All Your Disco Belong To Us

This article first appeared at the Writers At Play blog, November 12, 2008.

Sometimes I feel like the only woman on the planet who isn’t transported to another pink fluffy sexy dimension by Sex in the City. I barely watched the series and I had no interest in the movie. Sure, both projects had their moments (um, the rabbit episode, for one. . . ), but while I applaud a story about sexually liberated women, I just couldn’t relate much to any of the characters.

Mamma Mia, on the other hand, hit me right where it counts: My music collection. Face it, we all have that one group or performer we’re embarrassed to admit we love. For years mine has been ABBA (and, OK, Neil Diamond…). Left, from the movie version of Mammia Mia, Christine Baranski, Meryl Streep and Julie Walters as Donna and the Dynamos. I have quite an eclectic taste in music with groups as diverse as Duran Duran, Godsmack, Ashley MacIsaac, and Filia Brazilia part of my MP3 collection. I liked ABBA before it was cool to like ABBA. As in from 1980-NOW. Mary Elizabeth Williams in her Salon article Knowing me, Knowing ABBA gets it:

The first time I heard the Swedish supergroup, I was a little girl, out shopping with my mom. I had been raised on Top 40, on the Fifth Dimension and the Carpenters. But ABBA stunned me. I didn’t know quite who Fernando was, or what the hell he was doing that “frightful night” he crossed the Rio Grande, but the melody was so intriguing, the girls’ harmony so pretty, I felt like crying right there in the supermarket.

Not everyone gets ABBA, though, and many reviews have panned it as too saccharine or as Stephanie Zacharek says:

Um, OK. Did she even see the same movie as I did? That “you-go-girl joyfulness?” That’s the best part. What’s so bad about a bunch of women having a great time? Is that not entertainment worthy? To quote Williams one more time:

[ABBA’s appeal is] its the potent cocktail of the subliminally spiritual mixed with the flat-out libidinous…Despite the clothes, the awkward choreography, the often nonsensical lyrics, ABBA endure because there’s something spiritual and sexual and just plain sweet in their harmonies, something playfully innocent and disarmingly sophisticated.

Case in point: Right in the middle of all the disco fever, Mamma Mia offers up a moment that both in the movie and the musical caught me unaware, even made me tear up. It’s a moment almost any bride or mother can relate to — and just as important as all those buddy scenes in action movies: The scene where Donna is helping her daughter dress for her wedding and she sings “Slipping Through My Fingers” as she remembers the little girl her grown daughter used to be:

Schoolbag in hand, she leaves home in the early morning
Waving goodbye with an absent-minded smile
I watch her go with a surge of that well-known sadness
And I have to sit down for a while
The feeling that I’m losing her forever
And without really entering her world
I’m glad whenever I can share her laughter
That funny little girl

Maybe it touched me because my daughter just started kindergarten, or that the scene reminded me of that particular moment in my life with my own mother, or that it simply was unexpected in such a feel-good production. That kind of both glitzy and sophisticated message is what ABBA’s music accomplishes best, though. The musical and movie also depict middle-aged women displaying a range of emotions from squealing glee at seeing long-time friends (you should see us Playpals when we meet up—Tawny moans though. I’ve never heard her squeal. . . she might if Johnny Depp showed up) to making bawdy jokes. I think ABBA and the Mamma Mia musical are as often misunderstood as the Romance genre. Just like ABBA, people mistake the happily-ever-after endings and purply prose for fluffiness and totally miss the depth it celebrates. Like Zacharek, some readers just don’t get it. Like Mamma Mia, the Romance genre presents a whole host of female archetypes for reader consumption: the young ingenue on the verge of the rest of her life, the middle-aged mom who still knows how to have fun with her friends, the sexually liberated woman comfortable with going after who she wants, the heart-broken woman who despite the obstacles created a life for herself—and the men who love them. So the next time you’re reading a Romance, turn up the ABBA and giggle at some of the lyrics. Like this one:

Super trouper beams are gonna blind me
But I won’t feel blue
Like I always do cause somewhere in the crowd there’s you

What IS a “Super Trouper,” anyway? And where do those “beams” come from? All your disco belong to us, indeed. What is that one musical group you’re bashful admitting you enjoy? Chime in with yours in the comments and I’ll add it to our playlist.

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