When you stop for a dance break to give your brain a rest, you could do a lot worse than putting on a bit of ABBA. Soon enough the cobwebs are gone, but you might find it hard to return to work especially if like me you have ABBA's Dancing Queen in your playlist, I think this song just might be the best pop song ever recorded

I’ve been rearranging my front room to take advantage of the late summer evenings and the light that floods my living space from early morning to mid evening and like most people I’ve got music playing while I’m doing it. The playlist is a good one, it’s my Spotify Wrapped from 2019 and number 27 in that year’s most played is ABBA’s number one hit Dancing Queen. I stopped what I was doing to have a little dance break, and I’ve had it on repeat now for the past hour.

ABBA in 1974 (from left): Benny Andersson, Anni-Frid Lyngstad (Frida), Agnetha Fältskog, and Björn Ulvaeus

ABBA in 1974 (from left): Benny Andersson, Anni-Frid Lyngstad (Frida), Agnetha Fältskog, and Björn Ulvaeus

One story in the history of the song goes that when Benny played the backing track to Frida, she cried. Lyngstad said

“I found the song so beautiful. It’s one of those songs that goes straight to your heart”.1

Fältskog later said

“It’s often difficult to know what will be a hit. The exception was ‘Dancing Queen.’ We all knew it was going to be massive.”2

So they knew in their hearts that it would be a hit song, but I wonder if they ever thought nearly 50 years after the demo recordings were made, it would be part of heated debates as to whether it is the best pop song ever made.

In a 2023 poll by Billboard3 it reached the number 2 spot, only beaten by Whitney Houston’s I Wanna Dance With Somebody, another banging tune. In a straw poll I did, Whitney’s hit song beat ABBA’s to the number one spot, just.

Which is the better song

Which is the better song

In my poll, I asked which was better, Dancing Queen romped ahead in the poll (Old people traditionally vote early in the day) but I Wanna Dance With Somebody came back strong and surpassed its rival

“It connects for me on a deeper level” Kai (about I Wanna Dance)

Another person said

“Both excellent Nostalgia and feel good feelings, and brilliant songs for karaoke” Rho (about Dancing Queen)

One of my other pollees quoted an irrational hatred for ABBA 🤷 and yet another blamed them for this year’s less than stellar Eurovision Contest 🤦

I had great fun with the poll, we had slightly more women than men take part, and the age range I chose to segment by the decade they were born. I think there was a definite correlation between those born during the 60s and early 70s opting for Dancing Queen and those from later decades voting for I Wanna Dance With Somebody.

It’s my blog and I’ll cry if I want to

I don’t really care what anyone else thinks, the final tally has Whitney’s hit top the Poll, and while I can’t fault the sample for choosing it, I still believe ABBA’s hit song is the best of the two/

Released as the lead single from their fourth studio album, Arrival (1976), the song reached Number 1 in the charts in countries across the world including the huge music market in the USA. Still, it’s not had a smooth ride all its life. As the blush of its original success wore off, in the sunset years when disco music was as cheesy by many, it was mainly played at weddings and it was decidedly ‘uncool’. I was a little kid when it was released during the long hot summer of ‘76. I was reintroduced to it via the movie Muriel’s Wedding (1994), but even then, it didn’t reach cult status until I started hearing it being played in the soul and reggae clubs such as Night Moves, or Shenola’s.

Those who used to frequent those clubs will remember that they were places where when the DJ was on their A-Game, they could get the crowd singing and dancing to any song. The DJs’ talent meant they built the vibe from cold to hot in waves, you mixed soul, soca and reggae; Up-tempo into Slow RnB Jams, Dancehall into Rare Grooves, and then you dropped pop hits like Wham’s Wake Me Up Before You GoGo, or ABBA’s Dancing Queen, even Kings of Leon Sex on Fire. If the DJ did their job right, the mix was smooth and the crowd never stopped dancing.

Remember, this is a hardcore soul or reggae crowd of mainly 1st generation black kids who were used to the shoobins and blues parties that their Caribbean parents, aunties and uncles threw week in and week out. We were brought up on melodies, harmonies, drums and a deep baseline. As music producer Che said about his reasons for choosing Dancing Queen

“…[it’s the] Musicality, string arrangement, rhythm, nostalgia”.

It’s that last one, nostalgia, that the poll suggests as the reason why I Wanna Dance won, but more on that in a minute.

Do the lyrics matter, or is it all about the music

So, I’m no musical genius, but I like what I like, and what I do like is melodies and harmonies. It’s why Heavy Metal and whatever other sub-genres exist within and surrounding it, doesn’t appeal to me. It’s too thrashy, seemingly with little consideration given to the lyrical and harmonious blending of voices. There are few melodies, and fuck all harmonies, to me, it’s just noise. Being as I said, a child of the Caribbean, we love a 4-4 (or four on the floor4) beat. Do you know how versatile that is for dancing? You can rock slow jams fast or slow, you can rock uptempo by laying back on the beat and moving slower than the jam would at first demand, if you have been dancing all night, there comes a time when you need to catch your breath, escape from the unwanted advances of the person you just danced with, or go to the bar to top up on liquor.

Back before my time, DJs would play record after record, but with gaps. With the advent of mixers, DJs could demonstrate their skills by mixing and blending music from different genres by matching beats from one song to the next, using the Mic to camouflage the gaps if necessary, but the main goal was to keep us revellers rocking. Even if you were moving through those crowded spaces, you moved to the flow of the music. Back in those days, you’d have to navigate your way past lit cigarettes and be careful not to tread on people’s toes or knock and spill their expensive drinks. All this was done to the beats of the music that was playing, you never really stopped dancing, movement even functional was done to the beat of the tunes.

Part of the joy was also belting out the lyrics. So songs like Dancing Queen were perfect to get the crowd to perform like a choir. It’s also a song, if you want to dig down into it, that is all about the freedom of dancing with confidence and abandon seldom seen in 17-year-olds. I would argue that it’s later in life that women become more confident about themselves and their place in the world. The girl in the story goes looking for ‘a king’, but there’s no tethering going on. You get the feel that she’s not looking for an attachment, merely a transient partner to twirl her around the dancefloor, and then she’s off looking for another.

Leave ’em burning and then you’re gone, Looking out for another, anyone will do

That doesn’t sound like no 17-year-old, then or now

Building the Vibe

In creating the song, Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus built a track that starts with a piano run, and explodes into a plethora of instrumentation as well as background vocals, reminiscent of Phil Spectres ‘wall of sound’. The lyrics are simple, yet evocative, you can almost imagine being that girl. If you read articles that talk about the song, many speak about it being very melancholic, being a sad refrain about lost youth, but I disagree, although again, I’m being completely subjective (I refer you to my earlier statement about crying if I want to (tell me you get the reference)). I don’t feel like I’ve lost my youth, and there’s little yearning to relive that time, it’s with me every day. I hear this song start up and it’s like a time machine, not to my 7-year-old self, or even my 17-year-old one but my 25-year-old persona, having the absolute fucking time of my life.

I danced with a freedom that knew no restrictions, there was shit going on, and there were troubles in the world, but where there was music, there was life, and you didn’t have to be bothered about anything that was outside of that. We partied all week long and still went to work every morning. Nobody was worried about the cost of living crisis, you just found a way to bandoulo the clothes, cab fares, and money for drinks that you needed to rave.

It’s Pure Escapism

The London raving scene if you like the type of music we liked centered mostly around East London clubs. Places like Oasis, Trends and All Nations as well as the aforementioned Night Moves meant your Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights were all sown up. You’d shop during the day for new outfits and get your hair done ready to party all night long. I think I’ve already said this, but it bears repeating, Life, was all about raving. Those halcyon years are what hearing Dancing Queen brings back into focus. It’s an escape from the sometimes crippling anxieties that life 20 years later has become. It’s a break from the normal of living in a world where babies can be beheaded and yet our Government stands idly by selling arms to aggressors, a time where opposition leaders stay silent instead of condemning the outrageous, inhumane circumstances of the genocide currently being inflicted on the Palestinian people.

Dancing Queen gives you three minutes and 50 seconds of pure escapism, It reminds me that you can still be carefree. It takes you to a place where you can twirl around the dancefloor or your living room amongst the debris and detritus of accumulated clutter that you’re attempting to rid yourself of so your space can return to the tranquil calm that existed in the early years. It allows you to throw your head back, raise your hands in the air, like you really don’t care, and remember better times, not in the same way as curmudgeonly old Brexiters remember, condemning everything and everyone who’s not like them, but with a smile on your face remembering that not everything in life has to be a bore or a chore.

I was out at a 60th birthday party last week and the DJ played both these songs. I can tell you I Wanna Dance got a lot of people dancing, but when Dancing Queen came on, the dance floor was full and everybody was singing. I guess we all remember when we transitioned from being mere dancing girls to Dancing Queens.

There is no doubt in my mind that Dancing Queen IS the best pop song ever recorded, it’s a timeless classic that my neighbours will get tired of hearing belting out from my open windows, and I will forever twirl around my front room dance floor to it even when I’m old and completely grey.

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Cover image Anders Hanser, CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons