By Brennan Carley
In 1998, Britney Spears traveled to Stockholm to record songs for her debut album, ...Baby One More Time, with producers like Max Martin and Rami Yacoub. She was one of many stars at the time who ventured to the Swedish city to capitalize on the words and sounds of its burgeoning pop scene. Months later, at a dance school only a few miles away, a team of record label executives convened to audition a group of 100 teenagers for a project they called the “ABBA Teens,” an homage to Sweden’s most popular musical export.
That year, ABBA were celebrating their 25th anniversary as a group, though they hadn’t released new music in nearly two decades. Beloved by an older generation of Swedes, ABBA were known around the world for their outrageous (and tax-evading) costumes, as well as their massive hits like “Dancing Queen” and “Waterloo.” Their songs hadn’t yet been repurposed into a long-running Broadway musical, which later inspired a blockbuster movie franchise starring Meryl Streep. ABBA weren’t, for lack of a better word, cool. But the ABBA Teens were meant to change that by introducing the foursome’s hits to a new wave of music consumers: pop-savvy pre-teens discovering their taste as they came of spending age.
One name change later, the four singers chosen became the A*Teens. Their first album, The ABBA Generation, topped the charts in Sweden and sold over 2 million copies worldwide. But it was their all-originals follow-up, 2001’s Teen Spirit, that broke the group in non-Swedish markets. “Bouncing off the Ceiling (Upside Down)” pierced the Billboard Hot 100 and became their biggest hit to date, catapulting the A*Teens from opening act to headliners. They toured the globe. They became Radio Disney mainstays, playing concerts across the United States with other popular early-aughts acts like the Baha Men and Aaron Carter. Teen Spirit went to No. 50 on the U.S. chart but captured the hearts and attention of young listeners around the world.
On the surface, things seemed perfect for the foursome, but after the release of their third studio album Pop ’til You Drop!, the group quietly disbanded without much notice. Fans were treated to a Greatest Hits album in 2004 and then… silence. It took until 2006 for a member to acknowledge publicly that the A*Teens were no more; it took many more for the group to reunite as friends, ready to revisit the whiplash six years that changed their lives forever.
While ABBA has seen their own cultural resurgence in recent years due in large part to the success of the star-studded Mamma Mia! movies, the A*Teens’ impact lives on, having given early opportunities to producers and songwriters who went on to work with major talents like Avicii, Zara Larsson, and Lady Gaga. 20 years after the release of Teen Spirit, the album that crystallized that legacy, MTV News Zoomed with each member of the group as well as the creative team who helped shape them into global superstars. (Members of ABBA declined to comment.) This is the oral history of the A*Teens, a teenaged cover band not built to last that somehow overcame all expectations to become one of the most beloved and successful groups of pop’s pre-fab era.
In 1998, approaching the 25-year anniversary of ABBA’s official formation at the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest, Stockholm Records began discussing plans to celebrate while injecting new life into the Swedish group’s back catalog.
Ola Håkansson (founder, Stockholm Records): I used to work with Agnetha [Fältskog, from ABBA], so I know the members quite well. I had a company called Stockholm Records and the idea was to try to launch Swedish artists internationally. Niklas was the marketing manager, and he came up with this idea: "What if we do something with the ABBA catalog?"
Niklas Berg (marketing manager, Stockholm Records): We had a concept and we had tour dates, because we were tying it to the anniversary. I bribed this one tour sponsor. I promised them we would be No. 1 on the charts, otherwise they didn’t have to pay for it. I said to my boss, "This must work."
Anders Johansson (A&R, Stockholm Records): We ended up trying a show school in Stockholm. We started off trying to find kids with a singing background, but a problem we have here with Swedes is that people love being successful but also comfortable. With the recording industry, being comfortable is not a good thing.
Berg: The idea was to have people 10 to 11 years old. But when we started to meet these people, we thought, "Oh, you couldn't put a 10-year-old girl on tour." When we met Amit, Sara, Dhani, and Marie, we said, "This is much better,” because they were 14 and 15 years old.
Håkansson: We went down there with a camera and said, "We're going to put together a group that will sing and dance ABBA music." They sang a song a cappella. We picked out Marie, Dhani, Sara, and Amit. They could sing and they could move, and they were young and really enthusiastic.
Amit Paul (member, A*Teens): I was brought up in an academic home, but I always had music with me. I was playing the piano when I was 4, and we were always singing. My main passion came through Lasse Kühler’s dance school, where we were discovered. I joined there when I was 13 on a whim. I spent almost all my time, apart from studying, at the dance school. I quit all sports and just did that.
Sara Lumholdt (member, A*Teens): I did the choir there as well, so it was everything from ballet, tap, show dance, jazz, choir, and jitterbug. I wasn't there for that long before we got the audition.
Dhani Lennevald (member, A*Teens): I started there when I was 7 because my older sister danced and I was like, "I don't want to play football and hockey. Fuck that. I want to do this." When I was 14, the head of the school called me and said, "I would like you to come next weekend. We have a little audition."
Marie Serneholt (member, A*Teens): I've known since I was very young that I wanted to entertain. Our dance teacher said a record company wanted to hold a big casting for a secret project. It was just supposed to be an album, and we were going to tour in Sweden for a summer. It was not supposed to be anything bigger.
Lumholdt: There were two different auditions. On the first, I sang “The Rose” by Bette Midler. On the second, I sang “Mamma Mia.” That's where they teamed us together. They put a song on and they're like, “OK, dance around, have fun!” They wanted to see chemistry in the group. We had such good fun. No one really knew how big it was going to become.
Håkansson: We put together the group like The Monkees. It was not something we do in Sweden. You can't do a Monkees here. That's not the right thing to do.
Serneholt: When we got cast, TV shows like [American] Idol didn't exist. We were the first group in Sweden that was cast.
Berg: We had really big plans from the start, so we had to discuss with them, "Are you prepared to be famous?" It was a stupid question. Of course they were not prepared.
Håkansson: Radio DJs remembered ABBA. But the young kids, they didn't have a clue. They heard [A*Teens’] “Mamma Mia,” and they saw this young, nice band and said, "That's a good thing." But the guys at the radio said, "This is an ABBA song. I don't want to play it." For me, the big challenge was how to persuade the gatekeepers to give it a chance.
Berg: In April of 1999, we released “Mamma Mia,” and it went No. 1 on the chart. I think it sold 225,000 copies just in Sweden.
Lennevald: When we released it, we were called ABBA Teens. The whole concept was supposed to be ABBA, but teens that make more updated versions so the new generation can connect to it. Thanks to growing up in Sweden, you don't think it's impossible. “I can do this because ABBA did it.”
Serneholt: I remember when we went to the States, everyone thought that we were the kids of ABBA. A lot of the young kids didn't know about ABBA. They heard our songs and they thought that these were original songs. They had no idea they were covers.
Berg: The name “ABBA” was owned by the record company at that time. So I talked to a guy and I said, “Could we do this? Because we are not ABBA.” He said, “Yes, but you have to talk to Björn [Ulvaeus from ABBA].” So I had a very short meeting with Björn, and he said, "Yeah, it sounds good. No problem."
A month later, there was an article in the Swedish papers saying, "[ABBA’s] Benny Andersson: This is not OK." And people came to me and said, "Are you stupid? How could you start ABBA without asking ABBA?" In the end, this was the perfect thing to happen because we took so much PR from ABBA that we were No. 1 on the single charts in Sweden. They all started talking about us. And we had to change the name.
Håkansson: A manager came up with the idea of A*Teens and then some dots. [I thought it was] clever, because A is a top grade in the U.S.
Serneholt: The record company felt like there could be a future for this group with original songs. Like, “We have something here.” We changed the name when we released “Super Trooper.”
In 1999, just one year after their initial auditions, A*Teens released their first album, The ABBA Generation. It debuted at the top of the Swedish charts, going double platinum there and gold in the U.S.
Lumholdt: Marie and I got to go to Varberg, a small city outside Gothenburg, where we had to record the album straight away. This was in December 1998, so it was only eight weeks [after the auditions]. I still have my old folders from back then with all the text and lyrics. We recorded six songs. It was just my and Marie’s voices at first, obviously, because the ABBA songs weren't featuring much of the boys’ singing.
Serneholt: We didn't think; we just sang. It had a very different sound to the old ABBA songs, but we just did it. I just sang it, but a lot stronger, because they wanted it to be aggressive.
Paul: That album was really our learning process. By the time we came in, the only thing that was missing on the tracks were our voices. There was zero flexibility.
Lennevald: The ABBA songs were what they were. You don't want to interfere too much with the creative part of it, because you're just, like, walking into the museum in Paris and being like, "Oh, Mona Lisa needs to be repainted. I think this needs a little mustache."
Paul: The international expansion didn't really start until 1999. That fall, we did a performance in San Francisco in front of the Universal Group managers. It was Aqua, and then it was us, then it was S Club 7. After that, they accepted us and pushed us into the world.
Serneholt: All of a sudden, everyone wanted us. I think we had 300 travel days each year. Every day was planned. That happened so quickly, but I was so thrilled. This was my dream.
Paul: At the first show in Sweden, there were a few thousand people in this town square. Those crowds were growing. Towards the end, it was 10, 15, 17,000 people in the crowd.
Lumholdt: When we were signed up to go tour with *NSYNC, that's when we were like, “Oh shit, this is big.” We got [Britney Spears’s dance coach] Wade Robson to do our choreography. We were kids having fun, enjoying tour, singing, dancing, traveling. No one really thought of it as a job.
Serneholt: We were sitting on a plane on our way to Chile to perform and they told us, “You guys are really big in South America.” When we landed at the airport, it was like a movie, with thousands of fans. There was a van that was riding next to us with a TV reporter hanging out the window. We had armed security day and night. I got a bit scared because so many people were trying to grab us. I lost my shoe, and then I saw that a reporter found my shoe and held it up on the news.
As the A*Teens became a global commodity, the pressure was on for Stockholm Records to strike while the iron was hot. In the middle of touring with acts like *NSYNC, Britney Spears, and Aaron Carter, the band began work on what would become their first all-original album, 2001’s Teen Spirit.
Håkansson: I wanted them to make another ABBA album because there were lots of songs I wanted to record. They said, "No, we want to do this thing," because they were young. I said, "OK, fine."
Serneholt: I think we all already knew during the first summer [of 1999] that we were going to get into the studio again to record a new album with original songs.
Johansson: To understand Teen Spirit, you have to take yourself back to Stockholm around that time, 1999 to 2000. Stockholm was booming. Everyone was in town making pop music. [Renowned producer] Denniz Pop had passed away, but Max Martin was taking it to the next level.
Paul: We were a big thing in Sweden at that time. But there wasn't a lot of room for artistic development. You came into the studio, you delivered, and then you were out again.
Serneholt: It was a lot of fun recording it, even though we did it quite fast. Instantly when you heard “Halfway Around the World” and also “Upside Down,” you knew they were going to be singles.
Johansson: There was a lot of competition out there, so we needed to be quick. I was running around studios because I knew, “If they send that song to Nick Carter for Backstreet Boys, he'll steal that one.” It was a really good time for pop. People call it a factory — yeah, there was a certain factory mode to it, but I think in a good way.
As far as the writing on that record, I had some briefs that I sent out. There was a camp down in southern Sweden where they came up with “Upside Down” when they played around with the Motown sound. Later on, we had “Halfway Around the World” come in, and then “Sugar Rush,” then “Firefly” — that was Marie and my favorite song. I think we cut about 20 songs.
Lennevald: That was when I started to work a lot with RedOne [who went on to produce Lady Gaga’s “Just Dance,” “Bad Romance,” and more]. We did a song with Savan Kotecha, too, one of the most talented writers I've ever met [who went on to work with Ariana Grande].
In 2002, the A*Teens released their third album, Pop ’til You Drop!, in the U.S. The next year, they put out New Arrival for the international market, which recycled six Pop songs and would become their final studio album. All the while, they toured the world.
Paul: We didn't have a lot of exposure to sex, drugs, and rock and roll. We were quite contained and protected. One could say that's boring, but I'm very grateful for it today. There were a couple of other Swedish acts — I don't want to mention any names — that were signed to other labels and they were ground down into dust. There was nothing left of them when they came out of it.
Johansson: We saw that with people that we toured with. You saw it with Nick Carter. You saw it with Aaron Carter, with Beyoncé with the breakup of Destiny’s Child. And Britney, of course — we did a bunch of tours with her.
Paul: It wasn't that she didn't want to hang out with us. It was that there was physically no time. The way that they worked her was insane.
Lennevald: One time, me, Marie, and Sara were in Beverly Center on a day off in 2003. We walked around and then we just saw, far away, a big group of people shouting and taking pictures. We went into a store and then five minutes later, these two big guys came inside. We turned around and in came Britney. Then she saw us and was like, "…A*Teens?!" We were like, "Britney fucking recognizes us! This is amazing!"
Paul: I had braces at the time. We were touring, then I came home, and I would have two weeks for being in the studio, for doing the exams that I needed to do for high school, and for getting my braces tightened.
Lumholdt: Marie and I got feedback on our website about what we were wearing and what we looked like. We didn't have Facebook. We didn't have social media. We had comments on our website. People were discussing whether or not we had eating disorders. Are we gaining weight? All of a sudden, it wasn't just having fun being on tour. It just went straight from joyful to, quickly, something else.
In 2004, the band released Greatest Hits, which contained three new songs, including one single. The band quietly went on hiatus. The A*Teens’ breakup was officially announced in 2006, two years after they parted ways privately.
Lennevald: With Greatest Hits, we were all like, "Isn't it time to move on — maybe?" We had such beautiful success. Are we really going to be that band that just forces things out? It came naturally to us to take a break.
Paul: We didn't really grow our relationships [within the group]. We missed those years in the basement, growing together. There were some different visions, and some different incentives, and different goals.
Lumholdt: We were still doing really well. The record company didn't want us to stop. I don't think our parents really wanted us to stop, either — we as teenagers said, “We don't want to do this anymore.” That didn't come from anywhere except us. We were the ones who sat down and said, “We can't lie anymore. We can't pretend that we're having a great time. Slowly, the magazines are going to realize that we're not the same crazy, fun, happy teenagers that we were three years ago.” That’s when we decided we couldn’t go on.
Paul: This passive-aggressive silent breakup, it's a really Swedish, conflict-avoiding way of dealing with it.
Serneholt: We got to be part of the music industry when it was really blooming, and you would sell records. But we also were part of the record industry going down. You could feel at the end that it's not as fun working in this industry. It had changed a lot.
Johansson: By the third album, it was pretty clear that they wanted to go do other things. Times were changing. [Justin] Timberlake was teaming up with Pharrell and Timbaland. The sounds were so different. As in every big trend, it's pretty clear once it passes the expiration date.
Lennevald: There wasn't ever a fight. In that way, A*Teens must have been the most boring band ever. People really wanted to angle it like, "Oh yeah, they're splitting up. They're arguing." We're like, "No, it's fine. Call it quitting, or that we're taking a break.”
Paul: It was such an intense period. Getting spit out on the other end was interesting. I refer to it as the best and the worst time of my life.
Serneholt: I lived with my parents and I didn't move out until a few years after we ended A*Teens, when I was 25. I just wanted to land a little bit and spend time with my family because we were away so much.
Lumholdt: We were four kids that had grown apart within six years. We started off being best friends, but there wasn't any time for us to be creative. We were a product. We performed, we interviewed, we did what we needed to do to get the CDs and tours sold and booked. That's it.
Paul: Coming out of that whole thing was... There were so many gifts. Now that I have two kids, it's a different life. The last few years, [A*Teens] has been starting to come up again and I've been dealing with it. Some of the imprints that it's made on me as an individual have started to feel urgent to look at it.
Lumholdt: When we finished, I wasn't ill, but I had really bad health. I was only 20 and I had the body of a 45-year-old. It was a lot of work, travel, and bad eating habits. My God, we ate McDonald's I-don't-know-how-many times a week. I had to write my will and testament in the same week as I got my health checked and it was kind of like, "Wait, what? I'm 20 years old and I'm dying." [Afterwards,] I got a dog. I got my own apartment. I moved away from the city. I had to push the stop button.
Håkansson: I think that they should have done another. We had another fantastic record that we could do with ABBA songs. But I think when they look back, they say, "This was a fantastic experience.” It was a good ending of the story for me as well.
After parting ways, all four members eventually returned to music, but only one remains in the industry today.
Lumholdt: I went to Los Angeles. I tried to do [music with the stage name] Sara Love, which was a really fun journey. A lot of those songs, they’re still my favorites, and they're unreleased. I went to Stockholm Records with my demos. They didn't want it because it was like Lady Gaga, and that was before Lady Gaga was famous. I came up with [the song] “Glamour Bitch,” and they were like, “No, it's never going to work.”
I had a great record — 10 amazing songs. I would definitely release them if I would find them because that's the problem now: I don't even know where they are. I tried again in 2012, for Melodifestivalen [Sweden’s version of Eurovision]. It wasn't just me singing on the stage; it was more for proving that I was worthy of being a part of the pop group.
I didn't have any interest in doing more. Been there, done that, got the T-shirt. But I'm really happy I got the opportunity because if I wouldn't have done that, I would probably not be as confident and comfortable as I am today. That made me realize that I've done my part. I don't need to do more music. I don't need to prove anything.
Lennevald: Because I had been in the studio experimenting with producers, I thought it was so much fun. I was the biggest Justin Timberlake fan. That was the direction I wanted to go. Anders came to me and was like, "We have this opportunity with Sony. They're going to release MP3 players trying to fight with the iPod." That's how long ago it was. "Let's put out a single with them that comes with the first 10,000 units." We found a song called “Girl Talk.” I wasn't super happy about it, but Anders was like, "This is such a good opportunity for you for the exposure."
Since then, I’ve started working with different artists. Carl Falk and I did the Stories album with Avicii in 2015. We went to L.A. and helped him finish it. By then, I had started developing an artist called Sandro Cavazza. Sandro sang on two songs on Stories. It was just such a great moment for us as music creators. I’m working on my own music now, too, as Dhani, and I have another project called DHARC. That’s all coming this year.
Paul: I joined business school. I jumped straight into that. After a couple of years, I ended up going back into the studio and recording my own thing and, frankly, getting a classical lesson in what it is the record companies actually do. Coming in thinking it's all about the art, and coming out thinking, “OK, the art's done but nobody cares.” That was an extremely painful process and also a fantastic learning experience. The songs A Key Of Mine that I released, I'm super proud of them.
Serneholt: I would have probably never gotten the opportunity to do something solo if it wasn't for A*Teens. I got in contact with [songwriter] Jörgen Elofsson, because I knew what he had done for other artists [like Britney and Céline Dion]. I was hoping to get one song from him, but he really believed in me and wanted to make the whole project together. He made the whole Enjoy the Ride album for me.
I did the solo record, but then I got approached to do TV as a presenter. I've been doing that for the past 10 years. The last music I released was in 2012, when I was part of Melodifestivalen. I don't really miss it. I love to entertain, and I get to entertain when I do what I do now.
Though they’ve never reunited as A*Teens, all four members have kept in touch, meeting for important life moments and the occasional dinner in Stockholm when their calendars align.
Serneholt: I have the A*Teens dolls still. I have some T-shirts from when it says “ABBA Teens,” the really early ones. That was so weird that we had dolls.
Lennevald: We said, "Let's meet twice a year." But that never happened. But we have a group chat on WhatsApp to be like, "OK, guys, when can you meet?" Now everybody has kids except me.
Johansson: [I said to them in the beginning,] “If you want to do this for a long time, you have to be best friends. You don't have to be best friends all the time, but you really have to get along and complement each other.” I'm actually really proud when I'm looking at the four individuals today because they're really good people.
Paul: In Sweden, we say, “You don't become a prophet in your own country.” ABBA was big, but if you compare it to the United Kingdom’s response to ABBA, Sweden was nothing. There was barely any interest at all. I think we started the revival. We came up alongside this whole Mamma Mia! musical and movies, and then it took off again. I think we laid the groundwork.
Håkansson: I remember every nice thing. I think it was a really fun time to do it. And I think they were absolutely fantastic as people and as artists.
Paul: Sara and I have always had a close bond. I went to her wedding. Every now and then, we all do group dinners, but it's infrequent. On a spiritual level, on a fundamental level, I feel very close to Sara, and both Marie and Dhani. They're very dear to me. I love them.
Lumholdt: I love the thought of reuniting. I would say yes. If someone gave me a phone call and said, Hey, we want a reunion tour,” I'll be like, "Fuck yeah."
Lennevald: It just depends on the actual occasion, you know? If it's for a good cause, then I would do it too, in a heartbeat.
Paul: If it is for charity, for the planet, for the world? In a minute, I'd be there.
Serneholt: If we were asked to present an award, of course I would be up for that.
Lennevald: From the A*Teens, I learned you can do anything. When we were rehearsing for the Britney tour, we were standing there with the biggest people in the business. I came from a small little dance school in Stockholm — like, what? There must be 1 billion people that can sing and dance better than I can, but it's not about that. It's about working hard.