Monday, March 7, 2022

Retrospective: Aquarium • Aqua



In elementary school, there was a certain type of child who knew how to burrow beneath the skin and remain there like a deep-seeded pimple. He had the loudest toys, the most obnoxious mannerisms, and the lowest attention span. And in our school, I was one of them. Another one of them had a cell phone – an uncommon, almost scandalous belonging for a child in 2005. On our daily 45-minute rural bus route together, he often leveraged the cell phone as his weapon of choice to annoy the bus driver and everyone around him. He had downloaded a selection of songs that could be curated only by a young boy with a MySpace account and access to a peer-to-peer file-sharing network, and he blared them from the tinny cell phone speaker from home to school, school to home every day.

There were countless performances of the Buckwheat Boyz’ “Peanut Butter Jelly Time,” the Vengaboys’ “We Like to Party! (The Vengabus),” and so many Crazy Frog songs broadcasted from that cell phone, alongside any other material that my troll of a classmate could grab off the internet that vaguely fell under the earliest ideas of a meme – a lethal set of one-off novelties that very well could have been produced by the federal government to push interrogation subjects into immediate capitulation. But one song in his arsenal didn’t seem so mindless at all. In fact, I always wished it was on heavier rotation in his setlist. It was catchy and risqué, but it seemed to carry a bit more meaning than any of the Crazy Frog songs, at least. The song was the 1997 eurodance track “Barbie Girl,” and it triggered a lifelong appreciation for Danish-Norwegian pop band Aqua.

• • •

In their first act run from 1996 to 2001, Aqua’s hallmarks were their quips and malleability. While Aquarius, an underappreciated sophomore effort, offers the best of their earlier work, Aquarium set the stage well: Their debut proved that Aqua could be many things, and quite literally anything, on one record, as long as they could exercise sound songwriting judgment and inject their wit into it. Within the construct of the same album, the band roleplays as communist pirates (“My Oh My”), hormone-injected plastic dolls with subliminal societal commentary (“Barbie Girl,” of course), rom-com Indiana Jones and Company (“Dr. Jones”), and an intergalactic sugar baby-daddy couple (“Lollipop (Candyman)”) – and all of them are believable. The original idea of Aqua could be projected onto just about anything make-believe, but the songwriting had to be sharp and intact. And as the official music video for "Barbie Girl" crests over one billion – yes, billion, with a B – views on YouTube, it's clear that their music has a way of sticking with its listeners.

Hijacking a playground rhyme to churn out a hormonal dance song, “Roses are Red” formed the bedrock of Aqua’s career with a plucky synth hook and a modified (and reversible!) Millennial whoop – and when the band reconvened for a greatest hits tour in 2008, it was reconfigured into a body-thrashing rock song as the band’s encore. (Talk about range, people!) The song primed us for numbers like “Doctor Jones” and “Calling You,” the original “Hey, kids! Spelling is fun!” of pop music. But “Turn Back Time,” meanwhile, steered Aqua’s Eurodance toward adult contemporary, a crossover genre that had invaded almost every adjacent territory by the end of the ‘90s, by subduing their electronics and revealing Lene Nystrøm’s voice as the band’s most significant instrument. The magic didn’t hinge on the goofy dichotomy between Nystrøm and René Dif: It was, and is, just a good pop ballad. Its success justified Aqua as a bonafide pop act, not just a dance floor filler to pad the gaps around “Macarena.”

• • •

In all fairness, to declare Aquarium a phenomenal record would land somewhere between revisionist history and a boldfaced lie. Two attempts to slow down Aquarium, including a dud of a piano ballad (“Be a Man”) and a strange Europop ballad that lacked the “Turn Back Time” nuance (“Good Morning Sunshine”), are ugly brick walls within the album’s framework. (“Good Morning Sunshine” is a real shame, given that it might have worked as a dance track, had the band committed to the idea.) Then there’s the matter of “Heat of the Night,” a gentrified nod to the late ‘90s Latin pop explosion: It’s so bad that I must assume it’s meant to be a failed parody of Latin pop based on only the most superficial understanding of the genre. (Ironically, Aqua would master both ballads and Latin pop influences on their follow-up, Aquarius. I’m telling you all, that record deserves so much more than it ever received. Fantastic stuff buried in that record.)

Despite its unforgivable shortcomings, though, Aquarium is nothing if not an informed, mostly competent pop record. Nystrøm’s vocal delivery can be attributed to the band’s best moments, but in most contexts, the album also spins Dif’s wonky baritone sing-rapping into something musical-adjacent. The two commit to each schtick on the album as they bounce lines off each other, exhibiting genuine musical (and for a few years, romantic) chemistry amid the comic relief their music often provided. And in that way, the impact of Aquarium may have been lost in the latest wave of poptimism: As it gained respect in cultural standing, pop music lost the ability to be just pop music. Its escapism is no longer accepted at face value, as we must also use the music as a vehicle to untangle and understand artists' heavy emotional baggage. Perhaps that’s for the best, but it will never negate the downright fantastic feeling that stems from a revisit to an album like Aquarium.

Aquarium was released regionally on March 26, 1997, under Universal Music, and in the United States on Sept. 9, 1997, under MCA Records.

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Maira Gall