The Pandemic Soundtrack You Didn't Know You Needed
by Teresa Gonzales
"The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown"
- H.P. Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature
The best discoveries in life I have found happen when you are backed into a corner. The group Alcoholics Anonymous refer to this as "being given the gift of desperation." 2020 is a year that has brought with it all the desperation I personally wish to be gifted and more. The COVID-19 pandemic has to some extent changed the way everyone on the planet lives their life. That's quite a feat for any year to accomplish and we're not even through it yet. The ability to gather, to socialize is something humans and animals do alike. The need to social distance and quarantine has created an intense sense of isolation that social creatures like ourselves are simply not used to. We have all the technology and gadgets we could ask for to stay connected, and yet we are lonely. Unwelcome impositions like wearing a mask only add to the disconnect. So many people we love have been adversely affected, be it financially, physiologically, and personally.
Being given the illustrious term essential employee, I have worked in the retail industry the entirety of the pandemic without the cocoon of autonomy that working at home provides. This kind of grind left me feeling abused, unappreciated and emotionally drained after being in the trenches since the pandemic began. My three school-aged sons had been home since March while attempting to do remote learning and had been given a literal pass for the year as they had failed many of their classes. To top it all off, I had a business deal gone bad and lost half a year's salary. My depression and self-pity were getting worse and it was getting harder and harder to find a reason to get out of bed. Dying of coronavirus to me seemed like an inescapable fate everywhere except in my bed, under the covers. This particular Saturday, I slept in until noon, very uncharacteristic for a robust morning person.
However, unlike the past 4 months, I grabbed my Bluetooth speaker as I shuffled my way to the kitchen to make my coffee and start working on a grocery list. My days seemed to be filled with necessary but mundane tasks that added to my overall feeling of mediocrity. It occurred to me that I hadn't enjoyed listening to music since the pandemic began in March. There was the musical background noise of the radio as I drove to work of course, but I hadn't felt it. I had not allowed it to make me emotional; to penetrate my heart as I had always done throughout my passionate love affair with music. Music is an invitation to feel. The weight of my personal struggles made me want to do anything but feel. Numbness was better. A song came on interrupting my inner monologue of self-pity "If you change your mind, I'm the first in line, honey I'm still free, take a chance on me."
As an ABBA song, I had heard many times, but it sounded different at this moment for some reason. The upbeat tempo made me begin to nod my head to the beat. The chorus continued harmonizing with the boys singing the rhythm and the girls singing the melody. I had never noticed the complexity and how much was really going in a seemingly simple track. The longer it played, the better I felt. It was as if I had never heard this band before. I could literally feel my dopamine levels rise. When it ended, I had to hear more, so I continued with the ABBA Gold album. I wound up making waffles for everyone instead of just having them fend for themselves with a bowl of cold cereal, which was what usually happened. The good vibes continued and a good morning turned into a good day. I called a friend and we met, then had lunch. We talked about our own personal 2020 disasters and cried. And then we laughed until we cried talking about murder hornets, and the tragic comedy of errors that this year had become. How could some overplayed '70's radio pop make such of a positive impact in my mood and then my day? I had to hear more. I had to embark on an odyssey of musical discovery. Had I overlooked a diamond in plain sight?
Most music lovers who aren't necessarily ABBA fans think of their music as just feel-good '70's pop. Mainstays; overplayed, albeit popular music cranked at just about every karaoke bar on Friday night. Feel-good yes, but not deep, raw and meaningful like the Beatles, Joplin and Dylan. When it comes to music, I love being proven wrong. The first stop on my journey of ABBA's anthology took me to one of their many mid-'70's performances. At first glance, they seem like a band that relies on flamboyant costumes to compensate for musical talent. The outfits are ridiculous: star-shaped guitars, huge bell bottoms, sequined overalls, and perms the size of a watermelon. It's also plain to see choreography was just not a priority in live performances. The two girls sway their hips in time to the music, sometimes off-beat, as Bjorn and Benny just play guitar and piano. It all seems so generic.
But once the song begins and the girls start to sing in unison....oh that auditory cocaine. Let us take a moment to dissect the voices of soprano Agnetha Fältskog and mezzo Anni-Frid Lyngstad together. One would be hard pressed to find another two female voices that have ever blended as well as theirs. The way they harmonize to create ABBA's signature sound is so pleasant on the ears, it is easy to forget there are in fact two voices. Frida's smooth, lower, warm sounding vocals combined with Agenetha's crystal clear soprano voice create the signature sound of ABBA. The music gods surely smiled on us when the girlfriends of Bjorn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson met. At the very beginning of the group's creation, it was Bjorn and Benny who were lead and the girls sang backup vocals, but the magic of the girl's voices together was undeniable. It would probably be a mistake to ignore that part of the group's success was due to that wise decision to put the eye candy in front of the camera. The cover girl looks and long legs of Agnetha and Frida could not have hurt the band's popularity, especially during live performances.
All four members of ABBA were individually successful in Sweden prior to forming the supergroup. Over the top, yet irresistible pop delicacies like "Honey, Honey," "Dancing Queen," "Mama Mia" and "I Do, I Do I Do" are ABBA's sunny, hallmark sound. However, upon digging deeper into ABBA's discography there is so much more to discover. There are some obligatory disco tracks like "Gimme, Gimme, Gimme" and "Summer Night City," as it was the '70's after all. But what is surprising is the range of styles, lyrics and emotions that ABBA provides the listener. ABBA has some rock 'n roll performances that truly surprised me, most notably the '79 concert, Live at Wembley. A few of their rock n roll tracks are fun and retro-sounding like Waterloo and So Long. Then there are more decade-appropriate rock singles like "Does Your Mother Know" and "Hole in your Soul." Towards the end of "Hole in your Soul," Agnetha shows off her powerful voice and impressive range as she crescendos into a rock scream and holds a high note that would get any metal-head's attention. She holds a similar screaming high note at the end of "Tiger" from the 1976 album Arrival. ABBA, is that you?
As far as hard rock is concerned, ABBA is a name spoken in reverence by the metal community as the band has its share of cover songs and tribute albums from groups like Therion, Rough Silk and Ghost among others. With their solid riffs and minor keys, it's as if ABBA's songs have alter-egos and aspirations of being performed as power-ballads by metal bands. The individual talent of each member poured through the funnel of a band allows them to perform each song with the experience of seasoned musicians while playing off of each other's strengths to provide a polished product while making it look easy. Not an easy task for any band. The chord progressions are basic and the lyrics are simple. Yet their songs demand to be heard multiple times as there are just too many backing choruses and arrangements to pick up on the first listen.
One of ABBA'a more experimental tracks is "Intermezzo #1," from their 1975 self-titled album. One of only two songs that is purely instrumental, it was obviously influenced by other 1970's compositions like 1973's Love's Theme yet could be mistaken for a TransSiberian Orchestra single . This composition allows the listener the rare opportunity to appreciate Benny's skills on the piano. Benny and Bjorn spent most of their time behind a guitar and piano singing back-up vocals but were the masterminds who wrote the songs. This composition almost seems like it was solely written for Benny to work his magic on the ivories without the voices of Agnetha and Frida stealing as expected. Another of the band's lesser known songs is from their 1977 album Arrival. "Why Did it Have to be Me" is a folksy rock 'n' roll sing-along that is an earworm. What makes this track particularly fun is Frida's energetic live performance during their 1977 Australian tour. Frida was the showman of the group and is obviously enjoying having the spotlight to herself for a moment as she sings a duet with Bjorn and takes lead female vocals without Agnetha being on stage. If there was ever a doubt that Frida could hold her own during a live performance without Agnetha, this should clear it up.
One of ABBA's most uncharacteristic songs is from their 1977 5th studio record simply titled The Album. "I'm a Marionette" has an unsettling sound with its use of flats during the chorus. It is one of their tracks that is not meant to be pop perfection or a moving sad song. It is a commentary on the demands of life as a touring musician and the grind of being a puppet to the fans. "I'm a marionette, just a marionette, pull the string I'm a marionette, everybody's pet, just as long as I sing." By that time, ABBA was selling out shows and had created an army of loyal fans that had come to expect live performances full of flamboyant energy. ABBA's 1979 North American and European Tour saw them do 52 shows in 40 cities across 13 countries over the course of 6 months. "All I do is eat, sleep and sing" is a particularly revealing line from "Super Trouper," and it's no wonder they felt that way.
As a true student of music I discovered that if you only listen to radio-friendly hits and the most recognizable tracks, you miss the deep cuts. These gems often have more intimate lyrics as well as more of an experimental sound. Writing and playing upbeat songs that provide a rush of blood to the head is only half the battle for bands that are truly innovative; only 90 degrees on the Richter scale that is human emotion. Sad songs with raw lyrics that aim for the jugular are an essential part of any great discography and ABBA is no exception. Songs like "One of Us" put that lump in your throat and may squeeze out a tear at an inopportune moment. A sad song-induced cry gives the listener a catalyst to emotionally navigate their pain. Anyone that has ever been dumped knows that there is nothing like the perfect sad song when it comes on at just the right moment. Songs like "The Winner Takes It All" are sung with such emotions because there was in fact tragedy in the band's personal lives. Not so ironically this song was written and performed during Agnetha's divorce from Bjorn as he plays guitar to her left. Savage. Agnetha's lead vocals convey emotions that anyone who has ever been through a painful break up can relate to. "I don't want to talk if it makes you feel sad, and I understand, you've come to shake my hand, I apologize if it makes you feel bad, seeing me so tense, so self-confidence." Heartbreak is a universal experience.
Music can be a great therapist because it has a way of uncorking unresolved emotions. The unlikely song that opened up the floodgates of unresolved 2020 emotions for me was "Chiquitita" from the Voulez-Vous album. The performance was featured live for the 1979 UNICEF benefit concert. A term of endearment, meaning 'baby girl' in Spanish, it begins with Agnetha's solo verse and the lyrics quickly turn bittersweet" "Chiquiita tell me what's wrong, you're enchained by your own sorrow, in your eyes there is no hope for tomorrow. " Never having been a crier, the lyrics struck a raw nerve and big, crocodile tears began to fall.
Perhaps the prospect of no hope for tomorrow is what makes 2020, more than anything else, so troubling. The dreams of tomorrow including jobs, vacations, retirements and concerts put on hold are stressful but it's mostly the stomach-turning uncertainty that has us feeling that we are trapped by our worry and pain and don't know the way out. At times, it can feel like 2020 has robbed us of our hope for a better future. The pandemic has taken away the sense of normalcy that we have taken for granted and that must come to the realization that we truly have no control. It's shown us that we are not comfortable sitting alone by ourselves in the isolation of quarantine and have welcomed the next distraction.
"Chiquitita, you and I know how the heartaches come and they go and the scars they're leaving. You'll be dancing once again and the pain will end, they'll be no time for grieving." Could that be hope coming through my headphones? The bittersweet yet hopeful message of this song captures the disillusioned feeling of 2020. It's an almost coming of age moment for a generation that has been dealt a horrible hand. The financial, mental, and psychological pain that we are going through will inevitably come to an end. As a society and as individuals, we have to find a way to keep the faith if we are going to come out on the other side without permanent scars and residual bitterness. Music is always good, but at a time such as this, feel-good music like ABBA is the absolute best. It is more than that- it is absolutely necessary.
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