It's one of the only four-letter words that will automatically elicit a smile from kids and adults alike: ABBA. Although the Swedish four-piece band has neither released a new record in more than two decades nor performed live in 25 years, its global fan base has steadily grown. Its songs have been turned into a hit musical,
"Mamma Mia," which has been enjoyed by more than 20 million people and raked in more than $1.6 billion across the globe since it opened in London in 1999. This year there's more to come: a film version produced by Tom Hanks. And for more serious-minded ABBA fans, a Stockholm museum dedicated to the band is in the works. NEWSWEEK's Ginanne Brownell spoke to Bjorn Ulvaeus, one of ABBA's founding fathers, about the band's enduring legacy and the music industry. Shealso peppered him with a few political questions, given that he's now an active member of the Swedish Humanist Association. Excerpts:
ULVAEUS: In truth, I don't know. I ask myself that question very often. The only thing I can come up with is that when you hear those records on the radio, they still sound fresh. We put immense work into the production and the songwriting. That has to be one ingredient. I always think it is up to journalists to analyze and say it's because of this and that and this. I have never got any analysis from anyone that has been totally satisfying.
It is a huge difference, and who knows? A couple of years ago, pop came back with a vengeance. In the 1980s when we quit, ABBA was not cool because we were too pop. But then with the arrival of boy bands, [singers like] Britney Spears, pop came back. So I think, music-wise, we would not be out of place at all.
That is where I draw the line, to be involved in my own museum. [Laughs] That is a bit too much. These people are serious about it and it could be a nice tourist attraction in Stockholm and we gave them our blessing, but that is as much as we are involved.
In the 1970s I thought it was stupid. Sometimes, from a musical point of view, I think it takes away from the experience. But on the other hand these people, like Bono and Bob Geldof, are driven by something, and you have to understand their reason for doing it is not about power but actually wanting to change something. If we had been active as a group, I suppose we would have been there with Live Aid as well.
I saw the danger of religioncoming back into politics again when we had gotten rid of it in Europe. And I wanted to work for something that is an alternative. Because I do not think that religion and politics go together. When you see political decisions colored by religion, decisions that affect us all ... I thought, "I do not want to go back to medieval times."
[These issues are] not discussed and analyzed enough. Some people--the liberal left--have a bad conscience and say, "We cannot discuss this, and we have to tolerate and respect it no matter [what]." And [sometimes] you are in absolute awe that people react to those cartoons like they do. I think it should be discussed in a rational way. In our countries we have freedom of speech. And even though it [may feel] terrible for these people, they have to understand our point of view as well.
I think there should be far more discussion. It should start here in Europe with all the Muslims who live in Europe, of whom so many are well educated, and there is no reason why there should not be a rational discussion about it. But I think it seems to be very difficult to take that up. We are standing so far from each other. [When it comes to] religion, if you want to believe, you should be free to believe. But it does not have to do with politics.
It is really exciting. We will start to record the necessary backing track in February, and the first shooting will be in June in London.
ABBA has been on too long of a break. I think it would be kind of pathetic. I just do not think we have found that musical motivation to come back together, so that is why it has not happened. People remember us as we were back then. They would see people who are much older, not as energetic, not in platform boots. [Laughs] I just fear they would be disappointed.