Feb 19, 2014

ABBA: Not Drag Queens

I first heard of ABBA in the spring of my sophomore year in high school in 1976, when "Fernando" hit #13 on the U.S. charts.

It was about a freedom fighter in a South American country and his "friend":

There was something in the air that night
The stars were bright, Fernando
They were shining there for you and me.

The tale of a same-sex love!  Quite different from the "Girl! Girl! Girl!" songs elsewhere on the radio.

"Dancing Queen" followed in the fall of 1976, just as I was figuring out what "gay" means.  I knew that a queen was a drag queen, so I assumed that the "girl" referenced in the song was a gay guy.

"Take a Chance On Me," 1977.  No pronouns.  The person waiting "first in line" to fall in love could be male or female.

Who was this group?  Abba meant father in Hebrew.  Were they Israeli?

 In the fall of of 1978, when I was just starting grad school at Indiana University, my friend Joseph, the secretary of the gay student group (and the first "out" gay person I ever met),  told me, "They're Swedish.  Four drag queens."

"No way!" I exclaimed.  "They'd never let drag queens' songs on the radio."

"They pretend to be straight, but you can tell. Like the Village People."

Sure enough, in 1979 "Gimme, Gimme, Gimme (A Man After Midnight)" was about a gay guy who wants a man "to chase the shadows away."

It must have been too obvious, raising the ire of homophobic censors.  ABBA disappeared from the radio, and I moved on to the gay subtext songs of the 1980s, like "Physical" (Olivia Newton-John, 1981), "I'm Coming Out" (Diana Ross, 1981), and "It's Raining Men" (The Weather Girls, 1982).

But there was always a soft spot in my heart for ABBA, the first gay group I ever heard of.

Fast forward 13 years.  In 1992, I happened to walk through the room where my partner Lee was watching MTV, and saw four drag queens performing "Take a Chance on Me."

So that's what ABBA looks like, I thought, mildly interested.  But not interested enough to stick around.

In 1994, the drag queens in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert perform a medley of ABBA hits.  Figures.

Fast forward 16 years.  In 2008, along with the buzz from the musical Mamma Mia, the music of ABBA became popular again.  And the group was interviewed.

Two heterosexual couples, married at the time!  According to the interview, "very heterosexual," and "shocked" to discover that they had become gay icons.  They thought they were describing an exclusively heterosexual world.

"Fernando" is about a guy who lost his girlfriend.
"Dancing Queen": who knew that "queen" meant "gay"?  It's about a woman.
"Take a Chance on Me": heterosexuals only need apply.
"Gimme, Gimme, Gimme": it's a woman who wants a man after midnight.

And the drag queens I saw on MTV in 1992?  Erasure doing a homage.

I'm crushed.  Next you'll be telling me that Shaun Cassidy was straight.