A frequent comment heard from ABBA fans is that so-and-so “owns” a song and no one else can do the song justice. It’s been used most recently in discussions about the recent CHESS In Concert CD and DVD releases (from last year’s Royal Albert Hall concert) and also tomorrow night’s Thank You For The Music: A Celebration of the Music of Abba concert in Hyde Park in London.
But who really does own a song? And if a song “belongs” to a certain singer, does that mean it’s not that good a song but rather the performer or performance that makes it “good”?
Because that’s the subtext every time someone says that no one else can perform a song. ‘The Winner Takes It All’ is a good example. Fans claim that it is “Agnetha’s song”, frequently vote it as the best ever ABBA song, and criticise every cover version, including the Benny-produced performance by Meryl Streep in the Mamma Mia!movie. Ergo, if every other version is not up to Agnetha’s, or is “rubbish”, then the song mustn’t be very good if it can’t be interpreted by anyone else.
A similar thing has come up with the forthcoming Kristina concert at Carnegie Hall in New York. The claim is that Helen Sjöholm isKristina, no one else can perform the role and sing those songs. I saw the original Swedish production twice in 1999, with actress Frida Bergh in the role. I thought she played a fine performance, and her singing, especially of the signature song ‘Du måste finnas’, was up there with Helen’s performance that I was familiar with from the CD.
The genuine sign of good music is that anyone can perform it in any style. Certainly there have been some awful cover versions of ABBA songs, but there have also been some excellent ones, the best of all interpreting the song in their own way.
Music is an ephemeral thing. Once the song is over it doesn’t really exist. Music needs to be performed to stay alive.
So who really owns an ABBA song? We all do, every time we hear one, whoever it’s performed by.