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Members include René Dif (born on October 17, 1967, in Copenhagen, Denmark), vocals; Claus Norreen (born on June 5, 1970, in Copenhagen, Denmark), keyboards, electronic instruments; Lene Grawford Nystrøm (born on October 2, 1973, in Tonsberg, Norway), vocals; Søren Rasted (born on June 13, 1969, in Copenhagen, Denmark), keyboards, electronic instruments. Addresses: Record company--MCA Universal Records, 1755 Broadway, 8th Floor, New York, NY 10019, website: http://www.mcarecords.com. Website--Aqua Official Website: http://www.aqua.dk.
Until August of 1997, Denmark was not known for its contribution to international pop music. Although a few bands from that country had scored hit singles in the modern era, Denmark was a musical nonentity compared to its Nordic counterparts, Sweden and Norway. With the single "Barbie Girl," however, Copenhagen's Aqua firmly established a Danish presence on charts around the world. The single, already a number one hit in its native land, soon climbed into the top ten in England and the United States. While some reviewers questioned the staying power of a band that became renown for an homage to the Barbie doll, several other strong tracks from Aqua's debut album soon put such criticisms to rest.
The future members of Aqua took divergent paths to international acclaim. Two of the group's members, Claus Norreen and Søren Rasted, worked together in 1989 on the soundtrack for the Danish film Freaky Friday, but subsequently took day jobs at a gas station. The two continued to write music together while experimenting with keyboards, drum machines, and other electronic instruments. René Dif, who became one of the group's vocalists, had also achieved some success in the music world as one of Scandinavia's best-known deejays. Joining forces with Norreen and Rasted in 1995, Dif invited television presenter Lene Grawford Nystrøm, who was presenting and occasionally singing on a Norwegian variety game show, to join them in a new musical endeavor. The first partnership, under the name Joyspeed, was only marginally successful. The band secured a record contract and released the single "Itzy Bitzy Spider," which spent one week on the Swedish charts, before asking to be released from the contract.
The band regrouped under the name Aqua and gained a new recording contract with the Danish division of Universal Records in 1996. The second incarnation of the group proved to be immediately successful. Its initial offering, the dance track "Roses Are Red," gained club play throughout Denmark and remained in the top ten on the pop charts from October of 1996 until April of the following year, an astounding chart run. "My Oh My," another dance-oriented track with simple lyrics, joined "Roses Are Red" in the top ten after its release in February of 1997, granting Aqua the rare feat of having two hit songs on the charts simultaneously. Both tracks also logged time at the top of the pop chart. When the band's first album, Aquarium, was released in March of 1997, it debuted at number one and reached double-platinum status in Denmark in two weeks with sales of more than 100,000 copies.
The group's playful image greatly aided its initial popularity with the public. "The band wanted to project a comic-book image through hair and clothing stylings and colors used in graphics," reported the managing director of its record company in a Billboard profile in September of 1997. "The effect shows on the records, posters, and all point-of-sale material, all of which match perfectly to the animated music and lyrics." In fact, the band's third single release in Denmark, "Barbie Girl," would emphasize each of these factors and bring the band international success far surpassing any other Danish band.
Inspired by viewing a children's exhibit on Mattel's Barbie doll, a popular toy with generations of girls around the world, Rasted came up with the lyric "Life in plastic, it's fantastic," which served as the basis for a tongue-in-cheek homage to the figure. With Nystrøm singing in a squeaky falsetto voice as Barbie and Dif rapping as her boyfriend, Ken, the song presented various scenes in the typical day of the "blonde bimbo doll in a fantasy world." Although some of the lyrics were mildly suggestive, Rasted insisted in an August 1997 Billboard interview that "The spirit [of the song] is fun. We didn't make the song to hurt the doll, the girls, or the men and women" who were Barbie doll fans.
Unfortunately, the maker of the Barbie doll took another view. Once the song hit number one throughout Scandinavia and raced up the charts in the United States, Mattel sued MCA Universal Records, claiming trademark infringement on its creation and asking for an injunction against further distribution of Aqua's single and album. Although Aquarium contained a disclaimer that stated "The song 'Barbie Girl' is a social comment and was not created or approved by the makers of the doll," Mattel insisted in a September 27, 1997 Billboard review of the lawsuit that "This is a business issue, not a freedom of speech issue. This is a two-billion dollar company, and we don't want it messed around with, and situations like this gradually lead to brand erosion." Eventually, however, Mattel saw the promotional value in the song and ceased its legal efforts.
For its part, Aqua viewed the lawsuit as only a minor interruption in its pursuit of international success. The group made extensive promotional appearances in Europe, the Far East, and America, which it saw as its biggest challenge. As Rasted told Billboard in August of 1997 just after the release of "Barbie Girl": "America has always been the biggest dream, because a Danish band has never had a song on the American charts." (Strictly speaking, Rasted's comment was not quite correct: the Danish band Laid Back had scored a hit with the track "White Horse" during the 1980s, although it quickly assumed one-hit wonder status.) With a marketing strategy designed to sell its album instead of the band's single releases, however, MCA Universal fought to prevent Aqua from sharing a similar fate. In its effort to get the public to buy Aquarium instead of just purchasing "Barbie Girl," the record company distributed only a limited number of the single track. Although this scarcity prevented the song from hitting the top of the charts in the United States, it increased sales of the album. As of late 2001, Aquarium had sold more than 2.7 million copies in the United States of its total sales of 14 million around the world. It was helped by the inclusion of the album's mid-tempo ballad, "Turn Back Time," on the soundtrack of the Gwyneth Paltrow film, Sliding Doors. The song was also used in the film's television advertisements in the United States and soared to number one on the British pop charts.
Aqua capped the success of its first album with a string of Dansk Grammy Awards. In February of 1998, the band received honors for Best Single and Best Video for "Barbie Girl," Best Pop Album for Aquarium, and Best New Danish Act and Best Danish Band. Dif was astounded by the reception: "This tops anything we have ever accomplished. We had never anticipated what would happen to us," he told Billboard. "We've been around the world two or three times, but it's a fantastic sign of recognition to be accepted in our home country." Nystrøm agreed, accepting one award in tears, saying, "We've received awards from a lot of countries, but this is something that we can really put into perspective." By now staples of the music press, Aqua was Denmark's best-known cultural export since actress and one-time Sylvester Stallone spouse, Brigitte Nielsen.
Released in February of 2000, Aqua's second album, Aquarius, featured a moodier set of songs than its predecessor, although the band's sense of irony was still in place. Rasted told Billboard in January of 2000, "It's still the kind of pop songs that we do, but with more substance to it." Nystrøm countered, "It's still cheesy, though." The leadoff single from the collection, "Cartoon Heroes," captured this spirit, invoking the band's own image as the basis for another dance-oriented track that hit the top of the charts in Denmark, Norway, and Italy and the top ten throughout Europe. Norreen explained the band's wide-ranging appeal on its second album: "There are two sides to Aqua: the immediate meaning of the lyrics and the deeper point shrouded in irony. A lot of kids will relate to the 'Cartoon Heroes' idea, while older people will see the humor." With the single "Around the World" following "Cartoon Heroes" up the international charts in 2000, Aqua had assured its position as one of the most successful Scandinavian groups since Abba and Ace of Base. "A lot of people thought we were a one-hit and one-album wonder," Nystrøm told Billboard. "But we will show we're here to stay."
By the fall of 2001, though, Aqua stated on their official website that they did not intend to immediately make a third album. The group instead decided to take a break, but insisted that they remain best friends. Lack of direction was cited as the reason for the breakup. The members of Aqua planned to pursue individual careers in music using their own London recording studio as a starting point.
by Timothy Borden
Formed group in Copenhagen, Denmark, as Joyspeed, early 1990s; released first album, Aquarium, as Aqua, 1997; single "Barbie Girl" became breakthrough international hit, released second album, Aquarius, 2000.
Dansk Grammy Awards, Best New Danish Act, Best Danish Band, Best Pop Album, Best Single, and Best Video, 1997.
- Selected discography
- Aquarium MCA Universal, 1997.
- (Contributor) Sliding Doors (soundtrack), MCA Universal, 1998.
- Aquarius MCA Universal, 2000.
- Billboard, August 30, 1997, p. 92; September 6, 1997, p. 7; September 27, 1997, p. 106; February 21, 1998, p. 49; September 11, 1999, p. D-3; January 15, 2000; p. 15; February 26, 2000, p. 53.
- Q, April 2000, p. 87.
- Top of the Pops(England), April 2000, p. 7; May 2000, pp. 8, 64-65.
- Aqua Official Website, http://www.aqua.dk (June 16, 2001).
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