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Jeff Tweedy: I Thought I Hated Pop Music: "Dancing Queen" Changed My Mind

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Also schnapps help. Believe!



It’s important to admit when you’re wrong. And though I once bristled at the notion that there could ever be such a thing as a “wrong” musical opinion, I have since come to accept that there is, in fact, such a thing. I know because I had one: I was colossally wrong about the song “Dancing Queen” by Abba.

I’m happy I can admit it, maybe even a touch proud of myself for not digging in my heels and hating this song for a moment longer than I had to (unlike some of my friends who are still holding out). To me, looking back, the weirdest part is that I was ever able to hate something so clearly irresistible.

In a way, I blame the era in which I grew up. The mid-1970s, when “Dancing Queen” came out, was a time when there were strict lines being drawn between cultural camps.

As a kid who liked punk rock, this tune was situated deep in enemy territory, at the intersection of pop and disco. And as such, it never really had a chance with me. Or me with it.

I am, perhaps, a bit skeptical by nature, but scanning the horizons of my memory — seeing what I saw around me from about the mid-70s to the late ’80s — I’d say there was something else going on, too. I was a kid, and at that particular nanosecond of geological time, kids hated stuff.

In particular, my group of friends and I despised a lot of music, and by extension, the morons who would dare admit that they liked something we hated. Music. Can you believe it? It seems hard to imagine now that a group of tweens could be capable of conjuring vein-bulging fury at the mere mention of the band Styx. But we were. And we did.  
Why did we feel this way? Mostly, I think, because hating certain music gave us a way of defining ourselves. Our identities were indistinct, and drawing a line in the sand between what we liked and what we hated made our young hearts feel whole. Liking punk rock made us unique. (I won’t even get into the subgenres, schisms and sects that created their own punk micro-tribes.) By the same token, not liking punk rock gave purpose to kids who wore Foreigner T-shirts and carried giant combs in their back pockets.

The divisions we created were, in hindsight, embarrassing. I have sometimes even wondered if these youthful skirmishes over musical taste weren’t a kind of childhood version of the current situation our country now finds itself in. Were people of my generation so good at dividing ourselves into factions based on stupid, insignificant differences that we simply never stopped doing it? Someone smarter than me has probably mapped the parallels between Journey fans and X fans and the current binary of political right and left. Or if no one has, someone should.

I’d like to think that I have a more mature perspective now. I’ve worked hard to open my mind and keep it open, but at the time that “Dancing Queen” came out, I was still young, and the song ended up getting a double whammy of my scorn — the first hit being the initial “disco panic,” and the second being the more evolved and curated hatred that guarded the borders of my sense of self from anything that didn’t clear the low, low bar of punk music.

At the time that “Dancing Queen” came out, it was easy to hate a disco song — disco was despised by practically everyone I knew (with the exception of the kids who liked to roller skate). And though I didn’t quite understand why, everyone in my immediate orbit — especially the men — treated disco, and the culture around it, as something legitimately wrong. It wasn’t just corny, it was a world-destroying force that we must all unite against. And, of course, most of this had to do with the specter of a single adjective, one I’d never heard applied to music before: disco was “gay.”

At the time, I didn’t even know what the word meant. In my young mind, it just meant “bad.” It was years before I understood that part of the hatred and derision directed at disco then was rooted in homophobia.

All of this was hard to parse as a child. Add to this the fact that, musically, disco was a technology-embracing reinterpretation of Black American musical forms that, as a movement, seemed to be utterly ignoring the traditional American racial divide, which made some people very uncomfortable, and, well, it was just too much ignorance for even the most confident and sensitive child (which I was not) to sort through and reject.

And so, because of all of the societal forces at play, and because of my own weakness, I never allowed myself to like it. Even as I got older — and even after disco’s subsequent failure to destroy “our” “way of life” — Abba’s exhilarating pop perfection languished in a roped-off part of my brain.

I can recall the exact moment I finally saw the light. I was grocery shopping one day when I heard a familiar melody, and it was as if I was hearing it for the first time. I stopped and listened, reeling with how exuberantly sad it was. “Having the time of your life!”

Standing in the aisle, staring up into the overhead speaker (not even stoned!), I had my version of a come-to-Jesus moment. A come-to-Agnetha, Björn, Benny and Anni-Frid moment.

Over time, several other artists that had previously been exiled were also later re-evaluated and accepted — Neil Young comes to mind. Believe it or not, my friends and I once rejected his entire catalog as hippie drivel. But Mr. Young picked the lock on the cage we’d put him in with the single most irresistible force in our young male minds: an electric guitar played at an irresponsible volume.

And to this day, whenever I think I dislike a piece of music, I think about “Dancing Queen” and am humbled.

That song taught me that I can’t ever completely trust my negative reactions. I was burned so badly by this one song being withheld from my heart for so long. Now, I try to never listen to music without first examining my own mind, and politely asking whatever blind spots I’m afflicted with to move aside long enough for my gut to be the judge. And even then, if I don’t like something, I make a mental note to try it again in 10 years.

Melodies as pure and evocative as the one in “Dancing Queen” don’t come along every day, and I mourn every single moment I missed loving this song. Playing it again as I write this, making up for lost spins, I feel overcome with gratitude for its existence.

It feels really good to stop hating something. And music is a good place to start. Because while records don’t change over time, we can, and do. Better late than never.


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