In Defense of Aqua
Yes, the band: Aqua... A long discourse on music that's really just a "Fuck You" to all of my friends who give me that "If it ain't hardcore, it's shit." attitude.
People like to point out an apparent discrepancy in my tastes of music. I, like many people, enjoy a variety of kinds of music and artists. The bulk, pillar or vein though is relatively hard and off beat music. As a generality, I say that I like punk music and variations of it. Even the non-punk stuff tends to feel related to it; pre-punk rock'n'roll bands like the Rolling Stones and Lou Reed, milder off beat artists such as The Cure and Tori Amos, and aggressive bands in other genres and sub-genres like Public Enemy or The Pogues. But I also like (and defend) the band Aqua.
Aqua was a Euro-pop/dance act out of Denmark that had the most highly refined, bitterly sweet, peppy sound that could be generated in the late 90's. It was audio cotton candy. They have a line up of 2 technicians, a super-girly singer and a throaty rapper. I say "Technicians" because they are completely synthetic. Their music is generated from drum machines, synthesizers and sampling. They are as far from the raw, rootsy, surliness of the post-hardcore I usually hail to when someone asks "So what are your favorite bands?"
I first heard Aqua like so many Americans when their second single "Barbie Girl," with all of it's sickeningly sweet Euro-pop beats, strangely girly vocals and throaty white-rap hit American radio. I got a kick out of how all the little popsters loved it and it was so bubble-gum you could puke, but yet if you listened to it it was just a little bit evil. In fact Mattel tried to sue them over it. But when they stopped playing it I stopped listening.
Then I was working for a toy company that was marketing yoyos to kids in malls throughout Japan and now into the States and I was put on tour for 2 weeks with a girl that used a different cut off the album. Same uber-pop sound. Plus other friends who worked for the company had been using other cuts off the album. I don't know if they had a licensing deal or if they were just using it because they were coming out of Japan where the band was huge, but I ended up listening to at least 4 different songs off the album.
With any act, I can separate the music from the social commentary, from the manufactured image, from the statements, from the art, from the picture of a hot chick on an album cover. I don't crap on or elevate any one of them because of any of the others and everything aside, Aqua did have some catchy little melodies. Dick Clarke would be proud.
Then one day in 1998 I was in San Francisco loading up on used records at a giant record store in Berkley and there was Aqua's first album "Aquarium". I went ahead and picked it up. Checking out I felt like a kid buying rubbers or tampons who stocked his basket with other shit to draw attention away from that one item… Iggy Pop, Lou Reed/John Cale, Korn, Aqua,--
At first I couldn't listen to it. I would get halfway through and have to change out. Then I could get all the way through it but I'd have to chase it with the cornerstone of all noise-rock Iggy Pop's "Raw Power" or some nice hearty metal. Eventually I came to really like it and later even bought their second album when it came out.
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.
But "often" isn't "always". Ansel Adams is a great example of a great artist that is not challenging. Ansel Adams is a photographer that takes phenomenal, epic landscapes. He is one of the artists that shaped the medium of photography. He is undeniably a great artist and everyone can agree that his pictures are really impressive and beautiful. While some people will appreciate his art more than others and see it for all off its true importance, I can't think of anyone other than someone who had a family member lost in the wilderness who is turned off by his work. His work strikes a chord with something very basic and human in us. As a result it doesn't have to pull any punch and can still get a nod from just about everyone that it is art.
Aqua is the same way. The flavor that they were cooking with is something that has a wide spread appeal: sugar. Everyone loves sweetness and Aqua were dessert chefs. Their widespread appeal was not manufactured after the fact, it was built into the art that they were making. But that widespread appeal attracted all of the trappings of Pop music and as we all know the trappings of pop music usually adorn the average beauties that the music sellers are dressing up to be just good enough to be worth a $20 sale (because there are so many more of them than the natural beauties).
But just because the unwashed masses will gladly devour any piece of fried bread if you pour enough sugar on it, doesn't mean that the five star desserteers of high cuisine are doing half-assed work. Once you strip away the trappings of Pop music, the high-gloss image over-saturation, beautiful clean people in the line-up, ad-nauseum singles play, and massive tours and publicity events, Aqua was truly gourmet; they were brilliant sugar sculptures on top of dark chocolate coated strawberries.
That credibility proof would also apply to a lot of musicians that I am not a fan of though and while there are a lot of artists that I like that don't fit the "raw, rootsy, surliness of post-hardcore" I do see a view where Aqua does fit with Atari Teenage Riot, The Velvet Underground, Strike Anywhere and Hot Water Music. I am a fan of sharp flavors; my musical pallet is tuned to enjoy hot Mexican food, stiff whiskeys, robust horseradish steak sauces, and deep rich cheesecakes.
Metaphor: At the chili cook-off we all sit around the table, eyes watering, noses running, discussing and enjoying the heat and flavor of the hot peppers and jalapeños. Next Tuesday we meet up again at the Japanese restaurant and hack and cough over the wasabe-coated salmon rolls scouring our throats and clearing our sinuses. Then next week you are walking by the desert shop and see me sitting around the table with some others, our jaws locking and cheeks puckering from the caramel-soaked, rich chocolate topped hot apple ciders we're enjoying and it seems out of character. Why is that?
Aqua does what all of these great bands do, they take a musical idea to its fullest extent. Usually fearlessly taking a musical idea to its end leaves you in territory that alienates a lot of people; only the people who aren't very far from it to start with can enjoy that much stretching of the envelope. For example, Atari Teenage Riot is completely lost on my dad because to go from what he has experience with, namely the Beach Boys and The Police, out to where they are, German Thrash techno, is a far stretch and well beyond what he is comfortable with. But for me who was very comfortable with music that set out to melt your brain, Atari Teenage Riot wasn't a far cry. So the trip from the Industrial soundtracks, Rave DJs, and screaming punk acts that I was coming from to Atari Teenage Riot was a nice stretching of the envelope for me. But to go from the Beach Boys to ATR, was not a pleasant trip.
Aqua though took what was out there, as all artists do, and instead of making it faster, harder, crazier, more unusual or any of what people are used to, they polished and focused it. They tried to hit every pressure point that makes for electric, fun, happy work. They had a set of electrodes and they clipped them to all our your happy receptors and threw the switch.
Now to go that far in that direction was a comfortable trip for a bunch of teeny boppers who had collections of music that were basically audio cocktails of sugar and cocaine. They were used to and even conesiours of the sickenly sweet. Thus taking it one step further out to Aqua's work was a pleasant stretching of their envelope. But for most of the people who love to identify with the majority of the music I hail to, the trip from here all the way to Aqua was not a pleasant one. Going from the thick, bitter flavors of Atari Teenage Riot to the syrupy taste of Aqua is as uncomfortable as my dad going from The Beach Boys to Iggy Pop.
As I see it, I have a nice central ground and enjoy having my palette distended from their. Usually the most stimulating direction to rip it is towards the loud, fast, and hard. Going from zero, a far jump in that direction puts me with people who like that music and then step in directions from there. So when I started from my zero point and took a flying leap to having Aqua strap the alligator clamps on to the sweetness-taste buds of my ears and turn on the juice, it was a great move. But to go not from zero but from hard and aggressive all the way to dripping cotton candy was way more than all of my attackers could handle.
I propose that those who call Aqua pointless, Pop crap can't separate the trappings of the music industry from the music and/or are seated nicely in their aggro world and don't enjoy having their envelopes stretched as much as they prefer music that happens to land where most people are stretched out to. Not being able to separate the music from all the extra elements of the music act I think shows a certain inability to appreciate music and not being able to separate the act from the marketing shows a naiveté of the way the commercial entertainment industry works. And I think that an extreme discomfort with the music demonstrates a certain trained and shrunk musical palate. Often people who like the music that comes from taking a normal taste and stretching it don't think that they have small palates themselves but have palates that can take a good stretching. When those same people can't handle the intensity of Aqua I say that they need to examine their appreciation of music; Maybe it's not the severity of the music but the tart and bitter taste of the music that you enjoy.