Review Summary: In the pop-music speakeasy, Aqua is the ditzy, bubble-gum-blowing airhead, standing in the corner waiting for her Prince Charming: vapid, a little annoying, but ultimately harmless.”Come on Barbie, let’s go party”.
If you were anywhere from 3 to 300 in the summer of 1997, these words probably bring back images of people in brightly-coloured outfits swimming in an electric-blue ocean. In fact, the insidiously catchy Barbie Girl
runaway hit of that summer, catapulting its authors, Aqua, to their ever-so-fleeting fifteen minutes, in the process influencing other cartoony dance-pop bands, such as the Cartoons and the Vengaboys. And, of course, the success of that single reflected on the group’s debut album itself, with Aquarium
immediately becoming a mandatory purchase for all who loved the song.
At barely twelve years old, I counted myself in that group, but unfortunately I never did get to own the album, although I heard it extensively at summer camp. In fact, for me, that album and its numerous singles will forever be associated with dance-club night, trips to the beach, and that darn-cute redhead everybody in my common room had a crush on. Even listening to it today makes feel eleven again, if only for a few minutes. Unfortunately, said listens also highlight many of the problems my prepubescent self had not managed to pinpoint all those years ago.
Still, for all its flaws, Aquarium
is worthy of somewhat more respect than most of its dance-pop counterparts. To begin with, unlike said counterparts, it amounts to something more than a collection of fluffy songs surrounding a hit single. Make no mistake, the songs are
incredibly fluffy, but at least half of the eleven songs included on the original edition are fun, memorable, and very strong within their genre. In fact, next to numbers like My Oh My, Turn Back Time
or absolute highlight Dr. Jones, Barbie Girl
even comes off as a little underwhelming. The first half of the album is undeniably strong, and even over ten years later, most of its hooks still came back to me like it was yesterday.
Which isn’t to say even those songs don’t have their problems. Of course, this being dance-pop, you can expect vapid beats, terrible couplets (”are you really sincere”
with ”I’m gonna disappear
”) and at least a few bad ideas (whoever came up with that rap section on Good Morning Sunshine
, I hate you). Also, most of the songs suffer from a bad case of repetition, relying heavily on the comical contrast between helium-voiced female vocalist Lene Marlin and her comically gruff male counterpart, René Dif. Not to mention, literally half of them seem to have the exact same beat, and sometimes even reuse the same melodic ideas (such as the similar-sounding keyboard lines on My Oh My
and Dr. Jones
). Still, the strong, catchy hooks allow us to somewhat overlook these flaws, as well as the intentionally silly lyrics.
In fact, siliness
seems to be a lynchpin for Aqua. Their neon-coloured image is kitschy as hell. Lene Marlin is clearly forcing her squeaky pitch (as the slower tracks show, she can actually sing) and the lyrics sound like a 10-year-old’s romantic fantasies, whether they revolve around knights and castles (My Oh My
), dolls (Barbie Girl
), summer adventure-camp flings (Dr. Jones
) or, puzzlingly, candy (Lollipop (Candyman)
). On tracks like In The Heat Of The Night
or Be A Man
, things get somewhat raunchier, as if the little girl’s teenaged older sister had taken over; but Aqua seldom cross the line into sexual innuendo, the way so many of their peers do.
Another point in favour of Aquarium
is that, plastic as it may be, it does seem to have a genuine musical backbone. Unlike the Milli Vanillis and the Vanilla Ices, Aqua sound as if they descended from the likes of Roxette, Whigfield or even the Bangles. Of course, this isn’t true of every
song on the album, as both slower tracks evidence some of the cornier influences described above. Be A Man
in particular is an album low point, as it sounds like a cross between the Bangles’ Eternal Flame
and something Milli Vanilli may have wrote. But to give this album credit, it is about 70% in before filler starts to appear.
Unfortunately, once it does
appear, there is no two ways about it: nearly the whole second half of Aquarium
is filled with unremarkable, throwaway songs which do little but recycle ideas already used in the singles. This tendency is exacerbated in the “Special Edition”, which adds a new song – that sounds exactly the same as all the others – and a few remixes, of which only the one for Turn Back Time
actually improves upon the song. These tracks help drag the album into the vicinity of overkill, slowly sapping away the fun which emanated from the early songs. As a result, out of the whole second half of the album, only Turn Back Time
At the end of the day, however, it’s hard to stay mad at Aqua or Aquarium
. For all its flaws, Aqua actually seem like they’re trying with their debut effort: they show good ideas within the genre, like somewhat full sets of lyrics, and try to offer a varied gamut of song tempos and ambients. And while their ideas are not always successful, the overall fun feel of the album makes the listener feel like being lenient and just dancing around. In the pop-music speakeasy, where the likes of Ke$ha are the drunk, coked-up white-trash tramp going around trying to chat up all the guys, Aqua is the ditzy, bubble-gum-blowing airhead, standing in the corner waiting for her Prince Charming to come along and sweep her away on his Jaguar to his yacht in the Riviera: just as vapid, and maybe a little annoying, but ultimately much less noxious and lots more fun. ”Come on Barbie, let’s go party!”
My Oh My
Turn Back Time