In Defense of Aqua
At one point I actually saw the video for Barbie Girl and it was genius. It was the insanely high-key, polished, fruity, tongue-in-cheek, sarcastic, bubble gum hell that you'd imagine. The problem with Pop is that it doesn't appreciate what it is. It tends to think that it is more important, deep or inventive than it is. But not these guys. They were exactly what they were being. You couldn't fault them for it.
My attackers love to plow all pop music for being redundant formulaic copies and for the most part they are right, but I will point out that copies have to be made of something. As canned and synthetic as it was Aqua was undeniably Aqua and what we never saw here in the US was that they were enormous everywhere else and their girly singer/throaty man formula was copied a lot after them. So no matter how artificial they may have been there was something there.
I've said that art is completely subjective and exists where you see it but I would like to defend Aqua on an additional level. That is to say that it's a given that millions of teenage girls and myself like them and that's enough, but I want to go a little deeper.
Usually when music manufacturers put out Pop music they are putting it out to make money. As a result "Pop" music is most often infected with all the trappings of faking the appeal. To be metaphoric: a naturally beautiful woman is very rare and hard to come by; you can't make a beautiful woman you can only find her. You can also take an average woman (of which there are countless numbers of), give ‘em expensive haircuts, cover them in make up, and put designer clothes on them and they will be pretty damn good looking. You can add the trappings to any woman, even when you can't find a natural beauty. It's no different in music; truly good music takes skill, innovation and a rare spark of insight, but you can take a mediocre piece and add all the functional, craft aspects that don't require that fleeting artistic spark, like high recording production, visual appeal, and massive marketing and get the interest and appeal high enough to make a sale and remember your economics: you don't have to be worth $10million to make $10million, you just have to have 500,000 people think that you're a $20 CD, t-shirt, or concert ticket sale. This circles us back to the evil choices that pop music makes: they will dull the edges of pop music so that it appeals to more people. More people will agree on what is second place than what is first place. They will make what is safe rather than what is great, and often what is great is challenging.
Often what is great is challenging… but not always. Usually great art comes from a certain unexpected element in a piece. In painting, really great art is just a little more or a little off of what you expected. In cinema it's usually movies that add a seriousness to a genre that wasn't or go somewhere that was not precedented. In music the progression of a piece is a balance between what you would expect to be played next and what is a surprise; the great pieces do well to go in directions that we wouldn't expect but feel natural when they happen. So as a result most art (and on a very close, fundamental level in music), a certain challenging element is an essential ingredient to greatness. It's the additional weight that you add to a barbell that makes the workout great. But pushing your audience means that some people will respond to it and some people won't. As a result, greatness is often challenging and safety is rarely great.