To tell you I listened to ABBA on my own would be a total lie. In reality, I listened to ABBA because of my mom. Before that, though, there were the A*Teens.
Sometime between 1999 and 2001, a group of polished-but-punky tweens would dance around between commercial breaks on the Disney Channel. The lyrics were super easy to remember—“you can dance / you can ji-hive”—and I would remember them in a heartbeat. I was in third grade and felt as if I’d been let in on the secret. I finally knew what song everyone was going to be singing along to during lunch time, and how nobody knew who these people were. The band had two boys and two girls, and we all longed to be like them because of the green streaks in their blonde hair. I remember a classmate named Victoria got pink streaks sometime that year. I asked my mom if I could and she laughed, asking why. “Because the A*Teens have them.”
Today, I know that the A*Teens were a Swedish ABBA cover band full of—you guessed it—teens. Initially, target consumers like my nine-year-old-self at the time were drawn to the combination of crop tops and highlighter streaks. The smoggy music videos, bubbly tone and easy-to-remember lyrics, though, should have made me suspicious; or maybe it was my mom singing along. The first nine years of my life were committed to Bollywood music because American music in many ways did not occur to me, much less interest me (with the exception of the occasional “Say My Name” video on Disney Channel). When my mom sang along to “Dancing Queen” by the A*Teens, I didn’t think much of it at the time. I figured my mom knew the words because the video would play on television so many times, and she had just learned it.
Looking back, I remember that it made me happy. My mom and I rarely sang songs in English growing up, with the exception of songs from Barney or nursery rhymes. I grew up on Punjabi music and Bollywood because of my parents; American music never sounded rhythmic or like something you could dance to, much less interesting, while I was growing up. A*Teens was a good balance between the two mediums I felt like I struggled to identify with at school: white faces, but actually good (to me) music. My sister and I would just bop around during the music videos, oftentimes singing it before staying up past 9 P.M. to watch Indian tele-serials with our parents. When I look back at this time, it felt as if we were starting to figure it all out. I felt more “normal” than before.
I’m not embarrassed to admit that I didn’t realize the A*Teens were an ABBA cover band until a family road trip. Specifically, a family road trip in India. My mom rarely sees her sisters, which consequently means that my siblings and I rarely see our aunts and cousins in India unless we go to India. When we are in India, it usually means that we are going on a road trip with my mom and our aunts because we won’t be together for another few years.
When I was eleven, my sister and I went to India again with our mom. Our mom, aunts, and cousins all rented a van and went to a remote mountain village in India called Nainital. Before this time, we did not have portable DVD players or Walkmen that we could use to drown out noise. We were all together, usually our moms all gabbing with one another while the rest of us would play card games. Eventually, we would all decide that it would be time for singing games. Singing games? Essentially sing-a-longs.
And that’s when I heard my mom and aunts sing “Dancing Queen” together. At eleven, I was still young enough to appreciate and be unembarrassed by this moment and I joined in unapologetically, proudly shouting along out of tune with my aunts. We all laughed—heartily, no giggles—and I asked my aunts how they knew who the A*Teens were, told them how I only thought they were popular in America.
That’s when my mom and aunts laughed even harder, “This is ABBA. This is from our school days!” I still wasn’t embarrassed and, looking back, was surprised my mom and I had the same songs from our school days.
The last time I was in India was in 2014. All of us (aunts, cousins, uncles) went to Amritsar together. We rented a large van, and in the age of YouTube, my aunts were able to look up songs besides “Dancing Queen.” One aunt kept crooning, “Remember ‘Fernando?!’” while my cousin Purti said, “No no, sing ‘Mamma Mia!’” We were all taking turns recording videos of us singing and dancing to the songs, clapping on beat. A*Teens hadn’t mattered to begin with; this all started with the glory of ABBA. ABBA was what sisters sang with each other, to each other.
When writing this piece, I asked my mom if she remembers these moments of singing along to ABBA with her sisters. Did she even know what the band looked like when she was growing up? “I don’t care about those things!”
I asked if she had ever heard of The Definitive Collection, or cared to. In retrospect, she was sewing and did not want to be disturbed, but I was short on time (and ideas). “Stop bothering me!” So I kept it simple.
“What did you like about ABBA’s music?”
She didn’t even think about it. “The same way you and Ekta listen to and like music. I loved music too when I was younger. We loved listening to ABBA.”