It’s fall 1992. Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and other Seattle bands have made grunge a mainstream obsession. Before the end of the year, Dr. Dre‘s The Chronic would do the same for rap, and the soundtrack to The Bodyguard would make massive mainstream inroads for decidedly civilized R&B. Yet the most surprising and longest lasting success of the era hails from a quartet of Swedes who’d broken up a decade earlier. Released without fanfare in the United States and seemingly out of sync with every other ’90s trend, ABBA’s greatest hits album would eventually sell over 28 million copies worldwide and rank among the 30 best-selling albums of all time.
Gold: Greatest Hits means many things to different people. To many rock fans who grew up in the ’70s and early ’80s, it is a reminder of what they perceived as overly slick and cheesy about the era’s AM radio hits. To their children, it’s boomer music they actually like. To gay men and the women who love them, unintentional queer anthems like “Dancing Queen” and “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)” are guaranteed party starters as sure as “We Are Family” and “YMCA.” And to tweens whose earliest musical memories are Britney Spears and Backstreet Boys, ABBA Gold is music they instantly get because its influence is encoded in the DNA of nearly every Radio Disney smash just as surely as Little Richard shaped the Beatles.
Like that other mixed-gender ’70s phenomenon, Fleetwood Mac, ABBA was composed of men and women who came together both musically and romantically, and then split apart as lovers near the peak of their popularity. And although the English-as-a-second-language aspects of their early lyrics is at times laughably apparent (check “Waterloo”), Agnetha Fältskog, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson, and Anni-Frid Lyngstad had by the end of their time together written and sung of love and loss with lived-in poignancy and eloquence (witness “The Winner Takes It All”). Framing simple melodies with complex harmonies and avoiding adolescent rebelliousness by treating rock guitar as one of many studio-assembled elements, ABBA managed to be simultaneously childlike and adult, innocent and knowing. ABBA Gold is quintessentially pop the way the Rolling Stones are rock; European like the Beach Boys will always be American.