I took my daughter and a friend of hers to see the live touring company of Mamma Mia! in San Francisco last week. We had a blast! Daughter had seen the movie a gazillion times; friend had seen the show twice before. At the end, all three of us were standing up and waving our arms and singing along to “Dancing Queen” and “Waterloo” with the grey-haired lady a few seats down and the entire rest of the theatre.
I’d previously seen and loved the movie version with Meryl Streep.
And what struck me, as we left the theatre, is that I absolutely hated Abba when all these songs originally came out.
Abba — four Swedish musicians with a series of international mega-hits in English — were around from 1972 to 1982, my high school and college years. They were hardly on my radar. I was into folksingers like Phil Ochs and Dylan in high school and then rock/New Wave in college: Springsteen, the Clash, Blondie, Elvis Costello, Patti Smith, Talking Heads.
To the extent that Abba entered my consciousness, they were a symbol of everything that seemed vapid and repulsive about the 1970s. Disco culture. Singles bars. Girls with poufy hair and platform heels and nothing on their minds beyond looking for Mr. Hot. Abba’s lyrics were meaningless drivel:
Honey honey, how you thrill me, uh huh Honey honey, nearly kill me, uh huh I’d heard about you before
I wanted to know some more
And now I know what they mean, you’re a love machine
You couldn’t get much further from the poetry of Dylan or the pounding political anger of the Clash. Why the hell was a Swedish band writing in English anyway? They seemed all commercialism and no artistic vision. I put them in the same box as, say, the Bee Gees or the Captain and Tenille.
So why do I love Mamma Mia? Why did I spend the day after the show bopping around the house and office singing “Dancing Queen?”
Sure, the tunes are extremely catchy. But there’s something else going on. The plot of Mamma Mia! has virtually nothing to do with Abba or their 1970s cultural milieu. The show saucily subverts Abba’s lyrics: “Honey Honey” isn’t sung by a girl with a “love machine” boyfriend, but by a bride-to-be who has decided to find out who her father is by inviting all three of her mother’s old flames to her wedding.
“Dancing Queen” doesn’t show some disco blonde prowling for a one-night stand, but a middle-aged Meryl Streep bouncing on a bed in overalls and then dancing with her best friends through their small Greek town, as old peasant women and housewives drop chores to dance along.
That scene is one of my favorites in the movie. And this is where Mamma Mia, as hokey as it is, speaks to me. I suspect my daughter identifies with the young bride. I identify with the Meryl Streep character — the bride’s mom, worn down with money worries and single motherhood, who rediscovers romance, spontaneity and joy long after she had given up on them as possibilities for herself. With the help of her two best female friends from girlhood, no less!
The “message” of Mamma Mia is that everyone is a Dancing Queen. The middle-aged mother of the bride. The old Greek peasant women. The grey-haired woman down the row from us in the theatre, shaking her hips and waving her arms in the air.
And that is most likely 180 degrees distant from what the Abba lyricists were imagining when they wrote the song. I think Mamma Mia is ripe for some structuralist PhD thesis on deconstructing or decoding or whatever the correct jargon is — basically, how a work of art starts out with one meaning and is reinterpreted to have an entirely different meaning.
Then again, I finished my English degree just before structuralism engulfed American universities. (Thank goodness!)
So I’ll just end by wishing that all of us find our internal
Dancing Queen, young and sweet, only seventeen
Dancing Queen, feel the beat from the tambourine
You can dance, you can jive, having the time of your life
See that girl, watch that scene, digging the Dancing Queen.