No, this is not the real Agnetha – at least not quite.Image: ABBA Voyage/instagram
When ABBA made their last joint appearance in 1982, many of their fans weren’t even born yet. They were the first band whose music I consciously heard and liked – it’s my mother’s fault. During so many car rides she would play “ABBA Gold” on cassette tape and somehow these songs touched me, although of course I didn’t understand a word of what Agnetha Fältskog and Frida Lyngstad were singing. I was three or four years old and a universe opened up to me with Benny Andersson’s piano comeback at the end of Chiquitita.
When I was in elementary school, it was common practice to write each other’s poetry albums, often with a bit of personal information. In my first entry for a friend, I named ABBA as my favorite band (not just because it was easy to write! ) and got wry looks for it, because the group was just out at the beginning of the 90s. But what can I say: Almost 30 years later I could still fill it out without it being a lie.
However, ABBA always remained a band of longing for me because I never had the opportunity to see them live. “ABBA Voyage” in London now promises to remedy the situation, so to speak. And this despite the fact that the band members are not on stage in person, but are represented by digital avatars. I attended the first public screening on May 27th and can only say: The overall experience is ambivalent and yet somehow fulfilling.
How ABBA want to reconcile the younger fans
In the ABBA Arena in east London (the hall was built especially for the event), the band members now meet their fans as a technical projection: the special effects company Industrial Light and Magic, founded by George Lucas (“Star Wars”), makes it possible. For five weeks, seven hours a day, the facial expressions and movements of the aged Swedes were scanned using motion capture and compared with archive recordings.
The ABBA Arena just before the big rush.Image: private
The quartet now appears in a rejuvenated form and takes the audience back to the 70s when they celebrated their greatest successes. The four no longer want to do a “real” tour with reference to their advanced age, especially from Agnetha it has always been known that she prefers to sing songs in the studio than to perform on stage in front of thousands. So it stays with the farewell album “Voyage”, which was released on November 5, 2021 (and thus also on my 36th birthday) – and this strange event in London.
Speaking of Agnetha: The “ABBA Voyage” vocals by her and Frida are “from back then”, so they come from the tape, but are supported by a ten-piece live band, which puts a lot of pressure behind the songs. The result is surprisingly homogeneous and can be admired until May 28, 2023: until then, up to two shows a day with the “ABBAtars” will be shown in the ABBA Arena, which can accommodate 3,000 people.
“ABBA Voyage”: Money making or technical revolution?
Shortly after the announcement of “ABBA Voyage”, the mockery on the Internet was not long in coming: ABBA want to cash in big again without doing much for it themselves, was the tenor of numerous comments on social media. The accusation cannot be completely invalidated, and yet this show is more than a coldly calculated career appendage. At least technically it sets standards and could inspire other big bands to take this approach.
At the beginning the avatars sprout like flowers from the ground, the richness of detail is amazing for a digital reenactment. If you are willing to get involved, you can almost believe that you have the real band members in front of you.
The only thing that robs the illusion is the fact that Björn, Agnetha, Benny and Frida don’t go forwards or backwards, i.e. always stay on the same level. Soon, however, they will be supported on the right and left by other “doubles” on huge screens, certainly also so that the audience further back in the hall gets more out of the show.
That zoom effect on the sides then reveals minimal flaws. In particular, the faces of the two ABBA singers could be a bit livelier, sometimes they stare into space, for example, which is even a bit creepy. But that’s complaining on a very high level.
“ABBA Voyage” inspires with a varied production
What you have to give the spectacle credit for: It offers a lot of variety. “Knowing Me, Knowing You” uses split screens that miraculously recreate the feeling of melancholy and the inevitability of pain that also conveys the official music video: it is one of several ABBA songs about the failure of a couple relationship and is also viewed retrospectively in the light of the separation of the former couples Agnetha/Björn and Frida/Benny.
In the row behind me, strangers are hugging each other, tears are flowing. Corona doesn’t matter and the fact that ABBA aren’t actually there is apparently the same.
In the course of the evening there will also be a cartoon without the “ABBAtare” and the digital representatives will also have a break from broadcasting “Why Did It Have to Be Me”. At this point, the band performs alone and also takes over the singing, while otherwise, at least in the literal sense, they remain in the shadow of the projections.
The avatars, in turn, change outfits several times and each band member briefly addresses the fans in their new, old form. When Björn remembers before “Waterloo” that there were zero points from Great Britain for ABBA at the 1974 Grand Prix, there are boos. The effects studio put a lot of effort into the scenery and lighting effects: Once, laser beams shoot in the direction of the audience, another time, people sing in front of the northern lights.
With “I Still Have Faith in You” and “Don’t Shut Me Down” two new tracks have made it onto the show, which are also performed by the younger versions of the stars. Wouldn’t it have made more sense here to show projections of the older musicians? Possibly yes, but that doesn’t detract from the light spectacle between the past and the present.
For the return of ABBA, it was only fitting that they were dressed by legendary designers. Enter, Dolce & Gabbana. Alongside several designers, the legendary fashion designers were invited especially by ABBA to create these beautiful brand-new costumes for the concert. pic.twitter.com/uJgPdaEZGq
— ABBA Voyage (@ABBAVoyage) May 3, 2022
In general, the song choices couldn’t be more conventional as opposed to the visual gimmicks. One hit follows the next, experiments with songs that are less well-known but highly appreciated by fans are practically non-existent.
Personally, I would have traded “Waterloo” for “The Day Before You Came” at any time, but the thought behind the set list makes sense to me: “ABBA Voyage” isn’t just made for hardcore fans; on the contrary, it’s primarily intended to attract a large number of viewers over the next few months. The numerous ideas must be filled.
Cheers for the “ABBAtare”: That feels strange
It is not self-evident how intensively the audience interacts with the “ABBAtars” – for me, cheering for digital copies of people felt a little strange until the very end. Of course, one can argue that the applause is also for the band on site, but let’s be honest, it’s far from just that. The attraction is the “ABBAtare”.
Ultimately, however, “ABBA Voyage” is about something else: getting together with other fans and celebrating the music together in a way that hasn’t been possible in this form for 40 years. With all the technical achievements that the show impressively displays, this is a perfectly mundane need that the performance also does justice to, if only incidentally.
Would I prefer a real concert to this event? Of course, anytime! This question is another matter and will hopefully continue to be answered in the affirmative by most. On the other hand, fans won’t get any closer to a real ABBA concert than with “ABBA Voyage”. One is left with complex feelings.
One thing is certain: “ABBA Voyage” is both part and testimony of the band’s legacy. When the singing of the fans almost drowns out what I felt from the tape at some moments and young women in 70s outfits standing next to me, who mathematically could be my daughters, this is the ultimate proof that ABBA is not lost, but the music is passed on through generations. What else is there to say other than: Thank you for the music.
The fact that Bibi and Julian are no longer a couple caused a tremor among their fans. The two have millions of followers who have taken them with them through their everyday lives over the course of their relationship – be it on vacation or building a house. Julian Claßen announced the love off like this: “I’ll make it short and painless: Yes, it’s true, Bibi and I broke up. Bibi broke up.” He wanted to put an end to the speculation. He emphasized that the children would always come first.
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