Dancing Queen – masterpiece of musical craftsmanship, and a boy’s fantasy
Why not listen to Dancing Queen again? A masterpiece of pop, by one of the most prolific and successful songwriting partnerships the world has ever seen: Benny Andersson and Bjoern Ulvaeus from ABBA. Get your headphones out.
So what is Dancing Queen about? It’s about getting nerdy boys onto the dance floor. How does it do that?
Firstly, very clever, suggestive lyrics, secondly an onslaught of never-ending, interlocking melody madness. Well, and yes, there’s some other bits going on as well. But let’s listen together first and then I’ll tell you more.
0:00 Straight in! Instantly recognisable piano [zoom], then into the intro with that instantly recognisable synth tune. Not any old boring intro, no! The intro is pretty much the chorus without the singing, so if you’re in the know it’ll make you anticipate the chorus. Also, obviously: no lyrics, no thinking necessary, and indeed I’ve been told by my elders that those precious first few intro seconds were used to chat up someone and to actually get on the dance floor.
0:16 Then the girls start singing, “ooh, you can dance, you can jive…”, addressing the Dancing Queen. We have arrived at what will later be revealed as the the second part of the chorus. And it becomes clear even here that this is not a song for the Dancing Queen herself because the lyrics address someone else—the geeky boy?—”see that girl, watch that scene, digging the Dancing Queen”.
0:43 Finally, after the blaze of imagery of intro/chorus, things calm down and the story starts—the first verse. “Friday night and the lights are low…” — Unlike the chorus, the verses are exclusively addressing the girl that is to be Dancing Queen, and this first verse is about party preparation. Yes, do it the Swedish way. Find the right place because “You’ve come to look for a king.”
1:02 In good tradition of playing hard to get with the listener, ABBA give us another verse before the chorus (though we had some of it at the very beginning). “Anybody could be that guy.” — Now here’s a picture of a promiscuous girl. They even changed the melody of the first line here a few notes up to make it properly stand out. But the verse ends talking about dancing again “You’re in a mood for a dance”. Except it doesn’t end there: the second verse has a line added: “and when you get the chance…”, a rising line that takes us to the chorus.
1:27 Chorus. “You are the Dancing Queen, young and sweet, only seventeen”. And boy do ABBA give us sweetness in the chorus, a mixture of silvery harmonising female vocals, together with the smooth string-like synth, the piano adding sparkle, and on “feel the beat of the tambourine” the boys join in as well, a wall of pink harmony. Then the second part of the chorus hits again, with its nice downshift in harmony (see below); and then, on “ooh see that girl…” things relax and we’re smoothly guided out of the chorus into calm waters to await the next verse.
2:14 Before we talk about the next verse, notice that the chorus is quite long. Half a minute. That’s possibly a bit of an ABBA thing, they do it elsewhere too (Waterloo, Lay All Your Love On Me, Fernando, …). Maybe that’s why they actually fit only two choruses into the song. But onwards, the third verse: “You’re a teaser, you turn ‘em on.” … “anyone would do” more dancing promiscuity! It’s quite fabulous really. Here you have the innocent ABBA girls singing a song about dancing, and who knows what the guys are thinking. Well, I do. Verse three is another pinch of sparkling allusion; and it cuts straight to the next chorus.
Chorus again. Almost the same as before, but some notes sung with a bit more intensity… ABBA wouldn’t do twice exactly the same chorus, they’re too nerdy for that (like Queen, incidentally, always something new). What’s genuinely new here is that the last line of the chorus “digging the Dancing Queen” is repeated. Repeated only once, mind, which I find quite cool, since you could imagine overdoing it and cycling “digging the Dancing Queen” over and over, but ABBA leave that to us, the listeners, while we hear the chords from the very beginning of the song repeat to fade.
So where are we at? We’ve got a chorus composed of two quite distinct parts (AB), then a verse C with a little variation (let’s call that C’), so overall it’s: [AB] C C’ [AB] C’ [AB] AA… Why is it exciting? It’s not! Perhaps the simplicity of the structure is the most beautiful thing. Yes, the chorus is long and a little bit complex, but it appears only 2 and a half times, and only once towards the end. What’s more: there’s no middle eight. This song really has only two proper parts verse and chorus. Short and (very) sweet.
But the most remarkable thing has to be the relentless hooking. Hooks are an ill-defined concept, but they’re bits of music (usually melody or rhythm) that you remember. And the song is just completely plastered with melodic hooks, you can never escape, you just have to keep on listening. Let me give you an example, the second verse, starting 1:02: the girls are singing, “Anybody can be that guy …” and you cling to their melody, but even on the last note of that line you’re dragged to the next hook, the high-pitched synth playing a little quick repeating downward motif, filling the hole between the lyrics lines; and just as that’s fading, the girls are back, singing “Night is young and the music’s high”, yet while you’re still glued to their lasciviously upward-gliding “high”, hammering piano chords appear and briefly capture your attention with a high two-note riff; then the lines get shorter “where they play the right music”—piano riff again—”everything is fine, you’re in a mood for a dance”, then a piano arpeggio coming from below and ending in a little motif mimicking almost exactly “mood for a dance”; then “and when you get the chance” that’s immediately followed by a rising melody line of real strings that lead into the lush chorus. It might read confusing, but it’s awfully simple when you listen. The point is: there’s barely half a second without a melodic hook—you just have to surrender to the power of ABBA.
One of the kinds of hooks examined here is special: the piano riff. The high-pitched, rhythmically cascading piano chords don’t just serve the purpose of ensuring a continuous blast of melody, they also echo the similar hooks in intro and chorus (and, incidentally, in the song Waterloo). Being one of the most recognisable features of the song, there’s always at least one guy on the floor does the air-piano thing. I’ve done it myself. It doesn’t look cool.
The tempo, at around 100bpm is actually pretty slow for a dance track — house is 120bpm — but of course it’s meant to be a bit disco-funky (though the polished finish is a nuisance to real funky folks). Perhaps this song is a rather slow dance because it’s not meant to get you exhausted, it’s the one to get you onto the dance floor.
I’ve been talking a lot about melody and the associated instruments: singing, synth, strings, piano, but the percussion is quite remarkable as well. As you’d expect there’s a drum kit; it’s mixed quite centrally, together with a constant (though barely audible) tambourine jingle. The drum kit has a limited vocabulary of rhythms, mostly focussing on hitting 1 and 3 with the kick drum and the back-beat (2 and 4) with the snare drum—you couldn’t do disco without. Many other disco tracks have additional kicks to coincide with the snare drum on 2 and 4, but Dancing Queen just has the clean snares. There is a little snare drum figure that breaks the steady backbeat towards the end of phrases (with a hit added the quaver after 3), usually followed by an open hi-hat “slurp” (my nomenclature). I’m mentioning this slurp because there’s a second hi-hat slurp throughout the song, mixed hard to the left, always on the offbeat. I don’t know about its origins, but that sort of thing would be the trademark of straight techno, the “tsh” in “dup-tsh dup-tsh dup-tsh…”. There’s also some chish-chish percussion mixed hard right, not sure about the instrument. In summary, there’s a lot going on. ABBA fill their songs not only in the time dimension, but also in instrument space and stereo space. Amazing how they make it sound so effortless.
A musical aspect that is a bit harder to appreciate for the uninitiated is harmony—the chords you choose. The ABBA guys are unsurpassed at getting the balance of complexity and accessibility right. I think the most beautiful chord sequence in this song happens in the section that I’ve called B (“you can dance, you can jive, having the time of your life”), and that’s because it really takes you to a different place. Otherwise the song treads quite shyly in a single key (A major) with some bits in the relative minor, and all song segments outside part B start on the tonic, i.e. the A major chord. (Relative minor is a musical term for the minor key that uses the same notes as its relative major key; here, the relative minor key is F\# minor). On “you can dance” things are different. An E major chord! We sense freedom. What is going to happen? Well, we’re pulled away into the key of E major for a few precious moments. In fact, we’re taken even further into a dreamworld: “you can jive” has the extravagant C\#, and from there we take a roller-coaster ride (if straight from the jazz textbook) first to the mellow F\#m (“having the time of your…”), then the sparkling bright B chord bursting out with “life”. But the dream has to give way to the (still rather charming) reality in which we “see that girl”, accompanied by a D major chord, a rather blunt reminder of the original key.
(I have to add: the sophistication with which chords are used in the other parts would put many other songwriters to shame, too.)
What’s in a name?
Surely that’s exhausted the tricks you can stuff into a song? ‘course not. Check out the placement of the song title. It appears at the beginning of the chorus: “you are the Dancing Queen”, but also—you guessed it—at the end. Most songwriters choose one or the other. Murder The Dancefloor — beginning, “(Hit Me Baby) One More Time” — end, “Don’t Speak” — beginning, “Walk Of Life” — end, “La Isla Bonita” — end, “Wonderwall” — end, “Feel” (Robbie Williams) — beginning, “Call Me Al” — end. In some songs, the chorus consists almost entirely of the song title (“We Are The Champions”, “I Will Always Love You”, “Waterloo”). but only a few do the sophisticated beginning and end thing: “Yesterday” (though you could argue whether that’s a chorus) is one example, “Love Me Do”, “Beat It”. I think it’s particularly nice when the meaning of the two slightly changes, as it does in Yesterday, and in Dancing Queen. It illuminates the lyrics from two different viewpoints, yet still hammers it into your ears: this song’s called bloody Dancing Queen.
A Boy’s Fantasy
Lastly, let’s talk about the lyrics again. I’d never noticed quite how interesting those were. And perhaps I’ve been mesmerised, like everyone else. There’s no denying it’s a boy’s fantasy. A girl who goes out to find a king but actually doesn’t mind who she ends up dancing with? You’ve got to be kidding. But how clever to all dress it up almost as a girl’s empowerment song, sung by girls, for girls. Imagine this song sung by, say, Billy Idol. Oh, that’s not so far fetched actually. But the point is that ABBA write a naughty song, get the nerdy boys fantasising, and onto the dance floor, yet retain their innocent, shiny electric pop appeal.