir Elton, 61, dishes about his most memorable tour dates.

California "Dodger Stadium was amazing in 1975. That was the height of my career. Cary Grant came; I'll never forget that. And Charles Nelson Reilly was behind the bar serving drinks."

Hawaii "I went on holiday in Maui in the early '80s and played a bar there for two nights. I stood up to take the applause and I got hit by the ceiling fan. That was quite funny."

New York "Madison Square Garden is my favorite venue in the whole world. I've played there 60 times. It's got an intimate feel, and yet it's nearly 19,000 people strong. The floor bounces up and down."

North Carolina "I got hit by a hash pipe in Greensboro in the mid '70s. I was wearing that giant chicken outfit that I wore on The Muppet Show. One minute I was playing 'Burn Down the Mission,' and the next minute I was on the floor. The band thought I'd been shot because there was blood coming out of my temple."

Texas "I was threatened with death in Houston at a show in the late '80s. But they were so stupid, they put their seat number on the letter."

EXTRA! act pictureOklahoma "I got so pissed off at an early-'80s show in Tulsa because of the sound. I tried to push the grand piano off the stage. I guess gigs don't always go well."

And now, Vermont! "Ben & Jerry's is creating an ice cream called Goodbye Yellow Brickle Road. I just said I liked peanut butter, and they came up with the whole thing. We thought it would be nice to link up with Ben & Jerry's, but they're more than generously donating proceeds from the ice cream to the Elton John AIDS Foundation, which is even better."  

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