How Abba’s humility has contributed to its soft-power success. Plus: trouble in Nicaragua.
The joy that greeted news of Abba’s first album in 40 years, Voyage, in September was a reminder of the pop group’s global popularity. That its release was announced in London, in English, might have confused some millennials about their heritage but to their original fans, who between their Eurovision Song Contest victory in 1974 and their break-up in 1982, made them the 10th best-selling group ever, Abba will always be unmistakably Swedish.
In line with the Nordic law of Jante, the group achieved this with a certain modesty. “Swedes can be tepid towards their global stars,” says critic Tali da Silva of Swedish Television. “Abba is the exception. They stopped on a high note and steered clear from comebacks for so long.” Singles “Don’t Shut Me Down” and “I Still Have Faith in You” have been well received at home, perhaps because they deliver the Abba sound but with extra patina, like a piece of revarnished Swedish furniture.
Who vs who: France vs Algeria
What it’s about: France has cut the number of visas that it will issue to citizens of Algeria (as well as Morocco and Tunisia) as punishment for the insufficient work – as France sees it – done by these countries to repatriate illegal immigrants. Algeria has recalled its ambassador and banned the French military from its airspace, potentially disrupting counterterrorism operations in the Sahel. Algeria was reportedly further inflamed by remarks made by Emmanuel Macron in a meeting with descendants of Harkis, Algerians who took France’s side during its war of independence.
What it’s really about: Partly the past, partly the present. France’s war in Algeria from 1954 to 1962 left a bitter legacy. Amid the recent row, Algerian president Abdelmadjid Tebboune accused France of committing “genocide”; beating up on France is an easy win for any Algerian politician. In France, the Harkis might prove an important bloc in next year’s presidential election.
Likely resolution: Tebboune has demanded “total respect” from France. Macron’s appearance at commemorations of the 60th anniversary of a massacre of pro-independence Algerians by Paris police in October should help; he was the first president to attend such an event. But this spat is perennial.
year-end outlook ––– global
News in brief
Socialist prime minister António Costa’s parliamentary alliance with the Portuguese Communist Party and the Left Bloc came to an end in November after they withheld support for a budget proposal, resulting in elections being called for 30 January, two years ahead of schedule. Early polling suggests victory for Costa but the hard-left is likely to lose ground, while the far-right Chega party lurks in the wings. Portugal has been a stable outlier in Europe for much of the past decade. As campaigning gets under way, the question is whether voters will choose stability or seek to shake things up.
As the year draws to a close, so the list season begins. Japanese magazine Nikkei Trendy’s round-up of hit products makes for a good read: who knew that maritozzi, Italian bread filled with cream, would take off in Japan? A bakery in Fukuoka claims to have started the craze but Yamazaki Baking made it a bestseller, shifting 29 billion buns. Meanwhile, it took drinks giant Kirin five years to create its hit zero-sugar beer. Other items include Ariel sterilising detergent and beak-shaped masks from South Korea. Looks like trend-spotting is as unpredictable as ever.
In 1980, The Clash released a triple album called Sandinista!. That it’s a bloated folly goes pretty much without saying – name the triple album that isn’t – but among its many misjudgements, none now seems as grotesque as the title. The Clash, like many self-styled leftist mutineers of the period, had been seduced by the Nicaraguan insurgency of the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional and by its frontman Daniel Ortega, an intense thirtysomething Marxist guerilla rocking a Che Guevara moustache and Jim Jones spectacles.Give or take a few decent tracks that might have made the cut for London Calling or Combat Rock, Sandinista! endures as a warning that sections of the Western left still refuse to heed: that of the perils of extending uncritical solidarity to any Latin American firebrand in khaki fatigues and a scarlet beret. This lesson has recently been reinforced by the spectacle of Ortega winning yet another term as Nicaragua’s president in a shamelessly rigged election. Ortega, now 76, runs the country as a family business; his wife, Rosario Murillo, serves as vice-president. Opponents, real and imagined, have been imprisoned or exiled. Not for the first time, a Latin American revolutionary lionised as a heroic if not saintly resistor of capitalism and/or imperialism has been revealed as a crook, crank and despot.
You’d think that people would spot the pattern. Fidel Castro was a tyrant who imprisoned his nation for decades; many were willing to risk death at sea to escape. Hugo Chávez of Venezuela reduced to beggary a country with the world’s largest oil reserves; his successor, Nicolás Maduro, in attempting to perpetuate the Chávez personality cult without the personality, has overseen a humanitarian calamity from which nearly a fifth of the population has fled. Evo Morales of Bolivia attempted to amend or ignore his country’s constitution in order to stay in power forever.
A sentimental sector of the Western left indulged these charlatans because they struck poses against the US. That’s not to suggest that there have never been reasons for Latin American rebels to do so; the gruesome US-backed regimes that Castro and Ortega overthrew assuredly had it coming. But as baffled fans of The Clash surely absorbed upon their first plough through Sandinista!, you have to judge people on their merits, however much they thrilled you once.
Illustration: Jack Hudson