ABBA Voulez Vous

‘Voulez Vous’: ABBA’s Poptimist Manifesto at 45

On Voulez Vous, ABBA went disco and created a turbo-charged version of their music. The raucous choruses of Voulez Vouz preview a decade of pop.

Voulez Vous
Polar / Epic / Atlantic
23 April 1979

In the years since their breakup, the Swedish band ABBA have reached a new peak of popularity. They toured the United States once in their career, starving the market for their addictive hits. Demand for ABBA came from elsewhere as well. When distributing their music during its prime, manager Stig Anderson signed deals with record labels around the world instead of partnering with one label to distribute ABBA’s music globally. Consequently, after their breakup, no single entity could produce a greatest-hits collection. Instead, once Polygram Entertainment acquired the masters to ABBA’s recordings in 1989 and waited for various licensing deals to expire, they released ABBA Gold in 1992, which has sold 31 million copies, making it one of the best-selling albums of all time

However, compacting ABBA’s most commercially successful songs into one album misses their central appeal. Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus (whose names account for the B’s in the band name) are sharp songwriters. Although a single band can only have so many chart-toppers, all of ABBA’s songs are composed with the infrastructure to achieve ubiquity. The definition of a “hit” is elusive. Record labels strive to predict the success of a song, and artists dread the phrase uttered by executives, “We don’t hear a hit.” Ultimately, hits make themselves through an inexact combination of musical construction and cultural relevance. Across their original eight-album run, ABBA mastered the form of the popular song, forgoing the search for a hit single and stretching the genre to contain complicated emotions.

ABBA’s ability to produce pop songs ambivalent to their actual popularity predated a trend of the late 2010s and early 2020s that occurred when rap and hip-hop knocked traditional “bubblegum” pop from the top of the charts. Singer-songwriter Carly Rae Jepsen has produced a string of pristine pop albums over the last decade but hasn’t had a recognizable hit since her 2012 breakout single “Call Me Maybe”. Currently, the singer works similarly to ABBA. Every one of her songs sounds like a variation of a potential hit, a term retroactively applied to songs that follow a precise formula: three-minute jingles with a recognizable hook. 

Battling with other genres on the charts has allowed Jepsen to embellish the form of a pop song. While her 2012 album Kiss was predictable bubblegum, her follow-ups Dedicated and The Loveliest Time lend nostalgic 1970s and 1980s twists to a familiar structure. Innovation in pop is deceptive because its parameters dictate consistency. Using a concise package to capture the attention of as many people as possible is a feat of contradiction: completing the task is formulaic, while marketing the product requires a feeling of newness.

In spite of their artistic backbone, commercial success is a trademark of ABBA. They have sold over 150 million albums worldwide and landed four songs in the top ten of the Billboard Hot 100, including the number one single “Dancing Queen”. However, the band also created albums viewed by critics as creative leaps, such as 1977’s ABBA: The Album and 1981’s The Visitors. The former wrestles with newfound success, using rock to mirror a shift in content. The six-minute opener “Eagle” finds ABBA questioning then discovering confidence in fame (“Is it true I’m an eagle / Is it true I can spread my wings?”). The album closes with a trilogy of songs that formed the backbone of a mini-musical narrating the story of a young girl facing the perils of stardom. (“But who the hell am I if I don’t even try?” asks “I Wonder.”) 

Similarly, The Visitors navigates the divorces of the two couples that comprised the band (“When All Is Said and Done” and “One of Us”) and explores the hardships of parenting (“Slipping Through My Fingers”). Later in their career, ABBA’s greatest strength became their ability to channel hardship into a genre associated with happiness. “One of Us” diagnoses the problems at the center of a failing relationship without sacrificing their signature, synth-driven, quick melodic cadence. 

The fact that 1979’s Voulez-Vouz, a polished disco reprise of ABBA’s original incarnation, comes between their most critically acclaimed albums may seem incongruous. However, its bouncy nature reflects the difficulty they experienced during its creation. When creating disco music, ABBA didn’t need to rely on autobiography to add depth to songs. The bounds in which they operate lend themselves to making music justified by the strength of its composition alone. Voulez-Vouz doubled down on ABBA’s reputation as composers of light jingles that work on the dance floor. Having honed their songwriting skills on the rock-adjacent ABBA: The Album, on Voulez Vous, ABBA created a turbo-charged version of songs that might have fit on 1976’s Arrival

From Arrival, “Dum Dum Deedle” shows the innate melodic gift of ABBA’s songwriters. The song, a catchy tune about unrequited love, features a sneaky melody that operates on two levels. At first, the melody descends, lingering on certain notes before resolving on the base note of a minor chord. However, the chorus opens on two major chords, which serve as the attention-grabber, before a minor adds texture to the song’s celebratory sound. Therefore, the upgrade from Arrival to Voulez-Vous isn’t necessarily in the structure of the songs but in how the writers reconfigure them to create bigger choruses and subtler points of reflection. The chorus of “Angel Eyes” on Voulez-Vous takes longer to reach a minor chord, but the ambiguous note remains to accentuate the song’s heartbreak. “Angel Eyes” captures the prowess of Vouelz-Vous: the album is filled with bombastic songs, and even a contemplative song is co-opted to accomplish this mission. 

The raucous choruses of Voulez Vouz preview a decade of pop to come. With the singer-songwriters of the early 1970s in the rearview, vocalists such as Whitney Houston would become a dominant sound of the 1980s by turning Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” into a power pop ballad. ABBA preceded this trend by saturating the musical landscape with both upbeat and slow songs that stuck to a strict formula. “Does Your Mother Know?” from Voulez Vous emphasizes the playful side of the record, as Andersson, on a rare lead vocal, flirts with a young girl on the dance floor. Similarly, the title track, French for “Do you want?” announces the album’s goal of purposeful revelry: “Take it now or leave it / Nothing promised no regrets.”

Meanwhile, the piano-driven “If It Wasn’t For the Nights” narrates a lover who dreads meeting her partner at night, with self-effacing jabs laid over a misleadingly steady tempo. “I’d have courage left to fight if it wasn’t for the nights,” the narrator admits. The smooth delivery of vocalists Anna-Frid Lyngstad and Agneta Faltskog (the two A’s in ABBA’s name) denotes a light-hearted approach to their woes. 

Making an album with a safe mission statement allowed ABBA to try different sonic costumes. Elegant strings announce the opening track, “As Good As New”, before blending with a bass guitar to suggest a combination of classic sensibilities and carefree disco-pop. On Voulez-Vous, ABBA don’t strive to communicate serious sentiments. However, their curated sonic palette suggests a self-awareness about this choice. They appear to shrug at the opportunity to feature lyrical nuance, which in and of itself is a statement in line with the fun-loving ethos of the album. 

Andersson and Ulvaeus forged the path producer Max Martin, another Swede, would traverse in the 1990s and 2000s, crafting hits for Britney Spears, Katy Perry, and Taylor Swift. His work on Arianna Grande’s most recent album, Eternal Sunshine, underscores his commitment to pop traditionalism, asserting a catchy melody and a heavy bassline can anchor a song. Stars know when to seek Martin out: Swift recruited him to produce “I Knew You Were Trouble”, her departure from country music. While Martin works as a producer more than a writer, he fits pop compositions into the airtight framework ABBA popularized. 

A school of thought called Poptimism may explain ABBA’s 21st-century resurgence. A reaction to Rockism, which asserts that the corporatization of music irreparably sullies it, Poptimism argues mainstream pop deserves critical attention despite its superficial nature. Although it has perhaps become too generous, Poptimism pushes music criticism beyond homogenous rock legends. Retroactively, its thinking has vindicated ABBA as skilled songwriters and capable vocalists, rescuing them from a decade in which artists were rewarded for the argument they made, not necessarily for the construction of the vessel communicating it. 

Through their publicized divorces, ABBA showcased their ability to blend celebrity and music. “I’m hearing images I’m seeing songs / No poet has ever painted,” Bjorn wrote in “I Let the Music Speak”. ABBA let music speak for itself but know when to comment on the discourse surrounding it. A poet might argue this is never necessary and dock a point from the case of ABBA as artists. But as pop stars, they pass with flying colors. 

If ABBA makes the case for Poptimism, Voulez Vous makes a similar argument within their catalog. The ballad “Chiquitita” is a Spanish-infused empowerment anthem about getting through tough times. While one of the record’s sensitive moments, it does not explore the hardship being overcome. Such ambiguity allows the song to become universal: the rallying point for “Chiquitita” is in the act of overcoming itself. It is an appropriate sentiment for an album not made without struggle. 

After releasing the single “Summer Night City” in 1978 to middling results, ABBA relocated from Sweden to a recording studio in Miami, Florida, hoping to overcome a creative block caused in part by the incongruous nature of the couples: Andersson and Lyngstad had recently married, while Ulvaeus and Faltskog had just split up. This tension may have prevented a sequel to ABBA’s 1978 self-titled album, but their ability to create music removed from their own circumstances allowed listeners to escape theirs. 

ABBA’s ascent to the top of the pop charts began with their victory at the Eurovision Songwriting Contest with the single “Waterloo”, which peaked at number one in the United Kingdom and number six in the United States. However, ABBA were not the first musical venture for its members: Andersson was a member of the “Swedish Beatles”, the Hep Stars, and Ulvaeus was a part of the popular Swedish folk group the Hootenanys. Andersson met Lyngstad while she was singing in nightclubs in Stockholm. Lyngstad’s mother had passed away at age 21, and her father, whom she had never met, was a German officer who left Sweden after the end of World War II and never returned. His identity subjected her to ridicule as a child. 

It is said that celebrities seek out fame to overcompensate for feeling misunderstood in their youth. Pop stars are maligned for their universality even though it is a product the market demands. Another prolific pop songwriter, Taylor Swift, said in the song “Mastermind”: “No one wanted to play with me as a little kid / So I’ve been scheming like a criminal ever since / To make them love me and make it seem effortless.” The public demands celebrities project unattainable qualities to provide escapism, yet the reality of this product alienates listeners. To do the job, you must ignore the negative externalities. 

The hardships of Faltskog reflect this reality. After the breakdown of her relationship with Ulvaeus, she dated Swedish hockey player Lars Erik Ericsson, with whom she hoped to raise a family. The relationship ended when he realized he would be known as her boyfriend, not a famous athlete in his own right. The sabotaging of a personal life is not necessarily part of a pop star’s contract with the public. Instead, it’s a casualty of pre-existing terms. 

The divorces of the ABBA members were subject to rampant tabloid speculation: columnists speculated Faltskog dated the therapist she and Ulvaeus had seen for couples’ counseling. After their breakup, Ulvaeus penned “The Winner Takes It All” for 1980’s Super Trouper, which Faltskog admitted was cathartic to sing because it encapsulated what both ABBA couples were going through. “Tell me does she kiss, like I used to kiss you?” she asks. 

It’s strange to imagine Ulvaeus writing a song from the perspective of the person he allegedly moved on from without much hesitation. In her memoir As I Am, Agneta wrote, “We told the press it was a ‘happy’ divorce, which, of course, was a front.” On The Visitors track, “When All Is Said and Done”, she and Lyngstad pronounce, “Neither you nor I is to blame when all is said and done.” Although about a romantic breakup, considering its place as the final album of ABBA’s original run, it also asks: Who is to blame for the downfall at the end of a pop star’s life cycle? Is the performer, who benefits from manipulating their audience, culpable? Or is it the audience who, in retaliation to media manipulation, turns the performer’s greatest asset – their ability to communicate a feeling – against them? 

ABBA’s original disadvantage, existing during the era of Rockism that dismissed them as trite, proves advantageous in the 21st century when pop acts are incentivized by a doting media landscape to take themselves perhaps too seriously. This coddling becomes a vicious cycle: internet virality gives publications a reason to write about popular music, which makes that music more popular, which drives more publications to cover it. Independent publications such as PopMatters exist separate from this ecosystem and appear poised to survive the downfall of Poptimism, which has destroyed Pitchfork, a publication known for its avant-garde takes that began covering the Top 40 over the last decade. 

ABBA are the ultimate Poptimist time capsule because they created pop music at a time when the media provided little incentive to do so. Their music makes the case for its own existence in spite of the lore surrounding it. In fact, this lore might have been the undoing of ABBA. After chronicling divorce on their 1980s albums, a return to the disco of Voulez-Vous would have appeared superfluous in the way critics had always portrayed them. Their exploration of deeper emotions broke their own fourth wall. To continue making music in their original fun-loving form after this shift would have spoiled the fantasy of the early albums. 

On the Voulez-Vous track “I Have a Dream”, Lyngstad and Faltskog’s vocals combine with mellow synths to deliver a comforting lullaby as they intone, “I believe in angels, something good in everything I see.” The song conjures a light hallucination that becomes its own sense of security. The sincerity of the delivery communicates that a dream alone can anchor someone through a difficult time. 

This sentiment works well on an album that lives in fantasy, a final holdout before the personal and professional breakup of the band. Currently, ABBA’s writers don’t often permit their songs to be sampled by other artists. However, “Gimme Gimme Gimme (A Man After Midnight)” appears on Madonna’s 2005 track “Hung Up”, revealing ABBA’s tight control of its legacy. Madonna, a rebellious pop star, translates ABBA into the 21st century by giving the band edge while associating them with someone sonically adjacent to their brand. Fittingly, “Gimme” sounds like it might have been written from the protagonist’s perspective of “Dancing Queen” after she had grown up a bit.

Voulez-Vous is a sparkling, disco red herring that created a distraction from the grief in store for ABBA’s members. The English translation of Voulez-Vous -“Do You Want?”- is not just a dancefloor provocation but a prophecy: would ABBA choose a fate that would doom them by writing about complicated topics on their final albums? The path may have been lit by a disco ball, the multiple sides of which represent ABBA’s projection of heartbreak and fun, but the sonic destination of their catalog is arbitrary. In the end, the craft of a pop star will always destroy its vessel. The currency of pop is youth, and for that to be consumed in its truest form, its capitalistic expression must also have an expiration date. 

However, ABBA’s battle with fate is not a winner-take-all situation: the acquiescence of their catalog to the public imagination has allowed it to take on a second life in the 21st century. The Mama Mia films, movie-musicals soundtracked exclusively by ABBA songs, have brought ABBA’s music to a new generation. In 2021, ABBA released their first album of new material in 40 years, Voyage. “We took a break in the spring of 1982, and now we’ve decided to end it,” the group said in a statement. Their original decade-long run may have concluded long ago, but the persistence of ABBA proves sometimes wanting something is enough.