It’s utterly wonderful – and might change the world as we know it.
*Contains mild spoilers for ABBA Voyage*
You know when you have one of those ideas after a few drinks that’s big and expensive, and then you actually act on it? That’s how I ended up at ABBA Voyage. On a beach in Greece (of all the cliches) it seemed like a good idea to book a trip to indulge my interest in a band who’ve always been in my life. An excuse for a trip to the capital and to see family, if nothing else. Unlike some drunk ideas though, I’ve no regrets whatsoever about this one. ABBA Voyage is unquestionably one of the best things I’ve ever seen. It left me with a sense of amazement which, weeks later, I still haven’t quite shaken off. There’s already family talk about going again next year. And yet for all that it’s incredible, I’m wary of its implications for a world that I love.
I don’t want to say too much about the show itself, lest I spoil it for anybody who’s been thinking about going. But to explain the concept briefly, ABBA and their partners at Industrial Light & Magic have purpose-built an arena by London’s Olympic Park for what they bill as “a concert like no other”. There’s a live band on stage, backing the hits you know (and, if you have any sense, love) but the star performers are the original quartet of Benny, Bjorn, Agnetha and Frida. On stage just like at their last London show in 1979. Except they’re not; but also, they are. Both are sort of true, and the key to ABBA Voyage‘s success is how it negotiates this space between reality and fiction. Even down to questions like: is it a concert, really? ‘Show’ might be a better term, though in real terms it may bear more relation to a film, but it doesn’t come across like that. Except for when it does. Does this sound confusing? Well, I spent a great deal of ABBA Voyage‘s 90 minutes trying to process all these possibilities. Your mind knows what’s objectively true – that it can’t really be them – but there’s enough reality in it to suspend that knowledge.
Something I’ve debated with my mum a couple of times since we went is the extent to which the show is actively out to deceive you. On the one hand the band not only look and move like real people, but they also crack jokes about costume changes. On the other, there’s periods where they’re definitively and deliberately not there. The spell is at least somewhat broken in the periods where the songs are performed by other various means. I suspect this is a deliberate moderation. We don’t have the chance to question this trip into Uncanny Valley, nor to get used to (even, dare I say it, bored by) it. Better that it’s revealed in bites, with something new to amaze each time.
Other aspects of the experience are exactly like some of the best concerts I’ve ever been to. The lighting, for example, is just amazing. Then there’s the audience. It feels fundamentally different to the audience of a tribute act, where everybody knows it’s not the genuine article. The songs are the same, the interest in the performers themselves probably not. This crowd feels passionate. We cheer, shout, clap and dance, behaving exactly like a crowd at any other gig I’ve been to. It’s like there’s a collective will to buy into the idea that this is the real deal. As though buying a ticket is also entering an agreement to play a game for 90 minutes. Not a game I knew I was going to be playing by the way – I thought I would go with more critical awareness. But then they open with one of my favourites, and I’m playing too. We all are, and with gusto.
It’s not just me who loves it. This show is playing 6 times a week: that’s a total of about 9000 people, each paying somewhere between about £70 and £500 per ticket. It’s surely already nailed on to run for years – when it has to move out of London (possibly in 2026), the plan is to deconstruct the entire arena itself and move it elsewhere. Say, to North America, or Dubai, or Oceania. In other words, to a new market of fans. It can go on doing this for as long as it likes, while there’s audiences who want their opportunity to see a band who have written some of the best-known songs of all time.
Pioneering this technology (there have been hologram performances before, but not with this level of complexity and spectacle) with ABBA is smart. They’re all alive, for one thing; there’s no moral qualms to be felt over image exploitation. They’re internationally, inter-generationally popular in a way few bands are, guaranteeing the audience numbers to make the investment worthwhile. And they’ve been away from the stage for over 40 years – since before I was born – so this isn’t just a substitute for something I could ever have experienced “for real”. There’s a kind of gratitude that I can even get this close.
But: this technology is definitely going to expand. Not immediately, while it’s so expensive, but inevitably. Apparently it was Simon Fuller, of Spice Girls manager and Pop Idol creator fame, who pitched this idea to ABBA. Fuller is a man who understands the place of music as a product. And boy, is this a good one. It solves one of the main issues of sustaining this kind of live performance – that of the performers. This ABBA will never get fatigued or ill. They’ll never have an “off” night of lacklustre performance, or want to play that new song that’s not as loved as the old hits. They’ll never want to take a holiday. Never fight and argue amongst themselves. Never say “no more”. All of this sounds soulless and sinister, but it undeniably also gives audiences, people like me, exactly what we’re coming for. As far as the Fuller’s of the world are concerned, this is the ideal.
The cost of this project was apparently something like £140 million. Between this number and the logistics of the entire thing (such as purpose-building a portable arena), it’s rather prohibitive to growth as it stands. But we know how this goes: if there’s a willing market – of which I have no doubt – it won’t be in 10/15 years. So what happens then?
I’m no technophobe – and did I mention how I much I adored it? ABBA Voyage is a triumph as a concert and experience, as a celebration of a band I’ve always admired. But I also love live music and new music, and this technology possibly has very real implications for these things. If we can live forever with the security of the familiar, why take risks on something new? If stadiums are booked out with projections, where will the stars of the future fit? If the biggest names can send out their duplicates to perform, does access to the real people become even more rarefied? These are all questions I can imagine becoming relevant sooner or later now that this particular genie is out of the bottle, and we’re all going to have to decide how we’re happy to answer. In the meantime though, while this show is the only example of its kind and creating a chance for the impossible, I’ll enjoy this particular dance.
All images from official ABBA Voyage website