ABBA entered the Eurovision contest for the second time in 1974 and the rest is history. With an English-language performance of the song “Waterloo”, the Swedish band swept British audiences off their feet and ushered in a new era of popular music, most often referred to as Eurodisco. But ABBA were held dear not only for championing a new ideal of a pan-European culture. Their whimsical, extravagant outfits drenched in glitter, catchy melodies, sugar-sweet lyrics and unique origin story offered something for all kinds of audiences. Television viewers saw them as a fantastic spectacle. Club-goers appraised them for their ability to release hit after hit. Even now, the unprecedented success of the group lives on, despite the fact that they stopped producing music in 1984.
ABBA: Super Troupers, a new exhibition at London's Southbank Centre, captures the cultural legacy of the group in a manner as immersive as any one of the group’s hit singles, plunging viewers right into the kaleidoscopic world of the Swedish pop stars. Each intricately designed interior represents a watershed moment in the history of the group as audiences are taken through the historic Napoleon Suite of the Grand Hotel, Brighton, the grimy toilets of a discotheque, a quaint Swedish living room, where the group began its career, and a recreation of the room in which they would eventually split.
Inviting audience participation at each and every turn, the show celebrates fandom as well as the group. Viewers are encouraged to name the titles of ABBA songs in a quick quiz, or to sing karaoke in a studio reminiscent of the set of the “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)” music video. There’s plenty of trivia about the group’s relationship with audiences, too, relayed in the accompanying narration provided by long-time ABBA fan, Jarvis Cocker. Careful listeners will discover a surprisingly erudite explanation of how technological developments and political events influenced the group’s reception. As we are told, ABBA’s initial breakthrough was fuelled by the decision to release records in English. Shrewd and innovative marketing decisions are unpacked, all of which helped record sales skyrocket; ABBA conquered millions of British living rooms via their use of television broadcasts and were amongst the first pop artists to hold stadium-scale concerts.
The exhibition also startles the viewer with its attention to more intimate details. We learn of how Bjorn and Benny would exchange a coconut while sitting on a blue silk pillow in a glass case, as a way to wish each other luck. And, of course, much attention is devoted to the outfits. A plethora of historic ensembles are on display: from the crushed velvet jackets adorned with badges and gems worn at Eurovision, to the full-body gold capes that became their signature style. Then there is the memorabilia. Fishnet hats, lipstick-stained champagne glasses, star-shaped guitars and other luxurious items are dotted throughout the exhibition. Taken together with the various archival materials, newspaper clippings, family archive portraits, handwritten music sheets and rare vinyl covers, they make up a glorious assemblage of memorabilia.
The exhibition’s sense of fun does an outstanding job at satisfying ABBA's fans, but it also provides plenty of particulars for the less initiated. The sheer range of objects on display and attention to detail will draw anyone into rich and kitsch world of ABBA, one that sets them out as nothing short of a global phenomenon.