Guilty Pleasures, Round One: ABBA (2) vs. Hootie & the Blowfish (15)
EW’s Music Mix is searching for the Greatest Guilty Pleasure Musical Act of All Time. With 32 seeded contestants (see all the matchups), this tournament is sure to change hearts, minds, and lives for weeks to come. Read/listen to the following, and then cast your vote in the poll after the jump; reader comments will be used in subsequent rounds, so we encourage you to also post a comment explaining why you chose the way you did. Note: In case of a tie, please select the artist you feel more ashamed to adore. Thank you.
Just try. Just try to listen to “Dancing Queen,” or “Take a Chance on Me,” or “Mamma Mia,” or “Lay All Your Love on Me,” or “Waterloo,” or “S.O.S.,” or “Super Trooper,” or “Does Your Mother Know,” or “Knowing Me, Knowing You,” or — where was I? Oh, right, just try to listen to those and many other flawless jewels of Swedish-inflected pop by this anagrammatic quartet and not at the absolute least start tapping your toes. Go ahead. Try. I know at least two or three of those songs are already racing through your head right now, just at the mere mention of their names. Maybe there’s a driving acoustic guitar underneath the plea, “So when you’re near me darling / can’t you hear me / S.O.S.!” Or perhaps there are cries of “Mamma mia! / Here I go again!” sung over a plinking xylophone. At minimum, I know you’re hearing cascading piano chords over the melodic command to “See that girl! / Watch that scene! / Diggin’ the dancing queen!” (Exclamation points and ABBA are pretty much inseparable.)
Simply put, these songs are what pop music is supposed to be: So consummately composed by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, so purely sung by Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad, that when listening to them for the very first time, you’re kinda convinced you’ve actually known them pretty much your whole life. So why on earth is the pleasure ABBA brings a guilty one? Well, first, there’s the inescapable truth that ABBA has never been and will never be cool. Plus, you’ve got those names: Andersson, Ulvaeus, Lyngstad, Fältskog. I mean, Fältskog — that sounds like a flatulent troll from a J.R.R. Tolkien story, not a sunny Swedish blonde woman who’s sung some exquisite pop harmonies. Then there’s the ABBA-jukebox-musical-cum-global-phenomenon known as Mamma Mia!, which is currently performing in Australia, Thailand, Switzerland, Holland, Mexico, England, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, Spain, Taiwan, in London’s West End, and on Broadway — it’s sorta difficult to feel good about your personal connection to a pop song when you realize some one billion other people are grooving to it too. As for the blockbuster movie version of Mamma Mia!, well, it certainly solidified Meryl Streep as a bone fide box office champion, but after you watch James Bond bleat like a wounded goat through “S.O.S.,” you kinda can’t hear that song any other way.
Set all that extraneous flotsam aside, however, and you still have those pitch-perfect songs, songs that can fire the pure pleasure centers of the brain no matter how encrusted your cerebral cortex has become with cynicism. How could we ever refuse? We feel like we win when we lose. We couldn’t escape if we wanted to. Whoa-ee-whoa-ee-whoa-ee-whoa! — Adam B. Vary
Back in the ’90s, I was a songleader at a Christian summer camp, the kind of place where singing the Indigo Girls’ “Closer to Fine” could score you a lecture because, in fact, there’s not more than one answer to these questions pointing us in a crooked line, and dammit, stop teaching the kids about taoism. Etc. So every night, I’d stand up there on stage with my guitar and watch the whole camp file into the gym, and noodle around to amuse myself before the evening service began, being careful not to play any riff that might get me yelled at. “Sweet Home Alabama” was always a big hit, as was U2’s “Desire,” even though you’d think that one would be a no-no. But if I really wanted to get the crowd jumpin’ (as it were), I had to play but two chords: B (chuka) E. B (chuka) E. And the children of the summer camp would open their mouths and sing to the heavens: “With a little love… and some tenderness…”
Ready for the most boring origin myth of all time? Hootie & the Blowfish were some bar band from South Carolina (good thing I looked that up; I would have said North) whose lead singer looked like an owl or something (I forget the story of where the name came from; Darius Rucker doesn’t look much like an owl) who kept plugging away on the college circuit night after night after night (I think) with their completely average-sounding acousti-rawk until they finally scored a record deal and then sold 16 million copies of their average-sounding debut album because there was absolutely nothing interesting about them whatsoever. Seriously. I am having a hard time staying awake long enough to write this entry. And I went back and listened to Cracked Rear View today and had no recollection of any song that wasn’t a single. Zzzzzzz.
Except… you know their lead singer, the one who doesn’t look much like an owl? He has this voice. It’s not exactly a drawl, nor is it a braying sound. It comes simultaneously from his nose and the back of his throat, and it is extraordinarily fun to mock. It is also immediately identifiable, and sounds great on the radio — note his current platinum-selling success in Nashville — which means that Darius Rucker (please: not “Hootie”) has something 99.9 percent of the people in the music business lack, and that’s a gimmick that never gets old. If you like the sound of Darius Rucker’s voice, you will always like the sound of Darius Rucker’s voice, and even though his old band is now a punchline for our staggeringly mediocre national taste, you will gravitate towards it, like a frat boy to a pony keg. (Or a frat boy to the sound of Rucker’s voice, for that matter.) If you don’t like the sound of Daris Rucker’s voice — well, the mid-’90s really sucked for you, didn’t they? — WP
Photo Credit: ABBA: Rex Features/Everett Collection