The Winner Takes It All

Obviously, any discussion of the A*Teens is going to have to deal with the issue of ABBA. Let's do it quickly here by cutting in on an inner dialogue between "Mike1" (who loved the Rolling Stones in 1965 until they ditched the gray sweatshirts) and "Mike2" (who has his own, different agendas—like hating grunge/alterna music).

Mike1: So if the 1,237,456 garage bands that copied the Stones in 1966 are cool, then the A*Teens are beyond cool, since (thanks to having better beats) they're the only band to ever successfully not just copy, but improve on, ABBA! The A*Teens are to ABBA as the New York Dolls were to the Stones!

Mike2: And I care because . . . ?

Still not called the D*Teens, despite those report cards
photo: Arnold Turner
Still not called the D*Teens, despite those report cards

Mike1: I'm saying some people liked the Dolls even more than the Rolling Stones.

Mike2: And you love the A*Teens even more than you love ABBA.

Mike1: Bingo, Mr. Clueless!

Mike2: Look, if you're going off on that "I've played more ABBA records than Stones records in the last 25 years, therefore ABBA are better" bender, no one cares!

Mike1: And why should they? Now get the hell off of my clue bus.

So . . . The ABBA Generationmight well be my favorite album of the past five years, and that's all I'm allowed to say on the matter. But the news last fall that the A*Teens were gonna be hawking "all-original" material this time out certainly qualified as a bated-breath alert. The majority of great GPopGen material has come from Max Martin and his nine Swedish cohorts (checklist of names available for a quarter; there isn't enough space here to list the modern Stockholm Brill Building's personages and unpronounceable/indecipherable monikers).

But the entirety of Teen Spiritwas written and recorded in Sweden! And the big story is that there actually seems to be a brand-new Max Martin equivalent, a team of Tysper/Jonsson/Sepehrmanesh (writing) and Grizzly/Tysper (production) who have constructed what I would swear in a musical court of law are two of the greatest pop tunes and productions I have ever heard, in my lifetime or anyone else's—stuff by Phil Spector, Jeff'n'Ellie (Neil Diamond/Archies/Shangri-Las), and Björn & Benny included.

First one would be the gonzo dance-pop tune "Halfway Around the World," 10 times cuter than even "Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes)" by Edison Lighthouse. It lets previously mute boy A*Teens Amit and Dhani sing some lines for the first time ever, and they also sing on "Bouncing off the Ceiling (Upside Down)," a monster Radio Disney hit that combines a rewrite of Sam Cooke's "Wonderful World" with the airy lost-in-the-clouds utter perfection of Sara's and Marie's voices into the giddiest aural summation of first-crush daydreams you could imagine. Even though everyone knows"A students" don't really fade to "D"s; the worst they're ever gonna do is "C"s (maybe in gym or civics).

The rest of Teen Spiritseemed indistinctive at first, lots of mild midtempo tunes blurring into each other. I kept listening and listening, though, and sure enough, the whole thing opened up once the hooks finally sank in: Saturday- or Sunday-morning fallin'-in-love sunshine pop of the first altitude, with bright vocal sounds hardly three degrees removed from the revered (by some, though not me) late-'60s cult genre "California pop" (you say Pet Sounds, I say pass the Ohio Express) . . . nine cuts worth total (not counting those two monsters, and skipping the stone-boring "All My Love" and "Around the Corner"). My first preference is pop that explodes or dance beats that pound the floor, but this is light musical pleasure, brilliantly arranged and produced: Check the bass playing, as hypnotic as any great mid-'60s Motown sides.

And I'm not done yet. Because the A*Teens scheduled just seven initial in-store autograph-and-photo appearances in America upon the album's release, and ONE OF THEM WAS IN MY BACKYARD. Yep, just 20 miles south at the Milpitas, California (a/k/a the real-world locale of Crispin Glover's River's Edgetract-home-hell story line), Wal-Mart, 20 commuter minutes northeast of Silicon Valley. I was there, and here is what I found: Swedes are so different (looking) from us plug-ugly Americans it'd be easy to mistake them for aliens beamed down from another planet. Planet of the Amazingly Handsome Glowin'-in-the-Dark People, perhaps.

Dhani really does look like a giant hamsterhead (and not unlike cute-boy Michael from WB-TV's Roswell); Amit has sprouted overnight (in looks if not size) into an almost James Bond-ish hunk glowing like a radioactively activated puberty lab experiment (and more than a few young female fans shared my impression). The kid had on a stunning mod-pattern top, too—symbols and words all askew. And blond-ish Marie in her young womanhood is an absolutely radiant dead-on ringer for—who else?—a young Agnetha of ABBA. Sara and Amit qualified as beyond adorable when, every 90 seconds or so throughout the 90-minute session, they spontaneously and simultaneously burst into song, singing along at half-volume to Teen Spirit as its entirety played in the background.

The A*Teens are really young. They are charismatic. They are the real thing. Young kids of all races and sexes love them. And if they weren't already my favorite vocal group of this new decade, someone would have to invent them so they could be. The ABBA Generationshifted 3 million-plus units worldwide, including 1M in America with no radio or video play outside the Disney/Nick/Fox pop underground. I've been waiting my whole dang life for Lesley Gore's musical equals to reclaim stage center—hey, it's a spiritual quest; everyone's gotta have one—and I'm here to tell you the pop underground is here to stay, and it's a zillion strong. Deal with it.

 
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