Mamma Mia, (Queer) I Go Again!

Modern Languages & Cultural Studies prof John Eason teaches Scandinavia from A(BBA) to Q(ueer)

Donna McKinnon - 25 February 2016

Everybody loves ABBA.

Well, most everyone, but no one loves ABBA more than their gay audience. What is it about ABBA that inspires such devoted love from the LGBTQ community?

John Eason thinks he knows.

From early on, Eason was captivated by all things Scandinavian, from the language to the culture and, in particular, the music. Eason inherited a love of languages from his mother, who was a French teacher and librarian, and in 1995, as an undergrad studying German in North Carolina, he travelled to Sweden to learn Swedish and Norwegian. It was here, just following his mother's death, that a cassette tape of ABBA rekindled his interest in the group, providing comfort and company during his year abroad.

Now a Swedish and Norwegian language instructor in the Department of Modern Language and Cultural Studies, Eason has brought his love of the iconic pop group full circle, offering the only English-language course on ABBA (that he is aware of) in the world. Mamma Mia, (Queer) I Go Again, offered first in spring '15 and again this winter, explores the group's pervasiveness in gay culture - especially during the '80s when ABBA wasn't "cool" and the LGBTQ community was still largely in the closet.

Based on a chapter in Eason's dissertation, the popular course seeks to understand the group within its cultural and sociological context as an international pop music phenomenon, as well as its iconic status within the gay community. "ABBA is really gay culture in microcosm," says Eason. "When I was writing [the dissertation] I really wanted to deconstruct the group through a queer lens and pick apart what - to me - were the aesthetic reasons why ABBA appeals to so many gays in disproportionate numbers."

And why do they? According to Eason, beyond their "camp" performances and attire (an essential element of their appeal), ABBA exemplifies escapism.

"A lot of it goes back to sentimental music and singers who display fewer stereotypically masculine qualities or inhibitions about accepting emotion," explains Eason. "For sexual minorities, ABBA and pop culture in general is more important, because many other minorities are born into a support system, whereas we're not. It's a survival instinct to want to escape from your problems. Whether you're getting bullied or pushed around, whether your parents are homophobic, pop music has a particularly important role for sexual minorities."

In addition to readings in queer theory, gender studies and Swedish LGBTQ history, Eason brings in films like Muriel's Wedding; The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert; and the Swedish film Together, all of which incorporate ABBA's music in meaningful ways. It's these movies, as well as groups like Erasure (who covered ABBA's music in full drag), that sparked the resurgence of ABBA in mainstream culture and further solidified their iconic status in LGBTQ communities around the world.

Eason says all four members of ABBA have embraced their LGBTQ audience, citing Björn Ulvaeus' 2011 appearance at the Gaygalan (Gay Awards) gala in Stockholm where - in full pink lycra - he presented the prize for Homo/Bi-sexual Person Of the Year. "They're definitely cool with it," laughs Eason.

Whether they come to the class as fans or not, Eason's students learn to appreciate ABBA, not just as the ubiquitous music of their parents' (or grandparents') generation, but as an (infinitely hummable) window into cultural and queer theory studies.

"Gay culture and straight culture are not mutually exclusive," says Eason. "They're influencing each other all the time."