Album Review: 'Aquarium'
What is it with Scandinavians and their music? Is it something in the fjords? From ABBA to Ace of Base, the pop bursting out of Sweden, Norway, and Denmark has been almost relentlessly chirpy and toothy; even the Cardigans put a happy face on their sulky odes to modern romance. There have been exceptions — the rock-lobster noir pop of Komeda or, for that matter, Frida’s dark-side-of-ABBA 1982 single ”I Know There’s Something Going On.” Most of the time, though, the purveyors of Scando-pop seem so excited at the thought of escaping the ice and snow and conquering the world that they’re positively giddy.
The latest addition to this perky legacy is Aqua, the Copenhagen-based living cartoons whose ”Barbie Girl” — a dance-floor novelty that alludes to the secret, less-than-wholesome life of every little girl’s fave doll — has become a global sensation. After hitting No. 1 first in their native Denmark and then spreading to the Far East, the single was released in the U.S. in August and instantly vaulted into the top 10. MCA, Aqua’s U.S. distributor, then promptly withdrew ”Barbie Girl” as a commercial single in the States, a move that has propelled Aquarium, the quartet’s first album, into the top 10 as well. In fact, ”Barbie Girl” is such a phenomenon that several slavish cover versions have already sprouted up. There’s even a parody (Dave Kolin’s ”Bimbo Girl,” which is being passed around to radio stations across the country) and a ”Ken Doll” answer record.
Mattel, the manufacturer of Barbie dolls, has its own answer too, in the form of a lawsuit. The back cover of Aquarium carries a disclaimer saying the song ”is a social comment and was not created or approved by the makers of the doll.” Still, Mattel is so rankled by the unauthorized use of its golden girl’s moniker that the company has filed a trademark infringement lawsuit against Universal (MCA’s parent company), seeking unspecified damages for soiling and ”devaluing” Barbie’s good name and image (and also looking to stop distribution of the record). At press time, no further legal action has been taken.
From a litigious standpoint, Mattel’s case isn’t as laughable as it may appear. ”Barbie Girl” uses the image of the doll as a metaphor for the way women are sometimes manipulated by men — and sometimes manipulate themselves — for attention and success. The company surely isn’t dancing along to lines like ”Make me walk/ Make me talk/Do whatever you please.” Still, why bother suing? Even a Swedish meatball must realize that the song, with its rinky-dink, new-wave bounce, is the definition of disposable pop junk. Aqua themselves are so manufactured that the credits of Aquarium list their stylist and hair/makeup people before the musicians and backup singers.
If anyone has claim to copyright infringement it’s not Mattel — it’s Madonna, Gwen Stefani, Ace of Base, and every other pop act of the last decade whose sound is tapped on the album. Lead singer Lene Grawford Nystrom’s talent lies mainly in her ability to morph her voice at will, from Stefani’s Betty Boop zest to Celine Dion’s earnest blandness. ”Heat of the Night” is a carbon copy of ”La Isla Bonita,” down to its tropical flourishes, fluttery acoustic guitar, and ”having a fiesta” lyrics. ”Be a Man” is ”Crazy for You” with more bite. To their credit, Aqua don’t sample old hits. But given the shamelessly derivative quality of their sound and songs, they don’t have to.
What little edge Aqua have to offer lies entirely in the voice of colead singer Rene Dif, whose Igor-in-heat croak insinuates its way into most of their songs — he’s the Danish Fred Schneider. ”Kiss me here, touch me there, hanky-panky,” he leers in the hookiest part of ”Barbie Girl.” (It’s what one of the ersatz G.I. Joe dolls is really thinking in the Nissan Barbie-parody ad — which are also the subject of a Mattel copyright suit.) Elsewhere on Aquarium, Dif’s unintentionally hilarious come-ons — ”Come pick my roses!” or ”I am the candyman!” — are a welcome, if creepy, relief to Nystrom’s virginal delivery. He’s the naughty drooler inside us all.
Keeping to Scando-pop tradition, Aqua’s music is relentlessly upbeat and club oriented; count on hearing the generic house-music thump of tracks like ”Doctor Jones” and ”Lollipop (Candyman)” at your next workout class. Even the ballads feel cheery. The band’s résumé, which includes the score to a children’s film in Denmark, reveals itself in the singsongy, nursery-rhyme feel of many of the tracks.
So even if the Mattel suit results in ”Barbie Doll” being pulled from stores (which seems unlikely), the action will be fairly pointless. Bands like Aqua have a built-in obsolescence, particularly in these days of accelerated one-hit blunders. The only thing we can count on is that in the next couple of years, another band from the same part of the world will arrive, smiling and ready to sprinkle a little Scandinavian sugar upon us all. C