For those who don't believe the record industry is safely out of the hands of anyone who actually ever cared about music, I present Exhibit A -- The A*Teens.
Here's a group that could not have existed unless the geniuses at the largest record company in the world (whatever Universal/MCA/Seagram's is calling itself these days) secured millions of startup dollars with a simple three-word pitch -- "ABBA teen group."
The label then dispatches a team of talent scouts to Stockholm, auditions more than 200 pubes, makes them sing a buncha ABBA songs, drills them with dance steps, and before you can say "SOS," they're bona fide recording artists with an album full of ABBA covers (set to an identical ravebeat) out on MCA. It's called The ABBA Generation, but that appellation actually refers to the old farts who thought up this Waterloo wet dream. The oldest A*Teen is Marie and she's only 17 -- just like the Dancing Queen!
Record companies have been manufacturing groups since the days of the Monkees, but at least Mike Nesmith had the balls to threaten bodily harm against "musical supervisor" Don Kirshner unless they were given some artistic control. MCA doesn't want some upstart that's gonna put his fist through the wall, but that also means ruling out anyone with real passion and anyone who might be able to write a song like Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus -- members of the first ABBA generation. Nah, that would take years of searching and development, and these execs have Jacuzzis that need repairing now!
I spoke to A*Teen Dhani Lennevald on the phone just before the opening night of the group's American tour supporting Britney Spears. From what I could make of his nervous, broken English, he seemed a nice enough tyke, but frankly, I've chased off kids sitting on my car who had more chutzpah.
He had no answer for why there weren't any songs where he and Amit get to sing lead like Benny and Björn. Out of the 20 ABBA hits they recorded for the album, "Does Your Mother Know" wasn't even considered. Why not demand a number or two? Like "Face" and "Howling Mad" Murdock of The A-Team, it appears Dhani and Amit are the A*Teens' invisible members.
Occasionally, Amit will sit at a piano like Benny, and Dhani does get to strap on a guitar like Björn, although he admits, "I'm playing a bit of guitar but it's not very good." The rest of the time it's just "shuddup and dance."
For their part, blonde Marie and brunette Sara are a lot cuter than Agnetha and Anni-Frid were in their prime. Sadly, though, they don't share their predecessors' flair for atrocious outfits. Perhaps they were afraid of being confused with Bjorn Again, the sensationally campy ABBA tribute group that's been performing for more than a decade. On the plus side, these new girls share the old ABBA gal's curse of having to sing English phonetically (witness the "I wish I under-stewed" line in "SOS"). Unfortunately, they won't be performing my favorite English ABBA-ration "The Wiener Takes It All."
It didn't take much imagination to transfer ABBA's discofied hits to rave beats -- you barely have to readjust the metronome. However, we're spared from hearing a pulsing "Fernando" on crystal meth, since ballads were eliminated from the A*Teens' diet completely. But in doing so, they've lost much of the essence of what made ABBA world-famous -- the same way the Stars on 45's early '80s medley gave us a disco-lobotomized view of the Beatles, Stones and even the Archies.
After a while, the block harmonies and chipper voices begin to grate and sound like the Muppet Babies, another heinous knockoff of a once-good idea.
To the A*Teens' credit, they did manage to dig up a chestnut that's not on either volume of ABBA's Greatest Hits. "One of Us" has a slight reggae groove that sounds like it could've been a hit for Ace of Base.
Remember them? They're the Swedish quartet that had three Top Five hits and a multiple-platinum selling album six years ago, but are now without a record deal because they're too old. That's probably who the A*Teens will be covering next, so they won't have to become the B*Teens and do all Bananarama songs.
According to Dhani, the A*Teens' second album, featuring all original songs, is in the can. But if The ABBA Generation sells even a tenth of what The Sign sold in 1994, don't think for a minute that the Universal brain trust won't scrap it in favor of another platter of ABBA reduxes. Like the songs say -- "What's the Name of the Game?" -- "Money Money Money."
That's why I don't feel bad when I ask you to resist these Swedish counterfeiters. Don't worry about causing any great psychological damage by not buying their record. Sure, they're kids, but they're resilient and Swedish, so chances are they'll always get laid.
Look instead at the bigger picture -- you'll be sending an important no-thank-you-for-this-music message to the major record labels. Maybe you'll spare some poor alternative rock group from having to record an album of R.E.M. retreads before they're allowed to come up with something on their own.
Then phony ABBAmania will have really bitten the dust.
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