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29th November 2022

ABBA Voyage: As Good As New?

ABBA Voyage encapsulates the nostalgia of a band who have soundtracked many of our lives. But do holograms compare to the real thing?
ABBA Voyage: As Good As New?
Photo: ABBA Voyage – Johan Persson @ Press

My love affair with ABBA began when I was six and my mum took me and my sister to see Mamma Mia on the day my dad moved out of our family home. Through ABBA’s music, I could escape into a world of glitz and glam. A year later, on our first holiday since we became a family of three, we drove around Irish hills with ABBA Gold blaring out of the CD Player. At ABBA Voyage, I couldn’t help but wonder what the music meant for my fellow audience members.

ABBA Voyage, a ground-breaking audio-visual performance of ABBA’s iconic songs by CGI-assisted holograms, took place in the purpose-built stadium next to the Olympic Park in London. The experience launched earlier this year and has been selling out for months. Arriving at the venue, which is collapsible so it can be easily relocated, I was greeted by many enthusiastic ABBA fans complete with flares, sparkles and feather boas.

Indeed, the popularity of ABBA is evident in how this venture has been undertaken despite its whopping expense, as it needs to earn £140 million to break even. Attending the event did feel luxurious. I stayed at Hyatt House in Stratford, a hotel located within Westfield Shopping Centre which had a sophisticated, art-deco aesthetic. After sipping our drinks in the Hotel’s Elondi bar, me and my friend took the short 15-minute tube journey to the stadium.

The event was well-staffed. The ease with which the large audience was managed hinted at how for the workers, these crowds were a nightly occurrence. We were quickly directed into the venue which held bars, food servers and a merchandise shop. The lobby area had a Scandinavian vibe, with a pine geometric ceiling and LED strip lights. When we entered the performance space, which can host 3,000 people, its scale was obvious.

The holograms of Agnetha Fältskog, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson, and Anni-Frid Lyngstad have been created through the work of over a thousand animators, who have digitised old footage. Watching the holograms, who have been cleverly referred to as ABBA-tors, ‘walk out’ onstage was witnessing a technological breakthrough. Though you could tell that they weren’t human, they did feel so close to the holograms I’d seen in fantasy sci-fi films that it felt hard to believe I was watching in real-time. Moreover, critiquing the holograms for their unnaturally smooth skin or glossy eyes feels like it would miss the point of this event. What is incredible about ABBA Voyage is that the audience have bought tickets fully aware that the real-life ABBA will not be performing. If anything, surely this shows the enduring legacy of ABBA?

Photo: Johan Persson – Press

Watching the show though, I was left feeling slightly conflicted. ABBA’s pre-recorded voices, which were created by using audio from all stages of their career, were supported by a 10-piece band including vocals. Though this band were lit up for one song, they performed in darkness for the majority of the night. Though, presumably, this was to allow us to see the visuals, part of me felt I was appreciating the wrong thing. Focusing on pre-recorded holograms when there was a band playing simultaneously felt strange. The holograms did reference the unusual medium of the performance, as they joked they needed time for a “costume change”.

Yet the cynic in me wondered if they were programmed to make the same joke every night. I found myself thinking about the Black Mirror episode ‘Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too’. In the episode, a controlling music manager suggests hologram tours are the future of live performance, offering more profits and no need to worry about performer wellbeing. As much as I enjoyed the night, I was left with a yearning for the authenticity of the live experience. In the end, it was hard to not feel as though our applause was misdirected. Our clapping was projected not towards the live band or the scientists and animators who made this experience possible, but toward the holograms themselves.

Regardless of this, ABBA Voyage did offer an unashamed celebration of ABBA; a band whose music has soundtracked so many of our lives. It couldn’t replace a live gig, but it was an experience that my childhood self would never have believed.

 

ABBA Voyage is now booking until November 27 2023 at the ABBA Arena, London. For more information and best availability of tickets go to abbavoyage.com


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