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In Defense Of Aqua’s Aquarium

Come on, Barbie, let’s go party — FOR 20 YEARS

Twenty years ago this week, pop music changed forever: Aqua’s Aquarium was born.

Now, perhaps you're thinking, I know I didn't hear "Barbie Girl" until AT LEAST the summer of 1997, if not the fall! And I commend you for your knowledge of late-’90s pop chronology. Late March is when the Danish-Norwegian group's full-length debut was released in Scandinavia, before reaching the States that September. But regardless of when it reached you, Aquarium proved to be a marriage of dance, bubblegum pop, and satire — and it laid the foundation for the relationship we have with Top 40 music today.

Whether through their homage to Barbie or their cry for "Doctor Jones," Aqua suited that decade's interest in kitsch, plastic, and Eurodance culture, assisted by groups like Vengaboys and Eiffel 65.

But most importantly, Aquarium was super fun.

Even if your middle school dances weren’t soundtracked to “My Oh My” or spent scream-singing, “Wake up, now,” Aqua still likely infiltrated whatever subculture you belonged to. I mean, hi: “Barbie Girl” itself transcended pop chart placement, shimmying its way into the cultural lexicon (odds are you still know all the lyrics — yes, even you, person who “hates” pop), and infiltrating the American legal system. Never forget that once upon a time, Mattel and MCA Records went head-to-head in court after the toy brand claimed that Aqua had violated the company’s trademark. (The case was eventually dismissed.)

As the highest-charting single the band would ever end up having, “Barbie Girl” made its place count. Cynicism may have defined the first half of the ’90s, but goofy, fun satire found a place as the millennium drew nearer, thanks to series like Sabrina the Teenage Witch, movies like A Night at the Roxbury and Romy and Michele's High School Reunion, and the prevalence of mini-backpacks shaped like Teletubbies or Disney characters. (That’s satire, right?) So Aqua picked up and ran with it: By singing from the perspective of beloved Mattel products, they not only drew young listeners in who grew up (and had grown out of) playing with Barbies, but also winked at their fellow adults, particularly as the song called out the gender stereotypes and the overall outlandishness of Barbie™ living.

And it's true that clearly no follow-up ever generated the type of heat brought by Aqua’s biggest hit, but “Lollipop (Candyman),” “Dr. Jones,” “Roses Are Red,” and “My Oh My” — all singles on Aquarium — stuck to a system that kept the band at the forefront of our minds. Vocalists Lene Nystrom and René Dif sang back and forth, as though participating in a very easy-to-understand dialogue, while the beat was quick and formulaic enough to ensure that even an uncoordinated 12-year-old could somehow move in time alongside her fellow classmates (hi). And then there was “Turn Back Time,” a song that was absolutely shocking.

As the corresponding single to the Gwyneth Paltrow–fronted masterpiece Sliding Doors (disagree with me and I will fight you), “Turn Back Time” proved that on top of providing us with a small library of dance music, Aqua could also deliver an actual ballad. Simple in its melody and in its chorus, the song showcased Nystrom’s ability to carry a tune without relying on a vocal shtick or dropped bass or even the help of her co-singer. Plus, it was exactly as emotional as 1997 demanded all ballads be. Hinged on the inability to turn back time (go figure), it serves as an exercise in over-romanticizing what-ifs and a broken heart. Which, as we all know, was par for the course for late-’90s pop songs.

And no, Aquarium wasn’t perfect. “Be a Man” was a slow jam that should’ve soundtracked a dramatic Zack and Kelly showdown at The Max and had no place being on an album in 1997. “Good Morning Sunshine” was caught between a ballad and a dance song, making for an absolute nightmare in any setting that necessitated moving in any capacity. “Heat of the Night” was a strange attempt to infuse Eurodance with a Latin influence. (And it involved Dif's sensually growly whisper-talking.) All of these deserve to be skipped over with a sense of purpose.

But aside from that, Aquarium did a great job of helping to establish a particular set of pop standards. It contained arguably the most representative song of an era known for its zest for inflatable furniture and televised dance parties. Along with its Eurodance sound, sick beats, and Lene’s capacity for high-pitched and cartoonish vocals, Aquarium also helped deal a final blow to the seriousness that had defined so much early-’90s music. In short, Aquarium made music fun. And while you likely won’t cross-stitch any of its lyrics onto a fancy pillow, odds are that, two decades out, you still know what comes after the line, “life in plastic.”