Sharps & Flats

Aqua's radio confections match pomo knowingness with sugar-shocked swells. The insidious result: Pop that eats itself.

Published March 28, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Aqua, unfortunately, learned from the viral success of their chart-vanquishing anthem "Barbie Girl," a celebration of singer Lene Grawford Nystrom's statuesque Scandinavian sex appeal. From the quartet's debut album, "Aquarium" (1997), "Barbie Girl" was a novelty song on a record of otherwise straightforward sugar-shocked ABBA manqui. According to Aqua's MCA bio, that record sold more than 23 million copies worldwide, encouraging the foursome to ever-more-frenzied heights of caricature and pastiche on the strange and terrible "Aquarius."

"Aquarius" is a beat-driven Disney soundtrack with undertones of Hieronymus Bosch -- an entire international landscape of pop trash has been compacted in these sinister, oddly self-aware saccharine ditties. Though it makes Britney Spears sound like Polly Jean Harvey, "Aquarius" is nonetheless more interesting than most of the cotton-candy, adolescent ephemera clogging the airwaves, because it offers a glimpse into mass culture's smug, beastly heart. The tunes marry Andrew Lloyd Webber bombast and melodrama to helium vocals, propulsive dance percussion and impossibly sticky hooks. No matter how much one dislikes an Aqua song, a single listen is enough to send it pinballing madly around the brain for days. It's the sonic equivalent of trailer-park crystal meth, cheap and shrill, with addictive claws.

Unlike assembly-line musicians such as the Backstreet Boys, the Spice Girls and the rest of them, Aqua rarely use pop tropes like luv and romance as a pretext for their jingles. Instead, they've taken pages from Andy Warhol and hip-hop, creating odes both to their own fame and to the clichis radiating from cineplexes and TV screens. A line from the first song, "Cartoon Heroes," says it all: "We are what we're supposed to be/Illusion of your fantasy," Nystrom cries in her strangely nasal alto, before snottily intoning, "What we do is what you just can't do." This cheeky celebration of narcissism unfolds with show-tune grandiosity, their pomo 101 knowingness doing little to make its cloying swells less grating.

The rest of the record similarly spins sing-along melodies around self-aggrandizement and easy references. "Around the World" consists largely of the lines "I've been around the world/And I've seen it all," sung by Nystrom and echoed by a choir. Choirs show up again on the bathetic ballad "We Belong to the Sea," a song full of shimmery-fairy-dust synth sparkles and Enya-style ambient oceanic effects. Nystrom's attempt at "Little Mermaid" yearning is rendered even more ridiculous by the ogrelike growl of bandmate Rene Dif, who intones, "Come on into my wave/You can sleep in my cave."

There's a takeoff on "Scream" called "Halloween" that begins with a threatening phone call, and an attempt at salsa called "Cuba Libre" that follows, of course, on the recent worldwide vogue for Cuban music. The latter song is what makes Aqua creepy, not just merely annoying. They have a knack, intentional or not, for telescoping the whims and covert obsessions floating around our collective media ether and then showing them to us in all their exaggerated grotesquerie. "Aquarius" has the sound of inevitability. Sooner or later, it suggests, pop had to come to this.

By Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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