Today marks twenty years to the day since Aqua released their debut album ‘Aquarium’. March 26th 1997 saw the Danish-Norwegian band put it out across Scandinavia, with the rest of the world getting it a few months later in September.
Initially they were releasing the album off the back of two hit singles across the Nordic region – ‘Roses Are Red’ went to number 1 in Denmark, 2 in Norway, and 5 in Sweden, while ‘My Oh My’ gave them another Danish number 1, and in Sweden went one place higher than its predecessor – number 4. But despite this, no one on March 26th 1997 could ever have predicted – or would have believed – what that album would go on to achieve.
‘Aquarium’ hitting number 1 on all three of the album charts of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden was the first pleasant surprise. But it was the subsequent release of the third single from the album – ‘Barbie Girl’ – were things really started to go mental. Even though it was the first song to be put out post the release of an album that was already doing enormously well, ‘Barbie Girl’ became their biggest hit to date on home territory, and managed to score the trifecta of Nordic number ones across Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. Buzz around the song spread throughout the continent, with the single eventually hitting number 1 everywhere from the UK to France, and from Spain to Italy. Australia followed – another number 1. And they even got round to peaking at number 7 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the US. Something which at that time was very rare for a European act, and virtually unheard of for that style of music. You don’t need us to tell you what an absolute phenomenon that song became. And it remains to this day one of the most well-known songs of all time, like ever, like in the history of the universe and beyond. One of the most loved amongst pop fans, and the most hated amongst everyone else. And YAY to both!
‘Barbie Girl’ is what EVERYONE remembers about Aqua. But to us pop aficionados, we know that there was a hell of a lot more to them. Namely that debut album which turns twenty today. ‘Aquarium’ wasn’t just ‘Barbie Girl & Ten Other Songs You Might Also Like’. It was one of the definitive pop albums of the 90s. Yes it was bubblegum pop. But it wasn’t ashamed of it. And it was the good sort. The kind of bubblegum that keeps its flavour for an eternity and stops you from ever spitting it out. Personally speaking, we’d never heard pop music made like that. Tunes that on the very surface might have seemed like they were meant for kids, but that were incredibly produced and brilliantly crafted – so that they crossed over to mass appeal whether you liked it or not. Pop music that was literally irresistible.
And ‘Aquarium’ was irresistible pop across a whole album. With not many people managing to resist either. Because what it did go on to achieve for the group turned into a phenomenon of its own – with the help of, but outside of ‘Barbie Girl’. 14 million copies sold worldwide – 3 million of those in the US alone. Number 1 in Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and Italy. Top 10 in the US, the UK, Spain, Germany. And the rest. No Danish act has ever sold more albums. No Danish album has ever sold more copies. And it’s safe to say that in the age of sales we’re in now – no Danish album ever will.
Exactly twenty years on from ‘Aquarium’, here are exactly twenty reasons to celebrate it.
It takes precisely six seconds to ALL! GO! OFF! When an album starts with a WHOOSH and a command to “BE HAPPY” – you know exactly what you’re in for over the next forty minutes.
TWO: AH YIPPIE YI YEAH
One hit wonder, you say? Life in plastic might well be fantastic, but Aqua truly knocked any nonsense accusations of novelty on the head, when they revealed to the world that they DO take this sort of music very seriously thank you very much, and here’s just how unflinchingly brilliant it can be. Their second UK number 1 single, ‘Doctor Jones’.
Closing the ‘Aquarium’ album with ‘Turn Back Time’ would have been obvious. Easy. Almost lazy. So no – let’s remind the listener why they’re here, what we do, and leave them with one final kick up the arse. “Oper-a-a-a-tooooooooooorrrrrr”
FOUR: PRESENTED IN AQUASCOPE
Oh to experience life through a permanent aquascopic lens.
FIVE: “WHEN EVERYTHING STOPS
…………………for a minute in your life”.
SIX: THE CANDYMAN
We love a sinister S&M lyrical undertone in pop.
SEVEN: COMING FROM BOUNTYLAND
The space themed video for this anthem sees Lene serving wig after wig while being terrorised by a…….a……isn’t that a pet iguana?!
Before they became fully fledged purveyors of Europop – the poster act for the genre at that time in fact – they were techno ravers. Mercifully, they left a smidgen of those halcyon days on ‘Aquarium’, with ‘Roses Are Red’ slotting in nicely near the end. If ‘Happy Boys & Girls’ were still playing with…..well, barbies, ‘Roses Are Red’ was the older sister sneaking out to weird dance happenings.
NINE: WEIRD DANCE HAPPENINGS
To most of us, who were introduced to Aqua via the gloss and sheen of the ‘Barbie Girl’ video, it was QUITE the eye opener to then catch a glimpse of their prior humble beginnings in the ‘Roses Are Red’ vid. Vaseline smeared lenses meant that they were serving RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 1 realness long before RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 1 educated us as to what serving realness even meant.
TEN: THEIR LOOK
You might see a pic of them now and think that this is how people styled themselves in the 90s. But in the UK at that time – we just thought that this is how Danish people styled themselves in the 90s.
ELEVEN: THE LOOK
Their band name logo had an eye in it to look like a sea creature. And the aquatic theme was maintained religiously on the artwork for ALL of their releases. Even their seriousballad ‘Turn Back Time’. An admirable adherence to continuity.
Ok, so let’s get serious. Not just seriousballad, but proper serious. ‘Turn Back Time’ wasn’t just “oh look at us, we can be diverse“, or “oh listen to Barbie, she can actually sing“. It served both of those narratives of course, but so did other songs on the album. What ‘Turn Back Time’ was – and did – was a solidification of Aqua’s genius at songwriting. It’s not merely them chucking out a ballad to assist people to come down off of the sugar rush that ‘Doctor Jones’ et al gave them. It’s Aqua presenting to the world a brilliant pop song. To go alongside the other brilliant pop songs they had just released. They were masterful songwriters – whatever the sound, style, or tempo they wanted to turn their hand to. ‘Turn Back Time’ is one of the definitive ballads across the world from the late nineties. And it came from ‘Aquarium’.
THIRTEEN: SOUND OF THE UNDERGROUND
If TFL allowed Aqua to roam around Holborn station at night to recreate the Sliding Doors film, then why can’t we roam around Clapham North station recreating the ‘Turn Back Time’ video? We bloody well can, and we bloody well do.
FOURTEEN: OH RENE
All four members were involved heavily in the songwriting of the album. But while Søren and Claus produced the whole record and made it the masterpiece of the genre that it is, and Lene provided the majority of the vocals, bringing those very songs to life – Rene’s contribution to the final sound of ‘Aquarium’, and to the very essence of Aqua itself, shouldn’t be underestimated. Without him they could have been another ten-a-penny female fronted Eurodance act. But with him, they seemed like a proper band. The kind who could appear on the cover of Smash Hits (which they did). But also a one-of-a-kind band – because what other band at that time or indeed EVER has had a bloke like Rene in it?! And when his vocal input was brought to the fore and given the chance to share center stage status with Lene’s, he did it with aplomb. Whether it meant he ended up being a bald white guy contributing an American accented rap, a bald white guy grunting menacingly that he IS the very Candyman, or a bald white guy pretending to be Barbie’s boyfriend Ken. What a guy.
FIFTEEN: IMITATION IS THE SINCEREST FORM OF FLATTERY
Aqua’s admittedly unforeseen stratospheric success with ‘Aquarium’, evidently caused a rush of other Danish musicians to stop what they were doing and start chasing that plastic pink convertible Cadillac. And that small Scandinavian nation launched a lot more imitators than anyone could have expected from them. Daze presented us with another song themed around a popular kids toy ‘Tamagotchi‘, Hit n’ Hide fought for our attention with ‘Space Invaders‘, and Aqua’s turbo tempo’d bubblegum pop even inspired six Danes to believe they could make it as a group of actual Cartoons (which they did – extending their success to three Top 20 hits in the UK). But if Mattel thought it appropriate to attempt to sue Aqua over ‘Barbie Girl’, then how the actual fuck did a surely legally pissed off Aqua have the class and grace to allow Toy-Box to get away with THIS;
SIXTEEN: MY OH MY
Let’s digress from the music for a second, and allow ourselves to indulge in the visuals (again). One visual in particular. You mightn’t have wanted to run your clean hands through his stiff blonde spiky hair, but Søren Rasted was and remains to this day a total mega babe. And so while we waited for Ulf to return with Ace of Base’s third album, Søren was our Scandi hunk of choice.
SEVENTEEN: NO REALLY – MY OH MY
It might have been the first of the band’s singles to not get to number one in the UK charts (impressive still, given that this was four singles into their release schedule remember), but ‘My Oh My’ is a BIG highlight on an album of so many highlights. The horse galloping intro, which gave way to Ye Olden Days harpsichord, which in turn revealed itself to be a banger for the ages (ok, the 90s). But while the lyrics of the song had us all prepared for a music video that had a Prince saving a Princess on a set that resembled a Shrek film, they gave us……pirates?
EIGHTEEN: LYRICS TO LIVE BY
There are many inspirational quotes tucked away on ‘Aquarium’s eleven songs. But one in particular we seem to have taken with us all through life. Ladies and gentlemen, quite simply; “I don’t want to waste my time on simple little things, I’d rather stay here all the night with happy boys who sings“.
Artists don’t release megamixes anymore. Perhaps it’s because the industry realised that the concept and execution of a megamix basically peaked when Aqua put out the official ‘Aquarium’ megamix. Fair.
TWENTY: COME ON BARBIE, LET’S GO PARTY
Go on – give the whole thing a listen again.