Illustration by Laura Thompson
The art of symmetry is a mathematical one. In its purest form it represents balance, from weights on a scale to the anatomy of the human face. Derived from the Greek summetria (“sun,” with or together, and “metro,” to measure), symmetry can be discovered both physically and metaphorically all around us.
In 1972, symmetry was found in a band of four Swedes called Björn & Benny, Agnetha & Anni-Frid. Their sound was a mix of pop and rock, with Björn and Benny’s vocals at the forefront, a slight deviation from the chart-hitting disco hits they would later be known for creating as the group ABBA. In 1975 they debuted under their now-famous moniker and released the smash hits “S.O.S” and “Mamma Mia,” which would secure their place in music history.
“ABBA” is both an acronym of its members’ names and a palindrome, a symmetrical word in essence that reads the same backward and forward. The group’s iconic logo came from the mind of designer Rune Söderqvist. According to the official ABBA site, “Rune’s thinking was that each ‘B’ (Björn and Benny) should be turned towards each ‘A’ (Agnetha and Anni-Frid) since they were two couples.” With this creation, Söderqvist cemented the mirrored design element into ABBA’s visuals and continued to integrate symmetry into the rest of the band’s album covers, which he went on to create.
Before Söderqvist’s logo came to fruition, the inspiration for symmetry as a key part of the group’s visual branding existed in the members’ personal lives. Prior to Benny and Björn meeting Anni-Frid and Agnetha, the former two artists were both in popular Swedish groups, The Hep Stars and the Hootenanny Singers, respectively. The men’s paths collided in 1966 when they began collaborating as composers. Three years later, they met Anni-Frid and Agnetha. Just like Benny and Björn, the two women were also on the same career path as solo singers. The four members entered into relationships, becoming Björn and Agnetha, and Anni-Frid and Benny—and this serendipitous beginning formed an early sense of real-time symmetry that would go on to influence their visuals.
As noted above, when it comes to engaging design, numbers play a role. Many academics reference the golden ratio and the rule of thirds, which are based on odd numbers, in terms of creating captivating compositions. These techniques help draw the human eye’s attention. Even numbers, meanwhile, please the eye for their balance—such as ABBA’s structure of four, with equal halves of matching pairs in gender identity, first initials, and musical roles.
Throughout ABBA’s discography, this innate symmetry is subtle in its appearance, similar to objects in nature. 1973’s Ring Ring depicts both couples facing each other, with the women chest to chest and the men embracing their partner. The cover is on trend with its hypnotic ’70s aesthetic and further emphasizes the symmetry by layering three versions of the same photo, Russian doll–style. In Waterloo, ABBA, and Arrival (which was the first album to have Söderqvist’s logo on it), the members’ diverse poses again highlight their equality in arrangement. This balance is most clearly explained in Stanford University’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which notes, “a different notion of symmetry emerged in the 17th century, grounded not on proportions but on an equality relation between elements that are opposed, such as the left and right parts of a figure. Crucially, the parts are interchangeable with respect to the whole—they can be exchanged with one another while preserving the original figure…such as reflections, rotations, and translations.” Agnetha, Anni-Frid, Benny, and Björn are all unique in their role in ABBA, yet each member can switch places, or reflect, rotate, and translate with one another on stage or in the frame, and form a harmonious, symmetrical image. It’s almost unavoidable.
In the music video for “Mamma Mia,” the balancing act continues, but this time it feels as though the group is leaning into their symmetrical destiny. The video cuts between shots of Agnetha and Anni-Frid perfectly centered, leaning on the natural symmetry of the human face, to shots of the two women equally taking up half of the frame while singing. Flashes of Björn flicker by, positioning him on opposite sides of the shot, tricking the viewer’s brain into creating an image of the guitarist staring at himself. Then, just before the chorus comes in, we land on a tight crop of Agnetha and Anni-Frid’s lips as the camera focuses in and out while they sing, shifting from the foreground to the background. In “SOS,” a kaleidoscopic lens and mylar-like surface is used to create hypnotic reflections of each member. For “Take a Chance On Me,” the video opens with the members in a grid, à la The Brady Bunch. As the music builds, Benny and Björn are swapped with one another in the frame, still holding the original image, pointing back to the 17th-century notion of translations in symmetry.
The harmonious cinematography continues in “Summer Night City” and “Knowing Me Knowing You,” favorites of Ingmarie Halling, the creative director and curator of ABBA The Museum in Stockholm. In an email interview, Halling, who originally helped with costumes and makeup on tour with the band, discussed the group’s approach to their visuals. “They were 100% involved in every decision, from costumes, songs, tours, ticket prices…everything,” she writes. “If one disapproved of something, it didn’t happen.” Even their decision-making had a balance of power. While Söderqvist helped visually translate their ideas, in the end it was the members of ABBA who intentionally sought to emphasize their fated design, from their music videos to their performance, stage formation, choreography, and fashion.
Speaking of the latter element—with their sparkles, bell bottoms, and spandex jumpsuits, ABBA is just as highly regarded for their matching costumes as they are their music. Humorously, the reason ABBA’s innate symmetry is so subtle is also due in part to their distractive disco glam. In 2005, Madonna released her hit “Hung Up,” which samples ABBA’s “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight).” Halling reveals that designer Jean Paul Gaultier “was very inspired by their outfits back in the day…[and] copied Frida and Agnetha’s jumpsuits” for the music video, in which Madonna partially dances in front of a mirrored studio—perhaps yet another ABBA cue.
The band’s symmetry makes one ponder where else a similar aesthetic structure appears in music history. When it comes to famous four-member bands, a long list comes to mind. In the ’60s, many groups, such as The Beatles, appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show sporting matching hairdos and outfits. But once the ’70s came along, that trend faded. Looking at bands made up of couples, there’s Fleetwood Mac—but their sordid timeline of affairs and odd number of members lacks harmony. The Mamas and The Papas had the same gender structure as ABBA, but were one couple off. Even ’90s shoegazers The Breeders, with twin sisters Kim and Kelley Deal—the ultimate symmetrical pairing of humans—falls short. ABBA’s multiple layers of balance is hard to compete with.
While ABBA has had an everlasting effect on pop stars and culture, just like how the band serendipitously began, the four members harmoniously parted ways in the early ’80s. The core symmetry of the group quickly vanished due to both couples divorcing. On the record sleeve of their final album before disbanding, The Visitors, one can feel and see that separation. The four members sit in a darkly lit spacious room, apart from each other, a harsh juxtaposition to their previous covers where they were always shoulder to shoulder. Yet even within that dim environment, an eerie sense of symmetry still exists, with Agnetha and Anni-Frid on the left and Björn and Benny on the right. Two columns, two groups of picture frames, and two tables leave the women and the men in their own separate yet still similar worlds.
Forty years later, ABBA reunited for their 2021 release, Voyage. The group has simultaneously been working on an in-person concert for Spring 2022, but with digital avatar versions of themselves. Given how mirror images have always been a thread in ABBA’s visual legacy, it’s fitting that these digital copies of the members would manifest in our new age of technology. While doing press for the new album, Benny and Björn have been the faces of the interviews, and Agnetha and Anni-Frid have only been seen in behind-the-scenes footage and heard on the record. Even with a reunion of sorts, ABBA still lives on in two halves.