Sweden Celebrates ABBA at This Year’s Eurovision Song Contest

Kate Brady/The Washington Post
Therese Dahlström, 35, and Sanja Sannstrand, 53 outside the pop-up ABBA World in downtown Malmö.

MALMÖ, Sweden – The Eurovision stars aligned last year as Sweden claimed its seventh victory – a feat shared only with Ireland – bringing the song contest back to ABBA’s home country this year, just in time to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their 1974 win.

In tribute to the band – Benny Andersson, Björn Ulvaeus, Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid “Frida” Lyngstad – Malmö is playing homage as the southern Swedish city hosts the 68th annual competition, which opened Tuesday and concludes with Saturday’s grand finale, for the third time. The celebrations coincide with a particularly fraught Eurovision after weeks of calls from artists and activists to ban Israel from participating over the war in Gaza.

Decked with tinsel and paper pompoms, Malmö’s Folkets Park has been transformed into Eurovision Village. On the “Dancing Queen Stage,” a roller disco pumped out Eurovision classics while a live band across the park got the crowd dancing to covers of ABBA hits. Even after 5o years of ABBA-mania, it seems fans will never tire of Sweden’s biggest musical export.

“I heard ABBA for the first time when I was four,” said Ellen Williamsson, 12, on the lawn of Eurovision Village. “I listen to them with my friends. It just makes me want to dance.”

For her dad, Dan Davidsson, 47, ABBA have “just always been there.”

“I think the ‘Mamma Mia!’ musical helped bring the music to the next generation, too,” he said.

Author and ABBA historian Carl Magnus Palm said Swedes are a lot prouder of ABBA than they used to be.

“In general, they’re kind of national heroes, but also in a sense, taken for granted – like a comfortable old armchair in the corner of your living room. It’s just there. It’s nice that it’s there.”

“I always come back to the sheer quality of the songs,” said Palm. “It’s the same with the Beatles or any legacy acts. The music was well written and expertly recorded. So that’s why it still sounds fresh today.” ”

“They also provide something that’s been missing from most popular music today: Strong melodies. They are like a human need.”

A year before the band’s breakthrough, the foursome, who performed at the time under their first names, tried their luck by entering Sweden’s Eurovision pre-election competition, Melodifestivalen. They finished third, with their 1973 hit “Ring Ring.” Still, in Sweden, both the song and album of the same name were the biggest hits of that year.

A year later, renamed ABBA – an acronym of their first names – the group returned to Melodifestivalen with “Waterloo” and never looked back. The song was a risky choice at a time when Eurovision was still largely dominated by tuxedos and ballgowns.

“This is Sven-Olof Walldoff who’s really entered into the spirit of it all,” said BBC commentator David Vine as the Swedish conductor appeared before the orchestra – standard at Eurovision until 1999 – dressed in full Napoleon garb.

“Watch this one,” Vine said.

Dressed in gem-studded, glam rock-inspired outfits, Fältskog and Lyngstad bounded down the sloping stage in platform boots and burst into song. Over the next three minutes, led by Andersson’s iconic piano opener, the foursome charged through the story of “surrendering” to a lover – an analogy to Napoleon’s surrender at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. The performance, complete with the simple choreography that would become synonymous with their performances and music videos, blew voters away.

“How about that for an onstage performance?” said Vine as ABBA took a bow.

“The song, as a pop song, was very much right for the time,” said Palm, citing the glam rock influence of the early ’70s.

“Waterloo” reached No. 1 on the charts all over Europe – even breaking into the Top 10 on the U.S. Billboard chart. Since then the band has sold nearly 400 million albums worldwide and scored 17 No. 1 hits.

The repeated revival of ABBA’s music over the past five decades – prompted by the release of “ABBA Gold” in 1992 – has contributed hugely to the longevity of the band’s popularity, said Palm.

The wildly popular 1999 jukebox musical “Mamma Mia!” and its two-and-counting film counterparts gave ABBA fandom yet another boost. Over the years, they have achieved pop cultural ubiquity. They turn up, for example, on Madonna’s 2005 hit “Hung Up,” which sampled the 1979 chart-topper Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight). In an unlikely trend last summer, TikTokers jumped onto the ABBA train after a sped-up version of “Angel Eyes,” also from 1979, became a trending audio.

In downtown Malmö, the chance to see the band’s iconic Eurovision outfits and other memorabilia at a pop-up ABBA World had fans, young and old, queuing down the street as “Voulez-Vous” blasted through the open doors.

Waiting in line, Otto Remitz, 16, who usually listens to Swedish DJ Avicii, said ABBA’s music is “just different” from contemporary offerings. “They have great melodies,” he said.

Outside the mini exhibition, friends Therese Dahlström, 35, and Sanja Sannstrand, 53, posed for a selfie in their newly purchased gray ABBA sweaters.

“I always heard ABBA when I was a little girl. It was always on when my mom was cleaning and at family parties,” recalled Dahlström. “It’s the beat that pulls people in.”

“Sometimes it’s happy, sometimes it’s sad. But in the end, it’s just good music,” said Sannstrand.

Over the decades, ABBA have also carved out a steadfast base among LGBTQ+ fans. “We found out quite early that ‘Dancing Queen’ had become an anthem, and we were very proud that we’ve been chosen by the community,” ABBA’s Ulvaeus told Gay Times in 2019.

“As a Swede, long before most others, we had a much more open society and open attitudes. This is, in a way, a liberating anthem and it makes me proud. It’s a wonderful thing, it really is.”

The fact that ABBA never had a reunion before its 2021 album “Voyage” also played a role in maintaining interest in the band, said historian Palm. “That created a kind of mystery around them.” The band’s ninth studio album was the group’s first new material in four decades. Since 2022, a virtual concert of the same name featuring virtual avatars – or “ABBAtars” – has also been transporting fans back in time at a purpose-built arena in London.

The exact date of ABBA’s 1974 Eurovision win – April 6 – was celebrated last month with flash mobs and singalongs. Swedish Television hosted a tribute concert to the band attended by Sweden’s King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia, while self-playing pianos in several European cities simultaneously played a special arrangement of “Waterloo” created by Andersson himself.

To mark the occasion, the band also released a rare statement to thank fans for their “steadfast loyalty and support.”

“It’s slightly dizzying and deeply humbling to think that millions of you who saw us for the first time in the Eurovision final 1974 have passed our music on not only to one generation, but to several,” the band said.

“I think they’re here to stay,” said Palm. “There have been so many opportunities for their music to disappear and it hasn’t. It’s just grown bigger and bigger and bigger. And I can’t see it stopping anytime soon.”