Recently my wife and I watched the musical movie sensation Mamma Mia!, which is a screen adaptation of the musical by the same name. Given the movie's popularity--it recently unseated Titanic for highest grossing film ever in the United Kingdom--I probably do not need to explain what the film is about. However, I would like to mention that it is a musical entirely set to the music of the Swedish pop group ABBA, and this is relevant to what I am about to write.
I was never really a fan of ABBA. There was something rather too poppy about them for my tastes. Yet, while my wife and I watched, I found myself actually tapping my foot to the music, and for days afterwards I kept humming the music in my head and sometimes out loud. I was completely surprised by the impression this movie had on me, and it led me to quip to my wife that I've spent five years in Mongolia and all I've got to show for it is a stinkin' appreciation for ABBA.
ABBA, Bonnie Em, Suzie Quatro and Chris Norman, these are all musical "sensations" that live on in Mongolia hearkening back to a much simpler and drabber period in Mongolian history. This new found appreciation for ABBA comes from me thinking what it must have been like to hear this music for the first time on bootleg tapes in the 80s when it first made its way into Mongolia. It must have sounded like the most exotic and addicting of sounds, which I think says something more about the condition of life in Mongolia at the time rather than the musical depth of the groups. ABBA is catchy. You don't have to understand the lyrics to begin to dance along, and many of the songs have simple refrains which to the snobby critic might seem fatuous but to a non-native speaker of English are easy to pick up and sing. "Waterloo! Blah-blah-blah, da blah, my Waterloo!" is a good example.
This music has a special meaning in Mongolia because it has nostalgia attached to it which you won't encounter anywhere else. Watching Mamma Mia! I began to imagine it must have been a breath of fresh air or a window into a more colorful world beyond the Soviet Union when the music first began to be traded among high school and college students in Ulaanbaatar. It was something really easy to dance to at a time when many of Mongolia's senior democratic revolutionaries and conservatives alike were young and very impressionable. My new found appreciation for ABBA has a lot to do with understanding how something as frivolous as pop songs can really have a profound effect on the world. One can imagine that Zorig, Elbegdorj, and even President Enkhbayar were inspired in some measure to change the political landscape in Mongolia by the sounds they heard from groups like ABBA and Smokey (even if it doesn't seem to inform their decision making today). It's a really odd thing to consider, but is more believable and real to me now that I am sitting writing this and humming "Stumblin' In" to myself.
It is a fact that living in Mongolia walls off many mainstream sources of music, as well as many other forms of entertainment, by the standards I grew up in. But, really that happens in any country where you have the time to begin to appreciate the local tastes because of an inability to recreate one's world of entertainment back home. Living in Mongolia has definitely stretched my appreciation of Swedish and other pop music and the nostalgic position in holds in modern Mongolia. And, yet, I can still do without mutton, so Mongolia still has a long way to go in modifying my tastes overall, I suppose. But, ABBA is one victory I will give it.