In other words we Norwegians believe that all essential pop data should be correct. With Aquarium, its only release so far, Danish-Norwegian Aqua has certainly written its name in pop history, for better or for worse. Aqua is hated and loved, loved and hated. Aqua is so big and comprehensive that it stops being music and becomes a phenomenon, a sign of the times. Unfortunately for us, this type of sign says more about us than about the music.
Musically, Aqua is synthetic, happy dance-pop with no other mission than to entertain. The sound is compact, monotone, suggestive. The melodies are extremely simple and repetitive above an ever-present basic rhythm that supports a framework of detailed instrumentation. In re-mixes of the original CD, the range is expanded and experimented with, but the foundation of a conformist pop song with verse/chorus/bridge/verse/chorus/chorus is retained.
Every song has a special, fairy-tale story and ditto characters. The lyrics follow the melody, often with a repetitive question-and-answer game between the male and female voices. The last verse or chorus reaches a kind of conclusion and (surprise, surprise!) in Aqualand everything doesn’t have a happy ending. The whole might remind us of systematised nursery rhymes – charming or horrendous according to your taste. In the artwork on the cover, merchandising and videos, the members of the group are portrayed as exaggerated cartoon figures in easily recognisable tableaux. It isn’t too simple to be true, godallmighty it is true!
99.9% of the people who hate Aqua most intensely are probably parents of young children. Aqua and the Spice Girls have transformed innocent Red Riding Hood daughters, who used to sing comforting songs to their Winnie the Pooh teddy bears, into hissing tomboy Lolitas who have reached the awkward age twelve years too soon. The last 0.1% of Aqua-haters are the music theorists who are desperately trying to retain their credibility but have forgotten that pop music is basically about having fun. The rest of us can both be vexed and have fun.
Aqua is not a concept, far less a product. In contrast with most of their colleagues on the hit and club lists, the members of the group were not hired to be pop stars by the eminences grises of the pop industry. Aqua the pop group is so polished in everything it does that at first glance it appears to be constructed. René, Claus, Søren and Lene might almost be a collective with a clear distribution of roles. With prejudiced male chauvinism, I can inform you that Lene writes both songs and lyrics. They have mutual rights and obligations in a kind of symbiotic career plan: to be pop stars worldwide.
In terms of pop history, Abba was perfect for its time, the time before mobile phones, the Internet and Baywatch. Aqua could hardly have been different in our time, when reality regularly transcends fiction and everything, absolutely everything, is only a remote control button away. Aqua sold 18 million CDs in 15 months and are still counting. They have topped the lists in 35 countries; in the UK alone they were the first international act to reach no. 1 with their first three singles! (Barbie Girl, Doctor Jones and Turn Back Time). Like a theatre hit that runs and runs, Aqua also have their “performances” and promotion stunts, with the whole world as their stage. After almost two years of incessant pro-motion, they do the same thing as Greta Garbo; measure their popularity in kilograms of press cuttings.
The story of Aqua would be appropriate for the next Aqua single. As a trio, the three boys had been active since ’94. René was the trio’s rapper and in 1995 had an extra job as dj aboard the ferry that runs between Norway and Denmark. Like most tax-free ferries, it sometimes achieved great popularity by hosting Norway’s version of the TV show “Wheel of Fortune”. Between showers of prizes and advertising breaks, there was time for music according to the karaoke principle and one of the people who had a go was Norwegian Lene.
She was 22 at the time and had tried her luck as a model and singer at local level. She was reputed to sing well, particularly ballads and the standard soul repertoire. The TV show provided a chance for her to be seen and heard by Oslo’s recording companies. When she sang Randy Crawford’s charming Almaz, she was instead discovered by the Danish rapper. Suddenly some pieces fell into place for René; there, between the perfume bottles and party crackers, was a young girl singing her heart out in a way he had never heard before. That’s what a real artist’s biography should be like.
Lene Nystrøm sings well. You can’t fully tell on the CD until the ballad Turn Back Time, but that is proof enough. As is often the case with contemporary phenomena we love to hate, few people will admit it. Lene’s voice is really a non-theme, just as Aqua’s musical activities are handled at the joke level. In interviews, they defend their right to be carefree pop stars rather than talking about what they actually do and are. Pop craftsmanship is a subordinate theme, or perhaps they are afraid of appearing pretentious.
Lene and Aqua do not live discreet lives. Little Norway hasn’t had this type of pop star and ditto hysteria since Aha was on top in the 1980s. Aha vocalist Morten Harket has continued his career as a solo artist and retained his grip on national audiences. With the usual dearth of real news in the holiday season last summer, there was media speculation as to whether Aha-Morten was the sweetheart of Aqua-Lene – and vice versa. The realm held its breath, the editors believed fantasy had obviously transcended reality – or vice versa. The romance was over before it began, but it gave all parties concerned invaluable insights into the terrifying results of effective PR work.
Aqua’s domains are discotheques, children’s bedrooms and radio stations. Thanks to a certain amount of personality and presence, they have managed to break through the massive sound barrier of pop nonsense that surrounds us. As perfect pop stars, they have become bigger than themselves, fantasy has again exceeded reality and the three Danish boys and the Norwegian girl allow us to take part in their once-upon-a-time pop dream. When Aqua’s second album is launched in 1999, few ears will be spared. We look forward to it with pleasure and foreboding.