Frida - There’s Something Going On
tylus Magazine's Seconds column examines those magic moments that arise when listening to a piece of music that strikes that special chord inside. That pounding drum intro; a clanging guitar built-up to an anthemic chorus; that strange glitchy noise you've never quite been able to figure out; that first kiss or heartbreak; a well-turned rhyme that reminds you of something in your own past so much, it seems like it was written for you—all of those little things that make people love music. Every music lover has a collection of these Seconds in his or her head; these are some of ours.
Homos and housewives rightly praise ABBA for delectable melodies and jeu d’esprit, but there’s a reason why later hits like “Does Your Mother Know?” and “One of Us” are skipped in favor of “Waterloo” and “Take a Chance on Me” on the playback mechanism of your choice. The discordance between the bittersweet drive of the music, confessional lyrics, and increasingly desperate singing of Frida and Agnetha starts to curdle the intended effect. The oppressiveness has more in common with the regnant New Romanticism and other punk-inflected music—like, say, the chemical-fueled schizophrenia of Elvis Costello’s Trust—than a pop fantasyland. The songs require effort, posing questions which the singers can't answer. Message and medium clash.
This is not to say that these tensions weren’t obvious during ABBA’s imperial 1975-1980 run. Since desperation and disco are as inseparable as mirrorball and lights, it's easy to parse the likes of "Voulez-Vous" and "Lay All Your Love On Me"; but an earlier tune like "Take a Chance on Me" is positively unhinged, thanks to Frida's wobbly high tenor, which never loses its girlish gaucheness. To sound terrifying—to enact the role of a girl who knows she’s being cheated on but will still claim victimhood—reinforces Frida’s humanity, even if this doesn’t make her particularly empathetic (whatever: it gives the lie to those fools who still think ABBA made robo-pop).
Her marriage to Benny Andersson in ruins, adrift after ABBA’s final album The Visitors (as despairing and hollowed-out as Blood On the Tracks), Frida hooked up with the unlikeliest of collaborators—or so it would seem. Phil Collins’ resume adduces his taste for subversive pop; a man who drummed on Brian Eno’s Before and After Science and John Cale’s Helen of Troy couldn’t have been numb to their impact (despite being unable—reluctant?—to write these kinds of songs for his own albums). Whatever else you may feel about this preening, sinister McCartney-esque polymath, he knew exactly what to do with Frida on Something’s Going On, selecting material that assuaged an audience looking for medium-tempo confections that played to her girlishness, some of which came from sources (Gerry Rafferty? Bryan Ferry?) not known for farming out songwriting. Most of it is amiably superficial, like letters from a college friend with whom you’ve lost contact. Who knows what her former svengalis thought. The very packaging discourages intimacy (the record sleeve, on which Frida’s head emits a sickly pink aureole, looks like an ad for “feminine” products), and we know how Benny and Bjorn felt that the i-word upset profit margins—er, art.
The Russ Ballard-composed title track is the stunner, the most adventurous recording of Collins’ career. It opens, fittingly, with cymbal-less martial beats, mixed way high, as is Collins’ wont (he’d repeat this trick on Eric Clapton’s “She’s Waiting”; after five minutes she’s still waiting). It reminds me of Peter Gabriel’s “Intruder,” a barbed depiction of a burglar’s pathology. Collins’ intentions are clear: Frida’s own mental state is perilously close to pathological, if not madness. Note the friction between her thin, vulnerable voice and the walloping arrangements; the absence of Agnetha’s dusky counterpoint renders Frida’s isolation starker.
There is something going on, the power chords and multi-tracked chorus vocals insist; assurance as an example of insanity. This is one of the few instances in which the cavernous mixes characteristic of eighties pop productions suited the material, as Frida strains to close the gap between ignorance and the real state of affairs between her and the “you” on the other end. The victimhood she attains in “There’s Something Going On” is truly monstrous, but you can’t laugh it off. That the lyrics are insignificant (I didn’t remember them even after studying them before writing this article) adds to the song’s poignancy. The mad don’t need reasons—they need merely a context. For the listener, playing this after “Take a Chance On Me” creates all the context you need.