Breathe in deep, and fill your lungs with air.
Look up to the sky, and raise your hands up above your head.
Smile, and wear your flashiest dress or your widest lapels. Twirl around. Strap on those platform shoes. You know you look good.
“Dancing Queen,” the shimmering, bombastic, amazing 1976 disco manifesto is playing on the radio…and at the movies…and in the grocery store…and at the airport. For the last 46 years “Dancing Queen” has been everywhere all the time, and somehow the song is still fresh and refreshing. The song still makes us smile, and it still make us want to dance. Yes. After all this time we still love “Dancing Queen.”
Though sophisticated listeners of poetic auteurs such as Yes, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen or Lucinda Williams may not readily confess their feelings when they hear this slice of pop-disco perfection, they actually love “Dancing Queen” too. We all love it. Universally, this is one perfect song.
“Dancing Queen” was written by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus (1/2 of the Swedish monster vocal group ABBA), along with their manager Stig Anderson, in 1975 as a reflection of the disco craze sweeping America and Europe. It was first performed as part of the Europop song contest television show, and to date, it is still the most popular song in the history of the show with over 4,000,000 copies sold.
ABBA was Benny and Bjorn, and their wives at the time, Agnetha and Frida. The group’s name is a simple anagram of all their first names. Though their marriages would not last long, their music would. All of their songs feature their lush harmonies right smack dab in the center of the mix. Their rhythms were pulled from the New York disco scene, New Orleans gumbo music, and even just the sound of their feet running down the road.
ABBA is the third best selling act in American history with over 11 million singles sold, and one of the top selling artists around the world. As a young teenager, I remember hearing that, collectively, ABBA owned 1/2 of Sweden. Not true (I don’t think), but it was a great rumor! I heard they could not speak a word of English, so all their songs were sung phonetically. Another great rumor, that probably was at least somewhat true. Whatever their secrets were, however they made it happen, they made it happen. And it worked. It worked well.
“Dancing Queen” begins with a beautiful flourish down the piano keys, followed immediately by a bombardment of those gorgeous Nordic harmonies, the lush string section and the chugging beat.
“You can dance, you can jive
Having the time of your life
See that girl, watch that scene
Diggin’ the dancing queen.”
And the first words we hear are not a verse, or even a chorus, but rather maybe the bridge. We are right into the song, and no time is wasted on setting the scene or introducing characters.
The song is a rather simple, albeit dated tale of a 17 year old girl who just wants to dance. The lyrics might be a story she is telling herself, or they might be advice coming from an older sibling or a friend. They are words of encouragement and belief. She can be who she wants to be. She can dance.
“Friday night and the lights are low
Looking out for a place to go
Where they play the right music
Getting in the swing
You come to look for a king.
Anybody could be that guy
Night is young and the music’s high
With a bit of rock music, everything is fine
You’re in the mood for a dance
And when you get the chance.”
This is a wall of sound that would make even Phil Spector jealous. Every corner of the mix is filled. There is sound, and there is atmosphere. There is dense orchestration, and there is ethereal wistfulness. There is space. Space for imagination and hope. Space for us. We are each neck deep in this song.
A song does not need to be a deep reflection of personal turmoil in order to be perfect. It does not need to be a tragic love story, and it does not need to be an ode to the life partner you have yet to find. Sometimes a song can just be fun. Fun to listen to. Fun to be a part of. It can fill your ears with massive sound and it can make you, sometimes against your very best judgement, get up and dance.
There is a slight flourish of strings as we ramp up into the chorus.
“You are the dancing queen
Young and sweet, only seventeen
Feel the beat from the tambourine, oh yeah.”
Most parts of this song have aged relatively well through the years, but not all. The lush orchestration is awash in 1970’s disco ethos. The sentiment of a young girl being happy only when a her “king” is found is reminiscent of a 1930’s Disney princess movie. And sadly, the last verse probably would not make it to anyone’s final edit if it was being written in the year 2022.
“You’re a teaser, you turn ’em on
Leave them burning and then you’re gone
Looking out for another, anyone will do
You’re in the mood for a dance
And when you get the chance”
And still the song is perfect. Whether we were dancing to it at a Bar Mitzvah or prom in the 1970’s, a high school reunion in the 1980’s, a wedding in the 1990’s, or seeing it sung on the big screen in the 2000’s by Meryl Streep and Christine Baranski, the song is about more than its unfortunate lyrics or slightly dated production.
“Dancing Queen” is the very best of music. We hear the song and we smile. We look up at the sky and savor a deep intake of fresh air. Our arms are outstretched and we are in the middle of the dance floor. Sometimes, that’s all we really need.
Written by Benny Andersson, Bjorn Ulvaeus and Stig Anderson
Performed by ABBA
Released August 15, 1976