Seeing a documentary about the making of the Abba musical/film Mamma Mia last week, it occurred to me that there have been three ways of responding critically to Abba since they first crashlanded into Western consciousness in 1974. The history book on the shelf may be always repeating itself, as they so memorably claimed. But the cultural criticism book, on the shelf or off it, has been through distinct phases since they belted out "Waterloo".
Phase one: modernism (bad Abba)
When Abba first appeared the theoretical model for understanding and evaluating rock and pop music derived, be it ever so distantly, from modernism or, more pertinently, from Adorno. "Good" music was identical with sincere and authentic self-expression; it had no truck with commercialism. Introduced into popular music by Bob Dylan in 1965, this value system fetishized the lonely "artist" who lived much as 19th-century Romantic or symbolist poets had seemed to live (on sex and drugs, if not the other one). Great music was thought to emerge from personal vision and suffering; it instantiated truth and commitment. Pink Floyd were the perfect example of this consensus, and Dark Side of the Moon the ideal text. Its antithesis and enemy was standardized, homogenized, worthless musical pap churned out industrially with the sole aim of turning a profit.
Although postmodernism had come into rock in 1972-73 with Bowie and Roxy Music, it had yet to penetrate critical consciousness. Consequently "rock" was good, "pop" was bad. Abba were pop: commercial, profitable, non-expressive, non-visionary, non-lonely, non-suffering. It was the antibody of what music should be. Robert Christgau memorably said that listening to it was like drinking a tea with six sugars in it. It was nauseating; it was a bad thing.
Money money money - that's all it was good for.
Phase two: postmodernism ("good" Abba)
By the 1980s postmodernist conceptions of art had penetrated swathes of rock criticism. A younger generation, reared on Bowie and post-punk, inverted the 70s hierarchy. Pink Floyd were now dinosaurs, pretentious, pompous and vacuous monsters. Rock was regressive, reactionary, sterile; pop - or certain kinds of pop - was what you wanted. To be fair, the good kind of pop wasn't exactly Abba's kind: it was politicized, literate, ironic, social, self-conscious, transgressive (or was supposed to be). But as it was also immediate, fun and memorable, it did fetishize dimensions of popular music that Abba were good at. And if Abba weren't Scritti Politti or Frankie Goes to Hollywood, they were always preferable to Genesis or ELP.
And so smart 80s' hipsters danced to Abba at parties. But they danced ironically - they danced in inverted commas. They didn't straightforwardly love Abba - their musical ideal was closer to the Sex Pistols or the Clash or the Smiths. (Or even 1960s Dylan.) The apotheosis of this knowing appropriation of Abba might have been the references to "Knowing Me, Knowing You" by Alan Partridge or the use of their songs in films such as Muriel's Wedding. Abba were now considered hugely enjoyable, but rubbish nevertheless. Postmodernism's inverted commas and double-coding were made to love them.
Digging the dancing queen - but nobody said "digging" with a straight face.
Phase three: digimodernism (the death of the "good" and "bad")
Now, at the end of the 2000s, Mamma Mia suggests that time has moved on. Things have changed again. Watching it, you search in vain for the irony, and the inverted commas don't seem to hang over proceedings. Abba's music is embraced and celebrated, but not as Adorno-style "art" - nobody's locating sincerity and vision in it. Abba are swept up by a prevailing consumerist blandness that vapidly accepts all musical judgments and all evaluations. If you love Pink Floyd - fine. If you love Dylan or the Smiths or Abba or Scritti Politti - fine. The real evil is thought to be cultural intolerance: what's wrong is to hate artists, or to despise other people's taste. In the marketplace all choices are equal; all banknotes are the same when they are exchanged to purchase music. There is no good or bad, ironic or not; there are only personal choices. And no choice impacts on another - each occupies a different universe. They are all equal, and they are all equally valid. For artists to be condemned generally they pretty much need to break social conventions and taboos surrounding racism or sexism or something. Otherwise there is nothing to say about them, nothing except: I like them, I don't like them.
Now there's only emptiness, nothing to say.
Not for critics, anyway. See Ronan McDonald's The Death of the Critic (2007). Or the redundancy notices received by newspaper arts critics across the US over the past couple of years. Maybe they can all get together in a bar and sing in unison:
I don't wanna talk
About the things we've gone through
Though it's hurting me
Now it's history
I've played all my cards
And that's what you've done too
Nothing more to say
No more ace to play