AS FAR AS I can remember, ‘All That She Wants’ by Ace of Base is the only hit single ever to talk about a lady who uses men for stud service so that she can become an unwed mother. It’s slightly closer to ‘Papa Don’t Preach’ than to ‘One’s on the Way’ by Loretta Lynn; it’s also sort of about the same thing as Liz Phair’s ‘Fuck and Run’, except that Liz might not be planning on a baby yet.
Ace of Base are two males and two females from Sweden, home of ABBA and Roxette, and ‘All That She Wants’ has the frostbit feel of ABBA’s ballads about working women (‘The Day Before You Came’, ‘If It Wasn’t for the Nights’), but nothing in Ace of Base’s ditty indicates that their protagonist is employed a la Murphy Brown. I wish there were a line about how her life is very boring because she’s an office clerk (like Martha and the Muffins in ‘Echo Beach’) or at least a waitress in a cocktail bar (like the Human League in ‘Don’t You Want Me’, which legend has it was actually inspired by an article in a women’s magazine). But I’m not even sure that its subject matter is what made ‘All That She Wants’ such a huge European then American hit — maybe it’s just how the singer quivers some words as if she were in Jethro Tull, or how she warns, “She’s gonna getcha” in a demonic Eurodisco catwoman voice.
Ace of Base have managed to come up with a second hit, called ‘The Sign’; the video’s fun, but the song doesn’t strike me as very distinctive (though maybe its very undistinctiveness is what’s distinctive about it these days). Otherwise, ‘Waiting for Magic’ is sung by a sleeping beauty waiting “in a coffin” to be kissed and awakened, and ‘Happy Nation’ is the record’s saddest-sounding song. ‘Living in Danger’ has a Sahara rhythm and words about Albert Camus’ ridiculous novel The Stranger, just like ‘Killing an Arab’ by the Cure.
Cabaret accents and Gothic string and guitar parts give Ace of Base a dark moodiness, which they push along with reggae bass lines and house-music keyboards But since the vocals never quite take the forefront in the mix, the darkness is mostly atmospheric. Like most Europop, it’s weird mood music, and in theory I like it fine. But experience tells me it’s not the kind of weird I’d listen to much.
© Chuck Eddy, L.A. Weekly, 21 April 1994