Aqua – Aquarium (1997)

Aquariumcover1A lot of music blogs like this will one reminisce about what it was like when these albums came out, sort of doubling as a review and an exercise in nostalgia. Unfortunately I’m too young for most of the music covered here, and among modern stuff I’m usually a few years late anyway. But I do remember this one. I must’ve been in 5th grade when “Barbie Girl” came out, and for a kid who listened to Top 40 radio nearly every night this group seemed like they came from outer space. A lot of people loved it and a lot of people hated it, but it was one of those songs where even the people who hated it kinda liked it (maybe a similar analogue today would be “Baby” by Justin Bieber). Even the rock kids were into it. I certainly didn’t like it then, but enough of my friends owned either the CD or the tape and several years after I’d be subjected to it over and over on road trips (but only like, 3 or 4 songs on repeat). Eventually I developed some kind of musical Stockholm syndrome thing and I found myself enjoying it anyway.

In retrospect that really wasn’t too hard to do; this music practically begs you to let loose and get stupid. Today it feels like the sort of thing our kids are going to make fun of us for ever liking, perhaps in the same way we gave our parents shit for liking ABBA or the Bee Gees. But hey, we’re not alone; this album sold 14 million copies in two years and spawned seven singles. Most of them aren’t remembered in America today, but overseas this was like the Eurodance Thriller. It seemed like every month there was a group out there that wanted to be the new Aqua.

Really though, a lot of their success came from being in the right place at the right time. In 1997 people were getting sick of grunge and wanted to have fun again – hell, that first Presidents album sold 3 million copies. In addition most American audiences hadn’t really heard completely electronic pop like this before. Aqua were intriguing in ways that a lot of pop acts of the time weren’t – you had a helium-voiced lead singer, the shouty Mr. Clean-looking dude, a guy with liberty spikes, and someone who looked like a teenager, and nobody knew what any of them really did. Their videos were bizarre and wickedly funny, like cartoons acted out by real people. Every damn thing that came out of either singers’ mouth sounded like a double entendre, causing many of us to wonder whether or not “Barbie Girl” was dirtier than it sounded (it was, of course). This led to them getting sued by Mattel, which was a big deal in those days – at that point it was just about the best thing that could’ve happened to them.

So how does Aquarium sound today? Absolutely ridiculous, but that’s how it sounded back then too. I mean it’s difficult to make it through any Europop album from cover to cover and in that sense I think the thing holds up pretty well. Many of these songs I remember from the first few seconds that it took to hit the ‘skip’ button (“In the heat of the night, we are having a f—–“). There are some slower tunes here which are really not that bad, but are so clearly there because some producer told ’em, “they can’t all be thumpers”. But the best tracks are the six that we played over and over; “My Oh My” with the horse and that awesome harpsichord, “Roses are Red” which has that “come pick my roses” line, “Calling You” which demands to be shouted at the top of your lungs, the ludicrous earworm “Candyman”, “Barbie Girl” (of course), and “Doctor Jones” which is really one of the greatest pop songs ever written, and yes I do mean that. The rest of it I vaguely remember – I forgot that “Good Morning Sunshine” had a hilarious rap section in the middle, or that funky sax part on “Turn Back Time” that’s totally out of place. Hell I even underestimated what a spit-out-your-soda moment “come pick my roses” was.

Actually in hindsight this album is not nearly as paper-thin as I remembered it. It’s campy, but they work hard at it – there are strings and Spanish guitars, and most of the songs do have bridges and pre-choruses and all the things that good pop songs usually have. They’ve got focus; nearly every tune hovers around 3:30, outside of the slower songs which go over 4 minutes. They often get lumped in with stuff like the Vengaboys and Smile.dk, but to me they’re a bit more like ABBA (doesn’t “Calling You” sound like it could be them?). In other words they’re songs that justify looping over and over again if they bite you – I was not surprised to find “Doctor Jones” in my iTunes top 25 Most Played list. Amusingly enough, super-serious rock critic Piero Scaruffi gave this a 7/10, which means he thinks it’s a better pop album than anything the Beatles did outside of Sgt. Pepper. Certainly this is not a great album, but I’ll be damned if these guys didn’t know what they were doing.

Still, they had no hope for longevity, and they knew it too. They released the follow-up Aquarius in 2000, and we all were aware of its existence, but nobody was interested in hearing it even though we were still bumping Aquarium regularly. In hindsight, Aquarius is probably a better album, or at least a more sophisticated one. Lene went from dating Mr. Clean to dating (and later marrying) Liberty Spikes, and the resulting tension was just too much for them to handle. Lene failed to become a sex-em-up (?) pop star and Rene Dif started doing that thing where you shout over worn-out 80’s hits (same as what Scooter does), and released singles with titles like “The uhh uhh song” and “Uhh la la la”. Eventually Aqua reformed and even released a new album (2011’s Megalomania), which was decent, but it sounded like everything else on the radio in 2011. Let me put it this way: on Aquarium you weren’t sure if they were in on the joke, while on Aquarius you knew they were but it was still funny anyway. On Megalomania it seems like they don’t know what the joke is anymore. There’s one song on it that originated in the band’s early days and you know exactly which one it is. What they originally criticized is what they wound up turning into. Isn’t that how it always goes?

As for whether or not this still relevant: probably not, though I do see a lot of Aqua’s ideals reflected in the current crop of stars (at times Katy Perry feels like a carbon copy of Lene Nystrom, minus any subtlety whatsoever). They certainly played dumb, but there was a real backbone behind their music, and “Barbie Girl” stands as one of the few 90’s hits that holds up despite being so inexorably tied to its period. Maybe I’ll hate it again when I’m 30.

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5 thoughts on “Aqua – Aquarium (1997)

  1. Waffitti

    The first time I heard Barbie Girl was on a Barbie commercial. That whole legal schkebabble was possibly the best thing to have happened to Aqua. I get that with the cover they were to go for a whole underwater people thing, but the effect is just disturbing for some reason. Baseing myself off the Barbie Girl video, spiky does melodies, normal does beats/rhythm, and baldy & girl do vocals. Compared with what else europe unleashed into the world at the time (“I eat my rice & curry…”), it’s surprising how Aqua ended up sounding like,someone should make a documentary dedicated to these guys’ careers, even if like only 8 people will end up watching it.

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  2. critterjams Post author

    You can watch some shows of them in 2008 – crowd seems pretty full, mostly people my age I’d imagine. Rather surprisingly they added a bunch of guitars and drums to beef up their sound a bit (none of which were played by the band members) – tis a shame their new album didn’t have that sound. Europe definitely put out a ton of trash in this period (I remember Toy-Box, a band that patterned everything off Aqua, and did it rather poorly to boot, but still managed a decent-sized single); this album holds up pretty well! Making this kind of music must be tougher than it seems 😉

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  3. Waffitti

    It’s kinda odd that one-hit wonders manage to draw a decently-sized crowd. In one hand the people who were around when they hit big are probably the main way they can make money playing music, on the other hand that ends up tying them artistically to what sells tickets and they have to play the same 1/2 hits every show (tough as far as I know Flock of Seagulls and Barnes & Barnes are the only one-hitters that have outright resented their biggest hits). Aqua (I think) was one of the few euro-pop bands to hit big that didn’t build themselves around a specific gimmick, unlike say, Rednex, who were already trying to capitalize on past glories by their second single. I remember a band from around the same time, Cartoons, took the whole “cartoon people” aspect from Aqua and pushed it hard, their big hit was a cover of Witch Doctor, it kinda seems like Aqua was the only one with prospects for the future really.

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  4. Pingback: New Radicals – Maybe You’ve Been Brainwashed Too (1998) | Critter Jams

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