How ABBA Became a Beloved Gay Icon: The Surprising Story



Somewhere right now, ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” is playing at an LGBTQ club, bar, or house party. Gays (and their lucky straight friends) wave their arms, pose ingenuous, and sing shamelessly to the 45-year-old sweet pop standard that has become synonymous with queer nightlife. It’s our take on what fans do at baseball games when their team wins, but with a camp exuberance ignited by the song’s brassy harmonies and practical references to female royalty. Trump and his supporters may have claimed both the Village People’s “YMCA” and “Macho Man” for a while, but there’s no way they’re taking this one from us.

Thanks to multiple incarnations on stage and on screen of “Mamma Mia! , Fabulously garish costumes by gay designer Owe Sandström, and perfectly crafted songs more retroactively popular than in their heyday of the 70s and early 80s, ABBA has been the target of the LGBTQ musical universe for decades. Ostensibly cheerful but filled with drama and sprinkled with Scandinavian melancholy, the pop of the Stockholm mixed quartet has put together the glitz of countless gay and gay groups, from Kylie Minogue to Lady Gaga, from Adam Lambert to Lil Nas X – a singular achievement for a group that had not produced an album for 40 years. This week by releasing “Voyage”, his first new LP since 1981 and a teaser for next year’s London gigs featuring 3D avatars, ABBA is to many gay fans what the Rolling Stones are to straight guys – archetypes whose appeal transcends time, place and age. While even icons like Madonna polarize opinion, almost every color of the gay rainbow matches ABBA.

This was not always the case. Back in the days when Donna Summer reigned as the indisputable dance queen, ABBA hadn’t performed much in gay clubs, not even you know what: Disco’s top mixer, Tom Moulton, considered “Dancing Queen” perfect. as is and he therefore refused the opportunity to remix it. (He has since regretted it.)

From the earliest underground clubs to Studio 54, 70s LGBTQ nightclubs were brought to life by black and Latin grooves. Yes, there were exceptions: Larry Levan – the influential black gay DJ at New York’s legendary and mostly Black / LGBTQ Paradise Garage – loved Cher’s “Take Me Home”. But gay DJs and their audiences mostly favored underground divas and obscure orchestral maestros they discovered and popularized, and not hit pop acts from AM radio.

Things changed in the early 1980s when the American general public, media, and record labels declared disco the dead. This challenged DJs who, since 1977, “Saturday Night Fever” had a rhythmic deluge to tap into. Straight clubs have shifted to eclectic funk and new wave, but the well of fast-paced gay dancefloor tunes has almost dried up. Raul Rodriguez – DJ at the New York nightclub, New York – found a solution when he extended the track from ABBA’s 1980 album “Lay All Your Love on Me” in his home studio with duct tape and razor blades. “BAM BAM BAM” are his particularly powerful assemblies. “The first time he did that, it was a mistake,” recalls Robbie Leslie, veteran DJ of Saint, the quintessential gay nightclub of the 80s. Rodriguez turned his splicing gaff into a thunderous eye-catcher that filled the air with pumping fists and poppers.

ABBA in concert in 1978.

(Peter Bischoff / Getty Images)

Like Leslie’s equally beloved mix of Jimmy Ruffin’s “Hang on to My Love,” Rodriguez’s ABBA transformation only appeared on Disconet, a subscription-based remix service owned by gay people. You couldn’t just walk into a store and buy it: in the pre-air era, you could only hear it at clubs like the Saint, where it remained in rotation for years. This forced a 12-inch overseas release of the relatively ordinary “Lay All Your Love on Me’s” LP that preserved the exclusivity of Rodriguez’s version, while its longevity proved that dancers – especially gays – had. always crave quick and vigorous club hymns. In 1982, ABBA’s North American label released their uptempo track “The Visitors” as a single, but again, a subscription-based gay remix service, Hot Tracks, provided the expanded version.

After ABBA recorded what would be its last sessions for decades that year, UK producers like Stock Aitken Waterman filled the void with “hi-NRG” tracks initially targeted at gays who entered the scene. mainstream via Dead or Alive, Bananarama, Minogue, and Summer herself. , while everyone from the Latin Rascals to the Pet Shop Boys has replicated Rodriguez’s machine gun modifications.

When hi-NRG took its course, England’s Erasure released 1992’s “Abba-esque”, a love letter of cover versions. His gay singer Andy Bell and his straight synth sidekick Vince Clarke even recreated the “Take a Chance on Me” video from their drag source material, with results topping the UK charts. The originals appeared on this year’s “ABBA Gold”, now one of the biggest sellers of all time. In 1994, these oldies appeared prominently in the films “Muriel’s Wedding,” which gave gay favorite Toni Collette a big chance, and “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” a trans-road comedy. tastic. At the absolute nadir of the AIDS plague, ABBA is reborn in the paragons of kitsch that relieves sadness.

But if bombastic outfits and chewing gum hooks had been the only piece of equipment ABBA offered to LGBTQ culture, its gay appeal would have collapsed after the life-saving arrival of antiviral cocktails. Under the sheen of satin and sequins, ABBA has always layered conflicts and contrasts to rival those of the most beloved singer-songwriters. Time and time again they have made counterintuitive matches – fortified instrumentation juxtaposed with romantic surrender (“Waterloo”), discouraged lyrics paired with a skipping melody (“Mamma Mia”), strong choral harmonies capturing moments of solitary weakness (“SOS”), a hook while cracking (“The Visitors”) – the contradictions are linked again and again.

Connoisseur queer sound champions often celebrate and reconcile these lags. Consider how the Supremes gleefully embodied emotional slavery while also making the soundtrack of Civil Rights and Stonewall. Or Laura Nyro, who ran AM radio via simplified 5th Dimension covers and others while her own complicated albums turned her into an LGBTQ cult hero long before she settled down with a female partner. . Or Lou Reed, a multi-level iconoclast who captured Andy Warhol’s seedy factory set with religious devotion. Our survival strategy has always been to counter hatred with love; we manifest homosexuality to support its opposite.

Yet at the most basic level, ABBA’s heterosexuality is more overt than the more straight guys in rock. Even before the group’s breakthrough at Eurovision Song Contest in 1974, Agnetha Fältskog and Björn Ulvaeus were romantic partners; just like Anni-Frid Lyngstad and Benny Andersson. The two couples married and their musical nuances multiplied, reaching their climax in the distressed 1980s, “The Winner Takes It All”, just as Fältskog and Ulvaeus were finalizing their separation; the following year, Lyngstad and Andersson also divorced. “We will never reform,” Ulvaeus told me when I interviewed him in 1994. “Why would we do it?”

As the acronym of its first name indicates, ABBA was from the start a supergroup: the guys had been part of successful groups; the girls were solo stars – even a teenager, Fältskog wrote some of her hits. Ulvaeus and Andersson wrote, produced and performed on the songs, but the vocal synchronicity of Fältskog and Lyngstad drove them so fiercely that sexual liberation hymns like “Gimme! Give me ! Give me ! (A Man After Midnight) ”seem tailor-made. Lesbian separatists and gay misogynists might complain, but most of us relish ABBA’s unparalleled gender parity and equality. Being strong women and sensitive men who love and respect each other is at the heart of the group’s chemistry as well as its enduring LGBTQ appeal: it’s also who we are and how we want the world to be.

And it fueled their reconciliation. “There was a union of heart and mind / Tastes are rare and so hard to find,” Lyngstad recalls of the band’s past on “Voyage’s” “I Still Have Faith in You”. Her voice more fragile than before, she nevertheless shows a firm knowledge. “Do I have it in me?” She asks aloud with Fältskog, and at that point, their fusion overcomes the uncertainty.

Even after these divorces and decades apart, ABBA members come together with such grace that they collectively achieve a smultronställe; literally, a square of wild strawberries. It’s a Swedish concept that director Ingmar Bergman captured with “Wild Strawberries”; a secret place where the fruits of the heart grow freely. It’s ABBA’s gift to LGBTQ culture – an oasis within the mega-stream that Rodriguez and other gay pioneers helped to build.

Barry Walters is the author of the forthcoming book “Mighty Real: The Music That Built LGBTQ America”.

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