ABBA Is On Tour As Virtual Avatars and We Have Existential Questions About Artists and Technology
Plus, what the Swedish pop icons have in common with Patti Smith
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A few days ago, the iconic 70s pop group ABBA went on tour for the first time in 41 years. The band members are now in their 70s, and they look like the ruddy Swedish grandparents that they are.
But fear not, they didn’t appear on a London stage in their legendary skin-tight satin costumes. In fact, they weren’t on stage at all. They were in the audience watching computer-generated avatars of their shiny young selves dancing, singing, and bantering.
Pause for a minute to consider the hallucinogenic experience of watching the you of 15 or 30 or 40 years ago realistically animated by the technologists that brought us Star Wars. There is your smallest waist, your most outrageous hairstyle, and your dewy visage untouched by the the sins and troubles of life. You could send your avatar to Zoom meetings and first dates. Or just terrify your kids.
To create the “Abbatars,” the elder ABBAs spent weeks singing their songs while wearing motion-capture leotards. We see their authentic gestures and facial expressions, and we hear their 70–something voices, and all of that is packaged in CGI versions of their youthful bodies. It’s a mind-melting concept. Making it took $175 million, four body doubles, 160 cameras, and hundreds of programmers.
Clearly, ABBA has entered the metaverse before the rest of us. And it’s weird.
I should make a joke now about how people who go to a Madonna concert lately also get that uncanny valley feeling. But there’s something deeper here than an obsession with staying young (or doing whatever’s surgically possible to look like parts of you still are). This show is an admission that we all evolve, and sometimes there’s a painful dissonance between what we evolve to be and what people expect of us.
It’s true that seeing elderly ABBAs on stage mimicking their young selves would be cringy. They’d return after 41 years bearing incontrovertible evidence of mortality and aging. And the appeal of this band was always that they were a glittery escape, an unabashed communion with campy lightness. So ABBA made a bet that a devout audience singing along would help the avatar technology transcend its limitations.
It’s different for other performers of that era. Consider rocker and author Patti Smith. I saw her perform “Because the Night,” an ode to young lust and love that she wrote decades ago with Bruce Springsteen. Some might assume that’s tough song for a woman to sing at 70-something. But Smith stands on stage unadorned in rumpled jeans and a t-shirt, her long white hair glowing in the spotlight. She faces the audience like a witch-goddess with her palms up as if giving benediction.
And she begins by singing in a low voice:
“Take me now, baby here as I am.”
It is a plea and a demand all at once. And it means something so different now than it did when she was in her 30s. Either way, the audience complies. They adore this woman who wears her history without flinching.
Smith usually introduces “Because the Night” by saying, “I wrote it for my boyfriend in 1978, with another fella. And he is still my boyfriend, Fred Sonic Smith.” That boyfriend was the father of her two children, and he died at 46. Knowing that transforms the lyrics: “Pull me close, try and understand/Desire is hunger is the fire I breathe/Love is a banquet on which we feed…” But the ache in her voice still calls to the hearts of the 25-year-olds who know of lust, but maybe not loss. Yet.
That said, it’s not like I wouldn’t go see the Abbatars in concert. Absolutely, I would. When my children were little, we used to bounce around my apartment yowling to “Waterloo,” “Does Your Mother Know?” and “Dancing Queen.” And as with my generation, these kids soak up those melodies like cultural dye. That band is still a common denominator.
And my God, with the world’s collective sanity crumbling around us like stale bread, why miss the chance to revivify some goofy joy with a therapeutic sing-along? S.O.S. is exactly the right song for the moment.
I also get why the people who saw the Abbatar concert in London a few days ago got teary when the four non-human technology confections appeared. The last few years of zoom-life and metaverse chatter have primed us to accept a bizarre mix of actual feeling and virtual reality.
The line between real and surreal is blurred, if not gone. And ABBA is in on the meta-joke. During the new show, the band’s Benny Andersson, says, via his Abbatar: “To be or not to be — that is no longer the question.”
The New York Times spoke to a musician Jarvis Cocker, who, after seeing ABBA’s show, was rather undone: “I felt very emotional at certain times during that performance, which I’m calling a performance, but it wasn’t — it was a projection.” Adding: “But I don’t know what it means for the future of mankind.”
I think it means that the singularity is here, and it the thing with feathers. And sequins. And silver eyeshadow. And the winged bangs I wanted when I was 12. And, think of it, the future could be much worse than eternal ABBA. It could be something Mark Zuckerberg cooks up.
And here’s the crazy thing. (Or the crazier thing.)
At the end of the London premiere, when the computer-generated Abbatars retreated to the cloud or wherever their ones and zeros call home, the four human ABBAs walked on stage. There they were, just people, with all their softness and frailties. The two women (Agnetha and Anni-Frid) wore white suits that rippled in the breeze along with their white hair. One had a cane. And the men (Björn and Benny), stood with them, one in a long flowered robe and the other in a suit.
The four bowed, and the audience of sixty-somethings, next-gen disco fans, and little kids went nuts. “I love you!” people cried, overcome by … reality.