Why are people making fun of McCain for saying his favorite song is “Dancing Queen”? “Dancing Queen” is a great song. Like most ABBA songs (and Bergman movies), it’s basically about death, and is told from the point of view of a bitter elder gazing greedily and lustfully backwards towards youth. It does a really nice job of sustaining the dual perspective of the teenager experiencing the power of being the dancing queen, and of the wistful older observer digging the dancing queen. The line “having the time of your life” is nicely pointed, reminding us that the observer knows this time will pass all too quickly, and the musical setting of that line is really beautiful — a repeated figure over chords that descend from the ominous relative minor, to the dominant, to the II chord (in a 7th), which makes its first appearance in the song here and marks an important turn in the mood.
In fact the whole chord transition from “you can dance” on takes us through a welter of emotional states that I think could best be envisioned by imagining the face of an aging, oh, Bjork as she watches Amy Winehouse perform, or something like that. We start at the whole “dancing queen… tambourine” chorus sequence, which is just an expression of unselfconscious ecstasy (though “only seventeen” carries a bit of a jealous twinge). Then we move to “You can dance,” which is in the dominant — a note of tension, we know this isn’t where we’re staying; and with an odd emphasis in the singing on the word you. If we take this line from the point of view of the girl, we hear “you can dance” as a consciousness of newfound power — she can be the image to which she has aspired, the dancing girl on “Soul Train” or whatever she’s been watching. But if we take it from the point of view of the older observer, you can dance becomes envious. Meanwhile the chord moves from the relative minor to a 7th of the III chord, the first time we’ve heard this chord in the song, and a point of extreme tension. “You can jive” isn’t much of a line, it just continues the point made by “you can dance”, but the way the chord underscores it makes it seem as if there’s a problem here, as though this is something very upsetting that needs to be addressed. And the only logical place to move to is the relative minor, which for a moment seems to place everything in a very somber light, except that what we’re hearing is “having the time of your life”, as the chords move down to that dominant 7th, contemplative II. The observer seems to have become momentarily bitter: she can dance, she can jive, I no longer can. And what is the value of dancing if it will all end so soon, as mine has? But then the reflections shift direction: she is having the time of her life. I had the time of mine, now she is having hers. And at this point the observer becomes able to celebrate the dancer’s enjoyment as an observer, an empathetic observer: as the chords move back into the basic epic I-IV-V frame of the song (to IV, then to V, then at last resolving on I) we get “see that girl, watch that scene, digging the dancing queen.” The song is about reconciling yourself to aging and death through empathy with, rather than envy of, youth.
Dancing is a particularly apt choice of setting for these reflections because it’s an activity that highlights the tension between those who participate and make themselves objects of others’ gaze, and those who hang back and do the gazing. And it hardly need be mentioned that the relationship between dancing and death is a central figure in so many of Bergman’s films. The final and perhaps most significant point of inquiry would be to ask why it is that John McCain finds himself thinking, at this moment, about a song that foregrounds the jealous awe of an aging observer towards the effortless grace of a youngster at the height of youth’s power. But whatever his reasons, you can’t fault the man’s taste. “Dancing Queen” is a pop masterpiece, and the only thing McCain should be ashamed of is having flip-flopped and disowned the song in his interview with Walter Isaacson.
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