Jenny McCartney Jenny McCartney

I’m ashamed that I used to think ABBA wasn’t cool 

Plus: a podcast that fell suspiciously neatly into ‘feisty gram- maw’ territory

Abba performing 'Waterloo' at the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest. Image: Olle Lindeborg / AFP via Getty Images

One of the joys of listening to archive BBC interviews with pop stars is the chance to hear long-discarded hipster jargon served up in its original setting. Near the beginning of Radio 2’s ABBA at the BBC, marking 50 years since the group won Eurovision with ‘Waterloo’, a prime example was unearthed from the immediate aftermath of their success. ‘If you were one of the 500 million Eurovision viewers, you may be wondering which was more important in getting the song through to number one,’ said the host. ‘Was it the music or the way-out gear?’

I think we can safely conclude that it was the music, although the sight of Anni-Frid Lyngstad and Agnetha Faltskog in spangled velvet can’t have hurt. As another interviewer reminds us, the name ABBA – composed from the initials of the two female singers, plus the main songwriters Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson – also belonged to a Swedish fish canning company, which was good-natured about sharing it. ‘They said “as long as you behave yourselves”,’ either Bjorn or Benny recalls. One of the trickier aspects of the show’s format – a mash-up of BBC interviews over the years studded with hit songs – is that often you aren’t entirely sure which member of ABBA is speaking, unless you’re lucky enough to catch a stray name as it zips by in conversation.

Still, what arises from the compilation is a sense of their deeply civilised nature: despite their well-documented emotional turmoil in the early 1980s, ABBA as a collective seem charming, intelligent, diplomatic and self-deprecating. It almost made me ashamed to hear Benny or Bjorn remark stoically, ‘There was a time, maybe in the beginning of the 1980s, when it wasn’t so cool to be saying you liked ABBA’ because I remember that period very well. We children of the early 1970s had toddled into consciousness in the full wattage of ABBA’s pop dazzle, and by the time we made it to secondary school the only way to assert ourselves was to ridicule it: in an act of social sabotage, pranksters used to scribble ABBA in marker-pen on fellow pupils’ canvas satchels.

The band split up in 1982, after both couples had divorced, but the solid-gold hits they had produced just kept on coming, pulling in new fans. The force was irresistible. Those of us who had mocked ABBA as teenagers found ourselves springing to our feet for ‘Dancing Queen’ a few years later. Ulvaeus and Andersson even managed to create catchy anthems out of break-up numbers without losing their poignancy: both ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’ and ‘The Winner Takes It All’ are played here. It’s worth listening to the Radio 2 tribute – one of many 50-year celebrations – mainly as a gateway drug to rediscovering the ABBA canon.

The group, which reunited in 2016, has survived the affectionate kitsch of its own cult – the Mamma Mia! films, the endless tribute bands – and become something indestructibly sincere. When you see Anni-Frid and Agnetha belting out a number in one of ABBA’s videos, whether joyous or melancholy, it acts as a reminder that something sad has happened to women in pop in recent decades. Their individual spark is often snuffed out by over-production, trapped beneath glossy layers of self-conscious coquettishness – unlike an era when you could still glimpse real emotions poking through the glitter.

Finally! A Show About Women That Isn’t Just a Thinly Veiled Aspirational Nightmare is a mouthful of a podcast that promises a return to authenticity: a glimpse into the real life of its various subjects, with each 30-minute episode taking in a single day. It’s billed as reality radio without the elaborate fakery and contrivances of reality TV, and it’s an appealing idea: radio is the perfect medium for short blasts of intimate confession, especially if you listen with the lights out.

There are some affecting moments: in one episode, Summer Lucille, the owner of a plus-size North Carolina boutique, remembers the searing let-down of her own prom – in which a date migrated to a thinner friend – as she helps bigger teenagers feel glamorous on their big nights. There are insights from a crematorium worker and a country soul singer. But generally I found myself wanting to enjoy this podcast more than I actually did. There were enough flashes of interest in the stories to make me frustrated at not hearing more of them, while the talk often gets bogged down in duller ground.

Jean Ketcham, the 83-year-old co-founder of ‘Ageing But Dangerous’, brings older women together for exciting experiences such as skydiving and posing for nude calendars. She confides, in her gravelly drawl, that her mother was never that keen on her. I would have loved to hear more about her life, and how she thinks perceptions of older women have changed over the years. But instead, the episode spent an excruciatingly long time tracking her as she went shopping for a vibrator, interspersing closely technical questions with startled exclamations at some of the more challenging wares. The exercise fell suspiciously neatly into ‘feisty grammaw’ territory so beloved of Hollywood: by the end, I couldn’t decide whether this slice-of-life podcast needed more editorial intervention, or less.