ABBA Babba and the Mindless Thieves

by MICHAEL BOWEN & r & & r & You're in an elevator, innocently waiting, when suddenly they attack.

Waterloo! I was defeated, you won the war.

[jazzy sax lick]

Waterloo! Promise to love you for evermore.


Waterloo! Couldn't escape if I wanted to.

[skillful shaking of tambourine]

Waterloo! Knowing my brains have

swirled down the loo.

Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa! Waterloo!

Wishing there's somebody I could sue.


Now "Waterloo" is going to be reverberating inside your head for at least the next several hours. That's unless you're one of the undead. One of the lucky ones.

But why? Why will thousands of folks dance like Super Troupers into the INB Center (March 25-30) to see Mamma Mia!, the musical based on the music of ABBA, when they know that doing so condemns them to endless brain-loops of "Take a Chance on Me"?

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & n associate professor in Gonzaga's music department, Robert Spittal, offers an answer to the ABBA conundrum. "They just have great hooks, and their melodies are great," he says. "You know, the composer Franz Joseph Haydn said that 'Melodies are the charm of music' -- and in that kind of bubble-gum pop era, ABBA gave listeners what they were listening for.

"Another thing is that they're all at about the same tempo -- their songs are very danceable for mainstream American listeners. Like Frank Zappa said, 'You can write anything, and if it's at 120 beats a minute, you can sell a million records.' So it's the tempo and the melodies -- and they keep the harmonies really simple," Spittal says. "Nothing gets in the way."

Nothing gets in the way, that is, of our entrance to the Disco Inferno Asylum.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & S & lt;/span & o some moptop Swedish guy writes a simple tune, loops it endlessly on Top 40 radio and hammers it into the minds of millions of listeners just like you. It will interfere with your work all afternoon and through the dinner hour and on into the night until it's still ringing in your ears as you lay your head on the pillow and stare helplessly up at the stucco on your ceiling with "Dancing Queen" forever and ever lilting through your defenseless, battered, repetition-burdened mind.

Joining others, psychologist Oliver Sacks describes this phenomenon with the term "earworms." (Some people call them "repetunes.") Sacks has noted that earworms are almost always fragmentary and that they tend to come on full blast, then die away slowly with "occasional afterspurts," sometimes years later. It doesn't seem to matter whether they're songs from 30 years ago (like ABBA's) or some of the music you listened to last night on the radio (ABBA, again). Some theorize that earworms get tangled up in the "phonological loop," the part of memory that states and restates words and phrases so we can learn them. Sacks notes that the characteristics of earworms (fragmentary, sudden, involuntary, annoying) are shared by low-grade epileptic seizures. And the problem has only gotten worse in the last few decades, when recorded music has gone everywhere.

It's almost as if ABBA's resurgence in a musical like Mamma Mia! is a kind of punishment: If they didn't hook you with "Waterloo" back in 1974, then they will be sure to inflict their particular brand of Scandinavian bubble-gum dance-pop a-go-go on you now.

So go ahead. Sing a few bars of "Dancing Queen."

You can dance, you can ji-ive

Have-ing the time of your li-ife.


See that girl, watch that scene,

diggin' the dancing queen....

Now stop. And if you can't -- well, they're only brain cells.

ABBA songs will infiltrate your mind during the run of Mamma Mia! at the INB Center, March 25-30. Tickets: $30-$65. Visit or call 325-SEAT.

Art, Nature and the Voice of the River @ People's Park

Sun., June 13, 11 a.m.
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About The Author

Michael Bowen

Michael Bowen is a former senior writer for The Inlander and a respected local theater critic. He also covers literature, jazz and classical music, and art, among other things.