Reflecting upon Popular Culture in Modern Britain
Swedish photographer Lisa Brunzell documents ABBA tribute bands in the United Kingdom, discovering British society’s everlasting passion for music and entertainment.
A fter winning the Eurovision song contest held in Brighton, England in 1974, ABBA became stars overnight and a symbol of Sweden across Europe. Their pop songs have reached many corners around the world and Britain still seems to remain close to the Nordic quartet.
When Swedish photographer, Lisa Brunzell, moved to Cardiff, Wales to complete an MA in photography, she was surprised that ABBA’s songs have been kept alive in Britain, finding a large number of tribute bands dedicated to the legendary pop band. The project began as a pure study of ABBA’s impersonators, yet she discovered how Britain’s rich music history contributed to the livelihood of the band.
Is Let the World Adore You the start of a long-term music based project?
I would like it to be. I am currently working on a dummy book to make some sort of closure or perhaps rather a sense of the work I have made so far. For instance, I would like to continue to follow the traces ABBA has left around the world. Depending on what I find, I could even consider another chapter of the story.
Why did you choose to photograph ABBA impersonators - did your Swedish background influence your decision?
Absolutely! I started the project while I was doing my MA in Wales and I had moved there without a clear idea for a series. It wasn't until people around me started asking all these different questions related to ABBA that it struck me how the band is still quite a thing in the UK and it might be interesting to do a project around this ongoing music phenomenon.
I was surprised how ABBA’s music lived on through tribute artists in the UK, and how many bands with the most amazing creative names you can find searching the internet. For example, the culture of tribute bands is something we don’t really have in Sweden; I think British people are incredible when it comes to enjoying entertainment.
When I began, I found it easy to explain the project, in short, for the people I was photographing. Being Swedish they seemed to take it for granted that I come with a natural interest for ABBA. Yet, the music from the 1970's was clearly out of fashion when I grew up and ABBA were considered something dull among children of my generation. In fact, my parents didn't even listen to it and I don't think anyone in my family owns an ABBA record. But still, I know most of the songs and the story of the members are everywhere around you growing up.
Do you think through music you were finding a common emotion between your native Sweden and temporary residence in the United Kingdom?
Yes, I think so. I was looking for something that would connect me to the foreign place I was living in. When you come to a new country, you are in a tricky position. For instance, coming to a place from outside and then trying to do a project there, all you see is the stereotypes and it’s difficult to not simply repeat someone else's project. At the same time, you might see different things coming from the outside perspective, which may contribute to the narrative.
I believe in a personal project you are always bringing yourself into every work you do, and I wanted to make that clear from the start of this project. Also, I think for myself, I needed to explain why it was me doing this project there and at that particular time.
How do you think the tribute artists are making their own individual interpretation of the original band?
As performers, I think they have to make their own individual interpretations of the member they are portraying. It’s a grey area between the performance and the self. As one of my friends explained it; you have to have Frida embodied in you. You can’t be focusing on playing a role and following a script as you are performing; she said she needed to be ready to react to the audience and change things depending on the mood and situation. She told me she feels like a different person when she is performing, not herself, but still not Frida. The bands always balance between playing and reality. “We are ABBA but we know that we are not. And we want you to know we know we are not. We don't want to put you in some kind of illusion that we think we are, because we can’t be.”
How did you first find one of the performers?
I was searching the internet and emailing all the different bands I had found. These bands all have very creative names - most of them refer to ABBA or their songs in different ways. It all became quite confusing and I needed to keep lists of the different bands, who I had been emailing, and what we had said.
Some of them have managers and others are running the business themselves. Usually I just emailed them to explain my project and if they agreed to take part they would come up with an idea for a gig so that I could go along too. I found it fascinating to find the range of different venues that would host the tribute shows - that’s why I let the landscape of these places take a role in the project. That is something I would like to explore more in the future. It was also fascinating to find that people from such different parts of society would enjoy the music and entertainment - it cuts through British society and I hope it reflects in the pictures where the variation of venues are prominent.
Are there any particular stories that you would like to highlight?
It was a real pleasure to see the audience interact with the performers. In some gigs people do their best to dress up in clothes inspired by the 1970's and sing along to every song played. I really appreciated how engaged they were and how they played along with the show. The audience is such a vital part of the whole illusion between reality and fiction that the performers are trying to create.
How do you think this project reflects our relationship to pop culture today?
I find it interesting how popular culture reflects upon the society and how society reflects upon popular culture. Popular culture isn’t a static thing: like culture it’s being created by people every day and translated into new contexts. I found it really interesting doing work on pop culture as it is often seen as kitsch and a commodity. For me this is a project about ABBA but even more so, I think it reflects upon the British culture today.
Lisa Brunzell is a Swedish photographer based in Gothenburg, Sweden. In 2017, she received an MA in Documentary Photography from South Wales University, Cardiff, Wales. Follow her on PHmuseum, Twitter, and Instagram.
Verónica Sanchis Bencomo is a Venezuelan photographer and curator based in Hong Kong. In 2014, she founded Foto Féminas, a platform that promotes the works of female Latin American and Caribbean photographers. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.