Tag Archives: popular culture

A Voyage of (Re)Discovery

We have a new Vice-Chancellor at work, and she’s instigated Tuesday Trivia sessions. One of the questions yesterday was “what has been hailed as the biggest musical comeback of all time?”

The answer: ABBA.

A little over a week ago, ABBA released new music for the first time since 1982’s underrated classic, “Under Attack.” That’s 39 years between songs.

For context, it was only 25 years between The Beatles’ “Long and Winding Road” and “Free as a Bird,” remixed from a demo and released a good decade and a half after John Lennon’s tragic death.

The ABBA-tars. Credit: ABBA VOYAGE

I’m a longterm ABBA tragic. My first album was ABBA’s Arrival, released when I was a few months shy of turning 4. At 4 years of age, the “big kids” next door (the eldest was about 13) introduced me to ABBA and would play “concerts” which consisted of them playing the album while making little rag dolls dance to it, holding them above their heads and they hid behind the brick retaining wall that kept our Queenslander home safely above the concreted play area below. It was like a very Queensland version of Punch and Judy. At some point I must have received some cassettes of my own, because one of my earliest memories is of my dad panicking, hitting the brakes and yelling, “where is it? where is it?” when he heard the train whistle at the start of “Nina, Pretty Ballerina” play in the car.

Granted, we were approaching a railway crossing at the time.

That album, Ring Ring, was subsequently banned from the car.

And that wasn’t the only time my ABBAsession caused rifts at home. When I was 8, all I wanted for Christmas was Super Trouper. Post-holiday, when well-meaning adults asked me what I got for Christmas, I would enthusiastically reply, “Super Trouper, and a cassette player to play it on” which evidently annoyed the living daylights out of my mother, who viewed the player as the main gift and rather thought I was burying the lede.

And a cassette player!

Throughout the 80s, ABBA was considered pretty naff. Most people pretended they had been too cool to ever like them. Missing whatever protective social properties most folks have, I continued to openly love them.

Eventually, in the ’90s, the Queer community adopted their dance beats, Muriel’s Wedding came out, the Gold album was released and their rehabilitation was complete, ready for Mamma Mia and Cher to follow in recent years. ABBA was once again influencing popular culture in a significant way.

The worst part of Muriel’s Wedding was that I couldn’t walk down the aisle to “I Do I Do I Do I Do” because it would be seen as derivative.

When our first child was born in late 1998, my husband used to sit up watching cricket with her in his arms. To even the score, I would only play ABBA in the background when sitting up with her for late night feeds. When she was a teenager, Ros and I were considering an academic conference in the Greek Islands. It was just post-the Global Financial Crisis, and the release of Mamma Mia. My daughter got wind of it and asked if she could come. Ros jokingly replied, only if she could join in as we sang and danced our way around the island. I relayed this to Jamie, who huffily replied, “Of course I know all the lyrics to all the ABBA songs! I’m YOUR daughter!”

Later, she would be the one to buy me the Mamma Mia soundtrack. And to drive us all to the movies to see Mamma Mia 2. The latter time, even her nowhere-near-as-interested brother was singing along in the back seat. Evidently ABBA is not cool in his world – and yet he can also recite which bands have played ABBA songs as part of their festival sets.

And, as you can see above, Jamie and I had a Cher/ABBA girls’ night in 2018. True to her word, she knew every word to every track. There are no words for the delight I feel when my kids know and appreciate the music of my youth.

Ros and I didn’t end up going to Greece, but about six years ago we made it to a West End production of Mamma Mia.

My West End experience

I loved every minute of it. Afterwards, I commented to Ros that I didn’t believe ABBA would ever reunite, despite the fact that there were people who would spend any amount of money to go to their concert. Ros replied: “Like you.” I said that as long as I’d covered the mortgage for the month, then yes. Anything beyond that would seem reasonable.

So I was stunned when news emerged in 2016 that the awesome foursome had, in fact, sung together at a party in Stockholm.

The Way Old Friends Do: June, 2016 Credit: ABBA Facebook

It seems that about that time, the seeds were sown for a reunion. Initially rumoured to be a hologram tour because of the quartet’s age and lack of interest in leaving their home for extended periods of time, it became apparent that holograms don’t travel as light as one might think.

And so gradually a plan formed to create “abbatars” through using the real, human, present-day singers, Agnetha Fältskog, Anna-Frid Lyngstad, Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaues, all now in their 70s, to perform two new and an unnamed number of classic hits. These were filmed and then Industrial Light and Magic — yes, the power behind that other great seventies franchise, Star Wars–was brought in to “de-age” them back to their 1979 heyday.

Right before they made the boys shave, presumably. Credit: ABBA VOYAGE

These were used in the clip for the new single. Two songs were initially released, but eventually there was enough material for a new album, due to drop later this year. The B-side song, “Don’t Shut Me Down,” is the phenomenon that prompted the VC’s trivia question. It’s gone to Number 1 in Britain, forty one years after their last number one hit. It’s a great song, about complexities, loss and hope of reconciliation in relationships, a descendant of “Winner Takes It All” and “Knowing Me, Knowing You,” with just a hint of “Gimme Gimme Gimme.” The most suprising thing about this, for me, is that I think the other single, “I Still Have Faith in You,” is more quintessential ABBA: simple piano lines that are then overlaid with guitar, drum and tambourine sections and contrasted into sweeping orchestral moments, reminiscent of “My Love, My Life.” It has the simple sweet harmonies, and then moments when the boys are basically chanting an additional harmony, “Chiquitita”-style.

Alongside the album, plans were developed to create a purpose-built arena in London, for an immersive experience in lieu of a traditional album tour. Producer (and son of Benny) Ludvig Andersson has described the show as  ‘An ABBA space church circus on steroids’!

So: not content with their already impressive impact on popular culture in the late twenty first and early twenty-second century, we have a third resurgence in popular culture. ABBA shapeshifts itself into de-aged, tireless performers who quite literally can’t hit a bum note, with a Las Vegas-style residency that changes the very notion of what an album tour and album publicity are.

The ABBA Arena at London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. Credit: ABBA VOYAGE

And, as Ros predicted, I’m already planning to go.

Calling all Pop Culture Types …

PopCAANZ, the Popular Culture Association of Australia and New Zealand, is holding its annual conference at the Hotel Grand Chancellor in Hobart, Tasmania (June 18-20).This year, the conference coincides with the Dark Mofo exhibition at MONA.

The Call for Papers is out now. I’m particularly keen to hear from people who are interested in presenting on representations of Disability in Popular Culture, but you’ll also find panels on TV, Film, Manga, Toys, Fashion, Food and the Gothic, to name just some of the strands.

It’s just a book! Is studying popular culture a waste of time?

It’s just a book!

It’s just a TV show.

It’s not real.

Aren’t you reading too much into it?

Isn’t studying popular culture a waste of time?

These are questions most of us in popular culture studies (or, indeed, many humanities disciplines) have probably heard before: why study popular culture? Is it a “real job”? Why talk about books when they’re just, well, books?

Trying to explain that our jobs involve researching literature, film and other media can sometimes be … interesting. Previous research on TV, for instance, has been met with thunderous accusations of “drivel”, “waste of money” and suggestions to “get a real job”.

The truth is, sometimes we in popular culture do read “too much” into things. I’ve certainly seen examples where this is the case in other works, where academics have asserted that particular books or TV shows will lead to the downfall of all humanity if not the end of the world itself, and no doubt I’ve even been guilty of reading a bit too much into things before, as well.

But there are two answers to the question of why this stuff matters. The first is that if authors are telling readers “I was trying to explore disability through this character” or “This plot has parallels to being a racial minority”, then they’re already saying that’s how we should be reading this stuff, they’re pointing to the links between fiction and real life.

The second reason why I think popular culture matters is that stories are incredibly powerful tools we all use to shape our own lives. We create “stories” around our lives in unconscious ways all the time. You watch Olympians walking out to the pool deck, ready to compete, headphones on. Why? Maybe they’re trying to cancel out the noise from the crowd, stay focused. Others might be listening to a song, to a story in lyrics, that has inspired their own life, that has motivated them and inspired them to be higher, faster, stronger. The song may not be written about them but they can relate to the story within it.

Or you’re faced with teaching your first class of students, and you’re not sure what to expect, and suddenly all those inspirational teaching-themed movies seem startlingly relevant (if not always accurate, as those of us who don’t inspire slavish devotion and great feats in students can understand).

Freedom Writers Movie Poster

Or those of you doing PhDs can laugh at PhD Comics, or find it amusing to compare doing a PhD with the Lord of the Rings, because comedy or fantasy aside, we can see our real lives and experiences reflected in the stories we read and see and hear about.

Frodo Grabs for the Ring

Stories help us to make sense of our world. They may not be “real”. They might contain elves or spaceships. Werewolves might show up. Maybe the stories are set in the future, or in the past. But it doesn’t mean we can’t relate to anything in them.

So yes, it is just a book. And it is just a TV show or movie. Sometimes there’s really nothing more to it than that. We won’t always find deeper meanings in everything.

Stories aren’t the only things that shape our identity, but this doesn’t mean they have nothing to do with what matters in the real world.

Because sometimes it’s also true that when we look at the stories that are popular in our society, we can start to understand more about that society. After all, what do we know about our world unless we’re prepared to critically examine the stories that draw us together?

Are zombies the new vampires? Werewolves and vampires and zombies, oh my!

So zombies seem to be making a comeback … from the dead. Cue canned laughter. With texts like TV’s The Walking Dead, films such as I Am Legend and 28 Days / 28 Days Later, and zombie takes on classic literature in recent years, the recurring question in various parts of the media seems to be: are zombies the new vampires? Have we moved on from those endless vampires in books and movies to something new(ish)?

According to a report in the Sydney Morning Herald last year on Alan Ball, zombies might just be the new vampires. Ball is quoted as saying ” ‘We have a line in the last episode of True Blood this season where it’s Halloween and they’re all dressed up, and somebody goes, ‘I’m a zombie. Don’t you know zombies are the new vampires?’ I’ve heard zombies, I’ve heard angels. I don’t know. That’s one of the great things about it all, nobody knows. It’s just going to be one person who does something from a place of pure passion and that’s going to catch attention.”

Time was also asking this question several years back, as was The Hollywood Reporter.

Perhaps the oddest zombie infiltrations in recent times have been into classic literature. Ie, Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: The Classic Regency Romance – Now with Ultraviolent Zombie Mayhem! It really wasn’t a truth universally acknowledged that an Austen novel in possession of Darcy and Elizabeth must be in want of zombies, however tempting it is to chalk up Lydia’s brainlessness to zombie influence.

But monsters spawn monsters, so to speak, and post PPZ, we have an enormous array of monster mashups that see zombies, vampires and other monsters join the cast of classic novels:

Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters

 Jane Slayre

Jane Slayre

Android Karenina

Alice in Zombieland

Little Women and Werewolves

and … well, you get the picture.

Rachel Hyland and Kate Nagy have listed and rated 30 examples, which helps to sort out some of the hits from the misses.

But people have been posing this question in numerous ways for years. Are werewolves the new vampires? Are vampires the new zombies? Are angels the new werewolves? Are zombies the new … And so on.

It seems reasonably obvious that we’re just seeing cycles of fashion and trends. Vampires have been the focus lately what with Twilight and The Vampire Diaries, but then for a while it was all fallen angels on the covers of YA literature, witches were also popular, and of course, rather obviously, we here at this blog are interested in the werewolves who seem to be undergoing a renaissance of sorts.

But zombies are a bit different to the other monsters. They’re never going to be as mainstream as vamps or wolves simply because they don’t measure up to the romantic hero stereotype. To put it in more scholarly terms, they’re not hot enough. I don’t know how many girls would sigh over a zombie male lead like they would over an Edward Cullen or Jacob Black. Vampires provoke interest because of the themes of redemption and love; werewolves get attention because of their torment and dual identities; fallen angels draw out ideas about eternity and salvation.

Vampire hero

Werewolf heroes

Zombie hero?!

Zombies kind of don’t do much except, well, eat brains and stagger about like drunks. They’re not exactly the stuff of romance, unlike those current clichés of sparkly-beautiful-vampires or sexy-muscled-werewolves. Their eyes are bloodshot, their mouths are bloody (well, so are vampires), their bodies are damaged, and their brains are gone.

This is not to say we can’t have fun with zombies, as Shaun of the Dead proved.

I’ll let someone else do an in-depth explanation of the zombie phenomenon (stay tuned), but suffice to say that explanations for their popularity usually centre around the idea that they are potent symbols of particular ills in society: capitalism or consumerism (sucking the life out of everything), terrorism, viruses, war, unemployment, and … you name it.

So what is the appeal of zombies? Can zombies mainstream it as heroes after all?  Or, as others argue, should we just forget about any kind of “meaning” and let zombies be zombies?