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ABBA Voyage
Image: Stufish Entertainment Architects / Time Out

How ABBA’s 2022 virtual concerts could change the face of live music

Will this exciting digital technology allow musical icons to live for ever?

Written by
Alim Kheraj

It’s time to dust off your flares, pull out those platform boots, grow out your facial hair and get your hair feathered because – SOS! – ABBA are back! Not only have the group reformed to release their first album in 40 years, but for the first time since disbanding in 1982, the Swedish pop band will be performing live again. Well, sort of...

Taking a chance to say thank you for the music once more, in May 2022 the pop icons are launching ABBA Voyage, a concert residency taking place at a purpose-built arena near London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. Joined by a ten-piece band, the group will perform songs such as ‘Mamma Mia’, ‘The Winner Takes It All’ and ‘Waterloo’, as well as tracks from their platinum-selling new album Voyage. The quirk is that they won’t actually be there. You see, ABBA Voyage is no normal show.

In this so-called ‘immersive digital concert experience’, dancing queens Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad, and instrumentalists and songwriters Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus will be performing virtually via custom-built digital avatars, which have, of course, been dubbed their ABBATARS.

For more than two years, the band – as well as a bunch of creatives and tech wizards at a visual effects company that was founded by Star Wars creator George Lucas – have been beavering away to create a unique live music experience. Rather than have the band appear as they currently are – each member is now their late sixties or seventies – ABBA Voyage will feature them as they were in their 70s prime. The group will be digitally recreated to mirror their appearance back when they stormed Eurovision and kickstarted a 50-year musical legacy that has seen them sell 400 million records.

ABBA Voyage
The ABBATARS. Photograph: ABBA Voyage

These ABBATARS are not CGI holograms, which have been agitating the live music business since Tupac Shakur appeared on stage at Coachella in 2012 around 15 years after his murder. Since then, the technology has been used to bring Michael Jackson back to life for a performance at the 2014 Billboard Awards, and more recently for tours that have seen Roy Orbison and Whitney Houston grace the stage after their deaths.

These digital representations of deceased artists have been met with a mixture of wonder and revulsion. Before his death in 2016, Prince called them ‘the most demonic thing imaginable… and I am not a demon’. Reviews of the Orbison and Houston tours, meanwhile, drew mixed reviews, with one critic describing An Evening with Whitney as ‘a ghoulish cash-in’ by the late singer’s estate.

What none of these holograms have had, however, is the artist themselves involved. That, according to ABBA Voyage director Baillie Walsh, is what sets this endeavour apart. ‘That’s the wonderful thing: this isn’t a posthumous show,’ he says over a Zoom call. ‘We’re working with people who are alive and they’ve spent a lot of their own time being filmed, to be the heart and soul of this show. That’s been a great joy for me because you’re collaborating with these four really wonderful people.’

ABBA spent five weeks being filmed by 160 cameras for motion capture as they performed the songs that will make up the show’s 96-minute runtime. ‘That was with [choreographer] Wayne McGregor, who had some very basic choreography for them,’ Walsh recalls. ‘Wayne [then] extended and exaggerated all of their moves for the second shoot with younger body doubles. He gave them the same choreography in a sense but just made it much more complicated and much younger, I suppose.’

ABBA Voyage
The ABBA Arena. Photograph: ABBA Voyage

Walsh says that another reason that holograms weren’t the right avenue for ABBA is that the technology just wasn’t up to scratch. ‘They felt very robotic and digital,’ he says. ‘They weren’t quite believable and the technology was limiting. Holograms limit the light you can use and how you use them. I think that Whitney Houston show was a good example of that: to put someone else’s head on a body and make it 3D is just not enough.’

The potential of this technology is enormous. ‘It’s a way of allowing icons to live for ever,’ says James Hanley, the news editor of IQ magazine, a publication focused on the international live music business. ‘On the recorded side, you see catalogue releases from years and years ago getting repackaged and re-released, and in a way it’s similar to that. It’s another way of enhancing the legacy and keeping it going.’

In theory, if artists like Madonna, Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones and Jay-Z were thinking ahead, they could record themselves now for posterity, their avatars then touched up and brought to life on stage once they’re no longer with us. ‘I think some will be totally against that,’ says Hanley. ‘But there will be others who are bang up for it and who do the work now so they can live long after they’re gone.’

Hanley believes that if the ABBA shows are a success, they will only encourage more artists to follow suit, although the technology will also be used to bring artists back from the dead. ‘I think David Bowie is the obvious one,’ he adds. ‘He had so many different phases that would lend itself to a show such as this. There would be so much you could do there. I think even possibly The Beatles. There’s a band who haven’t performed together for 50 years and actually didn’t tour for the last four years of their career. That was the most colourful time for them. That could be recreated and could be quite spectacular, I think.’

ABBA Voyage
Photograph: Baillie Walsh

For Walsh, however, the technology only goes so far. ‘I think people get very bored with the idea of technology. I think it’s very exciting for geeks and someone like me who is a filmmaker, but the general population are not that interested. What they actually want is great entertainment,’ he says. ‘I mean, the great thing about our show is that we do have a live band, which always adds a sense of tension and beauty to things. If we manage to make people sing, dance and cry, then we have a great show.’

Of course, the proof will be in the disco-clad pudding. How exactly these ABBATARS will be presented on stage is still a tightly held secret, although Walsh teases the show will, in some fashion, tell the story of ABBA, with each song given a different theme or narrative. ‘We are taking it back in time and we are recreating the energy of 1979 but in today’s world,’ he adds. ‘We have the young ABBA presenting themselves in 2022 and asking: who would ABBA be now?’

Hopefully the answer to that question is simple: they’re still a great pop group. But even if the ABBATARS turn out to be monstrous creations that give concert-goers nightmares for years to come, ABBA’s music hasn’t changed – it remains the same joyous, emotionally gutting, cheesy and delectable pop that it’s been for decades. It’s the sort of music that you can’t help but get pulled in by, no matter who you are.

‘I think because the music is so loved and such a part of our lives, the reality is that the show is going to be a communal experience,’ says Walsh. ‘The show is the music and I think that the visuals, at the end of the day, are going to be the cherry on the cake.’

ABBA Voyage opens on May 27 2022 at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London. You can buy tickets here.

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