One of this year’s biggest and best surprises has been the perfect timing of Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again. The sequel to 2008’s all-ABBA jukebox musical film Mamma Mia! is a serious hit — it’s grossed $96 million in just three weeks so far — and an instant cult favorite at the same time. It’s helped spike streams for the Swedish pop quartet’s decades-old classics and sparked countless new memes, all full of sweet, seemingly unironic love for both the film series and the band itself.
The secret to this success may be Cher, who makes a grand entrance in the new film, stepping off a helicopter to sing “Fernando” with Andy Garcia. Cher, of course, was in no way at risk of fading from pop-culture memory. Her Twitter has become the gold standard of celebrity twitters: She’s passionate, funny and clearly writing in her own unmistakably sassy voice with the aid of a few well-placed emojis for emphasis. Cher can tweet out something as simple as “HI again” and rack up nearly 70,000 faves from her followers. Mamma Mia! is lucky to have her.
Stars rarely align like this. ABBA and Cher were two of the Seventies’ greatest pop acts, and though they were very successful, both of them battled for respect against the hard rock and punk of the era. ABBA’s U.S. breakthrough album, 1976’s Arrival, went platinum around the world, but was largely panned by critics. Rolling Stone called them “charming twerps” in a patronizing review, dismissing songs like “Dancing Queen” as “Muzak mesmerizing in its modality.”
Cher has capitalized on the success of Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again by announcing an ABBA tribute album titled Dancing Queen. The first single, which debuted this week, is a cover of 1979’s “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)” that’s as much a nod to the pop group’s heyday as it is to her own clubby career revival in the Nineties, when she linked up with producer Mark Taylor for “Believe.”
It’s a delightful bit of utopian revisionist history for a generation of twenty- and thirty-somethings who were born after ABBA broke up and first encountered their catalog through the first Mamma Mia! soundtrack — a perfectly fine way to first discover one of pop’s campiest and most influential acts. To this fandom, as it exists now, ABBA’s music is less a nostalgic time-capsule than a mirror-perfect reflection of the upbeat yet heartbroken synth-pop of the last several years, heard everywhere from fellow Swedes Robyn and Tove Lo to Taylor Swift’s 1989 and Carly Rae Jepsen’s Emotion. The dance-y desperation of a song like ABBA’s 1975 hit “SOS” encompasses pop’s past and present in a way few other acts can.
It’s early to say, but Cher’s Dancing Queen might just be a surprise hit of its own — a unique, almost fated moment of convergence that is probably as much a pleasant surprise to Cher and ABBA themselves as it is the fans who have stuck by them long before the rates of their cultural currency shot up. Of all the left-field pieces of cultural history to make a breakthrough in 2018, pop that’s unafraid of frivolity and extravagance ain’t exactly the worst.