ABBA’s Music Was Sexist, But ‘Mamma Mia’ Helped Fix That

ABBA's songs were never that kind to women, but 'Mamma Mia' provides a surprisingly feminist re-telling of Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus' music.

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Jul 18 2018, 1:27pm

In “Waterloo”, ABBA’s breakthrough hit, the 1815 Battle of Waterloo is used as a key metaphor for a sudden romance. In case you, like me, skipped a few too many high school history lessons, let me catch you up on the Battle of Waterloo: the final battle of the Napoleonic Wars, the Battle of Waterloo basically involved around 75,000 of Napoleon’s troops trying to defeat 118,000 allied soldiers from the rest of Europe. Napoleon didn’t win, and ended up surrendering; along the way, around 70,000 people were killed or injured. It was an absolute bloodbath. The metaphor, then, is that the protagonist of “Waterloo” has been defeated, trapped, forced to surrender to her paramour’s love. It’s cute, right?

It’s not that uncommon: women in ABBA’s songs are, in some way or another, prisoners. The female characters in Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus’ songs are ciphers, fragile and lonely women who are desperate for love and protection from men. Throughout their many, many records (all written, save one credit to Agnetha Fältskog on the band’s first album, by Andersson and Ulvaeus, despite Fältskog’s proficiency in composition) female characters in ABBA songs are trapped in terrifying and cruel roles, written as crude facsimiles that Andersson and Ulvaeus projected twisted fantasies onto. Among ABBA’s greatest hits, there is a message coded: Women without men are nothing. Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad were crucial to the band’s success, and some of ABBA’s reductive treatment of women may be chalked up to the period in which they were making music, but it probably wouldn’t be too far of a reach to say that Andersson and Ulvaeus straight-up hated women. (The bitter anti-divorce anthem “One of Us”, in which a woman regrets a divorce because she hates the freedom, is proof enough of this.) If you could ask the broken, helpless protagonists in songs like “Mamma Mia” and “Gimme, Gimme, Gimme (A Man After Midnight)”, or the underage ‘floozy’ in “Does Your Mother Know”, they’d probably say the same.

It’s easy to ignore this side of ABBA’s music: Andersson and Ulvaeus are truly two of the greatest pop songwriters of all time, and it’s easy to ignore lyrical misgivings if a hook or melody is magnetic enough––the period before the “Blurred Linesbacklash is proof of that. I am in no way saying ABBA’s music is bad. Andersson and Ulvaeus have written ten to fifteen of the most perfect songs of all time, for my money. But ABBA’s status as a “band beyond taste” has, for the most part, prevented them from being canonised and re-thought in the same way as their contemporaries. Fans and critics look at ABBA and see harmless pop music, useful for enjoyment but rarely subjected to intense analysis. This has, in many ways, acted as a shield: ABBA are allowed to a a pop band without being subjected to an interrogation of the slanted gender politics and barely veiled bitterness in their music.

I have no doubt that at some point soon––probably very soon, considering the impending ABBA reunion, and Cher’s upcoming ABBA covers album––ABBA’s music will be reconsidered warts and all, and that we’ll be able to appreciate ABBA’s music for what it is: incredibly written pop masking a near-dystopic lyrical bent. (I am not a particularly huge fan of “cancelling culture” unless an artist has actually been abusive, and so I don’t feel ABBA’s sexist lyrics really warrant cancelling; if we were to cancel every artist with a slightly problematic history, everyone from Nick Cave to Kendrick Lamar to Bjork would be off the table.)

While there isn’t a heap of commentary on the overall tenor of ABBA’s lyrics, there is Mamma Mia!, a piece of the broader ABBA canon that’s essential in the way it reconsiders the band’s music. A kitschy, campy, hit musical-turned-hit movie, Mamma Mia!, released in cinemas a decade ago this month, tells the story of Sophie Sheridan (Amanda Seyfried), a 20-year-old bride who invites three of her mother Donna’s (Meryl Streep) former flames to her wedding in order to determine which one of them is her father. It’s by no means a particularly weighty plot, and very little actually goes on, but it’s deeply enjoyable nonetheless, a definitional ‘feel-good’ film. Mamma Mia! is quite frequently, and unfairly, dismissed as fluff, much in the same way that ABBA are often derided. But as much as Mamma Mia! is a campy, lighthearted piece of culture, it also serves as a corrective to the archaic sexism present in ABBA’s music. The most retrograde of ABBA tracks, like “Gimme Gimme Gimme” and “Does Your Mother Know”, are recast in a way that gives agency to the underserved female protagonists in the band’s canon. Mamma Mia! takes ABBA’s perfect songs with rotten cores, and tweaks them to gleam inside as much as they do outside.

A throwaway moment halfway through Mamma Mia! tells you all you really need to know about it. During Sophie’s hen’s party, her three potential fathers arrive, watching in on the gathering. Upon seeing them, Rosie (Julie Walters) shoos the trio away. “This is a hen party,” she screams, “Women only!” It feels like a mantra for the entire film; while Mamma Mia! is ostensibly about Sophie’s quest to find a father, the film’s men––her husband-to-be included––feel like an afterthought. It’s a film about Sophie’s relationship with Donna, and Donna’s relationship with her best friends, first and foremost. Once they get the plot running, the fathers don’t even really matter; they essentially exist to pad out the film’s running time with some light comedy. It’s an inversion of ABBA’s traditional men-before-women method of doing things; where ABBA’s albums were female fronted-spaces controlled by men, Mamma Mia! is wholly a female space, where men simply exist on the margins. It would probably be an overstep to say the film is attempting to comment on Andersson and Ulvaeus’ relationships with Fältskog and Lyngstad, but certain moments certainly feel like it: When Donna tells one of her former flames that she “thank[s] God that [she doesn’t] have some middle-aged, menopausal man running [her] life”, you can’t help but think of Andersson and Ulvaeus writing bitter, vindictive songs for Fältskog and Lyngstad to sing long after their respective marriages had ended.

Where most of ABBA’s songs robbed women of any agency, Mamma Mia! relishes giving power back to its female characters. “Mamma Mia”, in ABBA’s hands a song about a woman who can’t say no to a selfish ex-lover, is flipped in the film; instead of a character going back to a persistent ex, the song instead becomes about temptation and nostalgia. It’s more about Donna reminiscing on her wild glory years than it is about her giving in to an unstable relationship. The film’s narrative helps smooth out many of the unseemly kinks in songs elsewhere, too. “Gimme, Gimme, Gimme (A Man After Midnight)” is by-and-large one of ABBA’s most dated tracks, a moody disco cut about a woman who needs a man to protect her at night. In Mamma Mia!, the concept is simplified and modernised: As the soundtrack to Sophie’s hen’s night, “Gimme, Gimme, Gimme” becomes a fun, horny chant, an anthem of liberation that’s a far cry from the caveman-level gender politics of the track’s original intention.

The most revolutionary change-up, though, is saved for “Does Your Mother Know”, one of ABBA’s most lecherous songs. The original, one of the few ABBA songs sung by Ulvaeus, borders on heinous in terms of how creepy its lyrics are. Addressed to a much younger girl, “Does Your Mother Know” finds Ulvaeus practically having to pull himself away from the younger girl who he finds “so hot” teasing him. A typically huge ABBA hit, “Does Your Mother Know” isn’t particularly explicit, but considering the power dynamics both in the lyrics of other ABBA songs and in the way the band wrote songs together, there’s something deeply uneasy about “Does Your Mother Know”. Mamma Mia! changes the scene in “Does Your Mother Know” a little: both parties, Christine Baranski’s Tanya and the bartender she’s flirting with, are of a legal age, and instead of Ulvaeus’ macho condescension, Baranski plays the song as a flirt, removing the icky literalism of the song’s lyrics. This scene in Mamma Mia! is one of the smartest re-imaginings of ABBA in the film. It’s the rare portrayal of an older woman as an unconditional object of desire; rather than focussing the scene on one of Sophie’s young friends, the then-56-year-old Baranski is given the same status as the younger women in the film. In the process, it takes ABBA’s exploration of an oftentimes exploitative dynamic––the older man and the underage girl––and turns it into something, fun, lighthearted, and free of hard questions.

The singing and arrangements might not be as airtight as ABBA’s, but Mamma Mia! is, in many ways, essential to the ABBA canon, a revisionist reworking of one of the most important––perhaps the most important––pop band of all time. It’s inevitable that ABBA will, one day, be subject to a critical re-evaluation and, hopefully, valorization. But until then, we have Mamma Mia!: the kitschiest, campiest, most important piece of ABBA commentary ever.

Shaad D'Souza loves Mamma Mia! and is Noisey's Australian editor. Follow him on Twitter.

This article originally appeared on Noisey AU.