Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Abba Syndrome


We've been in Cambodia and Vietnam for six weeks now. We've climbed to the tops of decaying temples in sweltering heat, and we've drunk Tomb Raider cocktails in Siem Reap bars. We've frozen in the cold mists of northern Vietnamese highlands, where our hotel provided an electric heater for an extra $5. We've kayaked through the weird karst islands of Halong Bay, and we've ridden rickety and overcrowded buses at high speed through the narrow alleys of Mekong Delta towns. We've visited Ho Chi Minh's black granite mausoleum and then walked back to our hotel against the tide of a million speeding motorcycles. We've even listened to a concert by the Vietnamese National Symphony in the grand Hanoi Opera House.

What has tied all these experiences together? Abba songs. On the beaches, in the mountains, flying high above the traffic and flying low in it, the sounds of Abba have permeated our existence. Even the National Symphony, which had advertised a Dvorak concert, sounded as if it were covering "SOS" and "Mamma Mia" and "Take a Chance on Me." Every loudspeaker we've walked by, and there have been a bunch of them, has been playing Abba, or a band covering Abba, or Abba covering Abba, or drunken karaoke singers covering Abba.

I've come to loathe Abba. Even before three weeks ago, when I discovered there was an Abba Christmas album, I wasn't much impressed with their music. I might have sung along with "Mamma Mia" once or twice, but I hadn't listened carefully to the lyrics and I thought the song and the band were eponymously about Abba Eban, the Israeli foreign minister. It was an honest mistake, one that persisted until I saw the billboard for the musical in London.

No matter. Now I have the entire contents of the Abba songbook engraved permanently on my frontal lobes, a distinguishing characteristic I'd gladly trade for a set of prison tats spelling H-A-T-E across one set of knuckles and L-O-V-E across the other.

But you make do with the distinguishing characteristics you have, not the ones you wish you had. Julie and I have spent long hours in beachfront cafes, discussing deep philosophical questions: If Abba is Swedish, how come they don't sound Swedish? When did Dvorak write "Dancing Queen?" Who knew you could have a Wall-of-Sound version of "Silent Night?" And when is the comeback tour?

Never, one would hope. Divorce should be good for something.

Of course, the biggest philosophical question is why the Vietnamese haven't tossed Abba on the ash heap of history along with their commitment to Marxist egalitarianism.

It may be nostalgia. The Americans who fought in World War II spent the rest of their lives believing Glenn Miller and Jimmy Dorsey made better music than anyone who came after them. The Vietnamese may remember Abba songs as the music of victory and promise, sounds from a time when an unheroic peace and the grinding realities of global capitalism had not yet tarnished the future.

As I write this, I'm on the top floor of a tall new hotel in the city of Hue, the old capital of Vietnam. On the streets below, Lexuses and BMWs push through masses of motorcycle riders and street vendors. The shouts of cyclo drivers are drowned out by the chanted lyrics of "Fernando." I can see a half dozen half-complete high-rises in the neighborhood, and the Vietnamese flag atop Hue's Citadel, looking much as it did for the three weeks in 1968 that the Viet Cong forces held the city against an American counterattack.

The situation on the ground is different now. Yesterday we walked through the Citadel with a few thousand other tourists, looking at the restored imperial compound, inspecting the bullet holes and shrapnel marks where they had not yet been plastered over. We walked through temples and theaters and the offices of mandarins, through the ruins of the emperor's residence and the building where his harem had been housed.

Then we walked back to our hotel, through the shouted pleas for our business from hundreds of souvenir shop owners and postcard sellers and cyclo drivers, while Abba, omnipresent, counted cadence.

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