463. ‘The Winner Takes It All’, by ABBA

In which ABBA return, triumphant, to the top of the charts, with their best song. Shortest post ever…

The Winner Takes It All, by ABBA (their 8th of nine #1s)

2 weeks, from 3rd – 17th August 1980

OK, fine. I should write a bit more. For a song to be ABBA’s best, it has to be a pretty good song. But why is ‘The Winner Takes It All’ so good? I’m no musicologist – if indeed that’s an actual job – and so cannot talk about chord progressions, keys, and melodic shifts (though I’m sure this record is brimming with them). I’m not sure I can look at this record objectively at all. I grew up with this song. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know this song.

It’s a song full of moments. From the opening piano line – confident, stately – which announces that yes, this is ABBA and yes, something great is coming. The moment right at the start of the second verse, when the beat kicks in. The But tell me does she kiss… start to the third verse. The spoken but you see… The fade-out, when the vocals shift to the background and the trademark piano takes over again. It’s long for a pop song, but it’s exactly as long as it needs to be. Everything that’s there – pianos, guitars, strings, synths, backing vocals – is essential. There’s nothing extravagant about it (which isn’t something you can always say about ABBA songs).

A song about love as a game, with lovers holding cards, and the Gods throwing dice. It could come across as a bit silly. A bit flowery. But it doesn’t, because Agnetha sells it. She sells it, and then some, from the opening I don’t wanna talk… line through to the closing The winner takes it all… that she belts out in a manner unlike any ABBA single before. This is pop as a stage show, as opera. It’s melodramatic, and unrepentantly sad. There’s no sign of her moving on, of a brighter tomorrow. She’s having a good old wallow. She may even be enjoying this wallow, in a self-indulgent way. Why should she complain? Yet she still does. She doesn’t want to talk… but then she sings a full-blown song about it.

It’s been well-documented that, by this stage in ABBA’s career, the personal relationships between the members of the band had collapsed. It feels lazy to suggest that that’s what makes this song so powerful. But just imagine: Bjorn writes a song – while drunk apparently – about his recent divorce. Then hands it to his ex-wife to sing! She’s the ‘bad guy’ that she’s singing about! (Although Bjorn has denied that it’s specifically about their own divorce.) Still, that’s not your usual husband-wife, singer-songwriter dynamic. You can really hear the pain in her voice, in the lines before the final, earth-shattering chorus: And I understand, You’ve come to shake my hand…

I know people who don’t like ABBA. They’re a dying breed, thankfully, as the band has long since shaken off the cheesy, gay-bar reputation they had when I was growing up. But they still walk among us, the weirdos. The lady next to you on the bus, the guy that just served you in Starbucks… might not like ABBA. It’s best not to think about it. I can’t understand how you could listen to ‘The Winner Takes It All’ and not like it, not get it, not see it for the five minutes of genius that it is. Anyway. ABBA are back at the top of the charts, after what feels like ages. But, alas, they have just one more #1 to come…


17 thoughts on “463. ‘The Winner Takes It All’, by ABBA

  1. The YouTube music guy Todd in the Shadows was recently discussing about the whole public turn around on ABBA going from being seen as bad music on the levels of Vanilla Ice to people now saying how great they are. He suggested it had to do with either Muriel’s Wedding, the ABBA Gold greatest hits album, or the Mamma Mia musical and movies. Some think it had to do with critics and the public reappraising disco but as Todd mentioned ABBA weren’t disco. I’m wondering what you think caused the public to turn around on ABBA. I do hear some residual backlash but it does seem like that has mostly dissipated especially in an age where the old rockist type of criticism has gone out of style.

    Also, I’d be remissed if I didn’t post this with today’s song where even corporate lawyer brothers are not cool enough to sing ABBA at karaoke

    • Yet another reminder that I need to watch ‘Better Call Saul’ – it’s been on my watchlist for years but I never get round to it..

      As for the ABBA re-appraisal. Popular knowledge has it that, in the UK at least, when Erasure scored a big #1 with their EP of ABBA covers in 1992 everyone sat up and went ‘Oh yeah, ABBA were great, weren’t they?’ Then ‘ABBA Gold’ was released a few months later – I don’t know if it was already planned, or a cash-in on Erasure’s success – and it’s barely been out the charts since. ‘Muriel’s Wedding’ probably helped too, though doesn’t that perpetuate the earlier cliche that ABBA were a hen-night, gay bar kind of act? (I’ve never seen it.) The stage-show definitely cemented the comeback, and the movies are a genuine phenomenon… despite being pretty awful pieces of cinema!

      Here’s a couple of extra theories: the concept of embracing your ‘guilty pleasures’ becoming a pop culture phenomenon in the last 20 years, and the mainstreaming of gay culture too, since the 1990s, have probably helped.

      • I haven’t seen Muriel’s Wedding either so I can’t speak for that. The whole tribute album thing is interesting considering what I also hear that’s why people turned around mostly on the Carpenters when the If I Were A Carpenter album got released in the ’90s. I feel that here in America, it’s mainly been the Mamma Mia franchise that has woken people up to ABBA again. I only saw the second movie and I can say it was fine but didn’t care much for it. The guilty pleasure and gay culture embrace also help too. Considering their lack of big chart success in America during their initial popularity, it’s easy to see that uncool factor hitting us immediately but it probably had to do more with being Swedish and their music not being the kind that would hit easily here as it did in the rest of the world with their European influences. But “The Winner Takes It All” with its straight-up power ballad feel did breakthrough in America becoming their last Top 10 hit in March ’81.

        And definitely watch Better Call Saul!

      • Yes, the European influences also stand out against the British-American pop music formula. They are steeped in German schlager-pop, and sometimes that can sound a bit cheesy to our ears (their brand new single, ‘Just a Notion’ is pure schlager, if you haven’t heard it…)

        I’ve just remembered. Also in 1992, Kurt Kobain asked Bjorn Again – an ABBA tribute act – to open for Nirvana at Reading Festival. I’m only half-joking when I suggest that as the start of their rehabilitation.

  2. I agree with every word. Sheer genius. Bjorns fave abba track, and i think agnethas too. Its classy, thetes no tradional verse chorus as such, it ebbs and flows and moves from one line to the next perfectly as if it belongs and has always belonged that way. Its also heartbreaking to see them split up but continue working together.

    The abba legacy was always up and down – they were derided to start with as they were a) eurovision b) european at a time when european mysic was sniffed at by the critics c) pop. Critics hate pop by and large. The sheer quality by 1976 was making fellow musicians rate them, and the worlwide popularity was hard to knock as some sort of mass pop delusion that the snootier critics tried to pass off. Esoecially in america, less so elsewhere.

    Abba went out of fashion along with queen ELO and other 70s acts because trendy critics always suck up to the new pretty young things in popular music who always diss the previous generation as an attention getter and statement that they are different. Then the next generations of music makers who grew up on Abba or any other start listing them as influences and it all goes full circle. Like Elvis, The Beatles, Queen, Abba are in the top pantheon as increasing popularity with time proves conclusively that they are the greatest pop act of sll time. Its not even in question as they just became the only band to get a UK top 10 hit single nearly 50 years on with new material. Their appeal is pretty much universal age wise, my 93 year old grandma loved them my parenrs generation, my generation, kids generation and grandkids generation all love or like Abba.

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