17th Aug 2022


How ABBA distorted our perceptions of Sweden

  • Whilst it appears as if ABBA hasn't changed in those 40 years, Sweden has (Photo: YouTube)
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Sweden is a musical country - where the world's very best producers come from, where international artists such as Roxette, Europe, Avicii and Swedish House Mafia develop, where songs are sung while drinking snaps on one of the many holidays, or while dancing around a maypole during the unofficial National Day of Midsommer, to the weekly music shows on television (of which, of course, Melodifestivalen – the national qualifier for the real work "Eurovision", when the whole of Sweden stands still – takes pride of place.)

Music is a part of Sweden. The Swedish identity has been tied up with her music. And whoever thinks of Sweden will quickly think of ABBA.

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  • The new live show's 'ABBA-tars' do not portray the band members as they are now, old and grey, but as the beautiful young 20-somethings at the top of their game (Photo: Pål Allan/ABBA The Museum)

As representatives of Sweden over the last 40 years, ABBA are inseparable from the Swedish context. From the continuous background music in the Stockholm's shopping malls and the Happy New Year on every 1st of January, to its prominence in today's charts, it seems like ABBA has never gone away.

ABBA last week released a brand new album Voyage, with a new show being put together, and their new songs immediately online.

With I Still Have Faith in You and Don't Shut Me Down, the listener is instantly transported back to the 'good old days' of the 1970s.

The Waterloo-decade was indeed a positive and thriving time in Sweden during which much progress was made in society. That progress driven by the Social Democrats, with Olof Palme on top, ensured a high level welfare state.

Right up until today, this image is still quickly brought to mind when thinking of Sweden.

With the resounding victory at Eurovision 1974, ABBA showed and made heard that former Sweden. The semi-glam rock-pop sound of Agnetha, Björn, Benny, and Anni-Frid showed a Sweden where everything went very well; the state took care of you, no prudish nonsense, Swedish meatballs for everyone, all-in-all a country of solidarity – but also homogeneous.

The new songs clearly convey the nostalgic sound of the glorious 1970s, almost as if nothing has changed in the 40 years since.

In their new live show, ABBA Voyage, due next year at London's transformed ABBA Arena, the band members, all four above the age of 70, come to life in the shape of their own holograms, avatars, or ABBA-tars.

Their ABBA-tars do not portray the band members as they are now, old and grey, but as the beautiful young 20-somethings at the top of their game.

With a few new songs sounding like they were produced back in the day, and of course the super-hits like Mamma Mia, Money Money Money, Dancing Queen, and Fernando – a succession of sentimental classics – it will undoubtedly be one hell of a show.

Exactly as everyone remembers ABBA. And with that, Sweden.

Whilst it appears as if ABBA hasn't changed in those 40 years, Sweden has. A lot.

The Swedish showpiece, the social welfare state is nowhere near as it was in the 1970s. Due to the large increase in immigrants in recent decades, which has diversified the previously homogeneous Swedish population, the birth-, growth and normalisation of the political far-right, and the transition to a more neo-liberal and individualistic economy, solidarity – the building block of the social welfare state – gradually faded.

'Socialist paradise' gone

In their own words, Sweden is extremely progressive, and in some areas such as gender equality it is.

But present Sweden is also stuck at a conservative level. Racism and discrimination might not be mentioned, but are most certainly order of the day, while Swedishness is still closely related to skin colour and whiteness.

It only magnifies the differences between ethnic Swedes and non-ethnic Swedes, while the existing and positive similarities are almost neglected.

Sweden has changed a lot in the last 40 years. The socialist paradise that resounds through ABBA's music, and how the country is fondly remembered, is gone.

The red wooden country houses, rustic lakes, Ikea meat balls, Knäckebröd with salmon, snaps, and also ABBA music will always exist, no need to worry.

But as much as the Swedish identity is intertwined with her music, it changes along the waves of society.

Currently, it is mainly hip-hop artists, often with a foreign background, that top the charts. Especially the rather dark and violent gangster-rap scene has been taking off over the last decade. A multicultural society that is reflected in music.

On the contrary, ABBA wants to show that the nostalgic idea of ​​Sweden, which they embody in sound and image, has changed almost nothing. But that is a distorted view.

Author bio

Sjors Joosten is a PhD student in sociology at Stockholm University, specialising the role of hip-hop music in the process of immigrant integration in Sweden.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.


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