Between pop and a hard place
"Everyone defines rock 'n' roll in their own way," sighs Jim Henke, the curator of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. "You can't please everyone." Earlier this month it was announced that the Swedish pop legends Abba will be inducted into the hall of fame in a ceremony at New York's Waldorf Astoria Hotel on March 15. Not everyone is over the moon about it. Kiss fans, known as the Kiss Army, are livid.
"The hall cannot seem to figure out what it is," fumed one fan on The New York Times website. "Is it celebrating the groups that helped shape rock or is it a celebration of pop celebrity? Which is it?" "It's the Hall of Rock, not the Hall of Pop," wrote another. "Abba was pop." What seems to really get Kiss fans' goat is that while Abba is to be inducted after its first nomination, the glam metal band Kiss has been snubbed for a decade. Finally nominated this year, it has been left out of the honours in March.
But Kiss fans' animosity towards Abba goes deeper than that, says the Evening Standard music critic John Aizlewood. "Abba is perceived as a shallow, glittery band with terrible dress sense, and to some extent that is true," he says. "They are also dismissed as novelty, and American rock fans hate novelty pop." There is a reason for that, says the Los Angeles Times pop critic Ann Powers. "American music is African-American music," she says. "If Abba was influenced by blues or jazz or R&B, those influences were buried, so it was hard for many fans of American rock and much pop to relate to that sound. Also, American music is tied up with the myth of authenticity, and Abba didn't read as authentic to many American fans. They were too foppish, too theatrical and too blond."
But both Aizlewood and Powers believe that hard-core rock fans are missing out. "If you look beyond the surface of Abba's music you find quite a lot of pain and heartache," Aizlewood says. Despite exuberant hits such as Waterloo and Gimme Gimme Gimme (A Man After Midnight), Abba's music has always displayed a dark strain of Scandinavian melancholy, while their lyrics possess an otherworldly quality, largely because they sang in their second language of English. Hits such as Name of the Game, SOS and Dancing Queen all describe relationships falling apart, Aizlewood says.
"The Day Before You Came is a detailed résumé of the ordinariness of someone's life," he says. "It is desperately unhappy." Despite their incredible success - since they formed in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1970 they have sold almost 370 million records worldwide and enjoyed recent success with the musical-turned-movie Mamma Mia! - Abba members have experienced their fair share of grief. Famously made up of two married couples, Anni-Frid Lyngstad and Benny Andersson and Agnetha Faltskog and Bjorn Ulvaeus, the group loathed flying and hated touring. Inevitably, the group's ambivalent feelings about pop stardom found their way into their carefully crafted songs.
"Super Trouper is the most lonely on-the-road song ever written," says Aizlewood. Eventually the pressures of fame led to divorce and, in 1983, the group split. But its legacy has been lasting. According to Powers, Abba "expanded the language of post-rock pop" and set the stage for many current pop stars, especially artists such as Britney Spears, who have worked with the world-class Swedish producers Max Martin, Luke Gottwald and Stargate. Scandinavia, meanwhile, has become a centre for cosmopolitan mainstream pop, all thanks to Abba.
As for Kiss, Aizlewood, for one, is happy that Abba made the cut and not the hard rockers. "If you hear a Kiss album you will know why they have been denied," he says. "I would like to think they will always be denied. For once, it is the way things should be." Powers isn't so sure. "Kiss came up with some of the most entertaining shows in arena rock. Plus they were the first band to have action figures," she says. "Including Abba is a big step toward exploding the hierarchies that put 'rock' - whatever that is, anyway - first."
Isn't honouring rock 'n' roll stars in a pseudo-academic fashion missing the point about the wild nature of the art form itself? Powers doesn't think so. "Rock and pop are amateur pursuits or a personal passion for many fans, but that music is also a career and an art form, and a huge part of how we communicate about pleasure, personal identity, race and other important matters," she says. "The hall of fame is crucial in defining how that conversation is remembered."