Own It or Disown It: #272: Aqua, Aquarium


We could pretend this is a column in celebration of the album turning twenty years old, but who're we kidding, this is mostly an ass-beating directed at one of the worst songs of all time.

1997 was host to quite a lot of what most would consider to be good things. Among the critical and commercial success stories at the box office were Men in Black, The Fifth Element, As Good As It Gets, and Titanic. Daria, South Park, Stargate SG-1, Oz, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer all debuted that year. That year’s WrestleMania sold poorly, but it was host to a submission match between Bret Hart vs. Stone Cold Steve Austin, one of the best and most important wrestling matches of all time. Video game enthusiasts spent the year diving into titles like Final Fantasy VII, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, Tekken 3, GoldenEye 007, and Fallout. Cataloguing the best albums of the year could be its own paragraph; this was the year of OK Computer and Either/Or, after all. On the negative side, Aqua released “Barbie Girl” as a single, which I think is enough to regard 1997 as a mixed year for pop culture, if not move the arrow a little into the red.

I’m not breaking any ground by saying “Barbie Girl” sucks. Critics at the time were cold to it, with NME giving it an award for Worst Single, while the song won a 2011 Rolling Stone reader poll for the worst song of the 90s. What’s odd, though, is that I don’t think it gets enough hate. The music video’s like/dislike ratio on YouTube is firmly in the positive, and the brief discussion of the song’s merits among the Earbuddy club landed on “it’s bad, but it’s not the worst”. Personally speaking, I hate the song. I hate it so fucking much. Maybe there have been worse songs released in the past twenty years, but there hasn’t been a song I’ve hated as long as I’ve hated “Barbie Girl”.

Like, okay, I get this is Eurodance and that means it is full of sugar and weird elements to the sound that only make sense if you’re from the continent. I recognize what’s being attempted here, but, like, how did this sell? There’s sugar in “Barbie Girl”’s blood, but it isn’t pumping enough energy to sustain itself for thirty seconds, let alone three minutes. It may be Eurodance, but I can’t dance to it. There’s nothing to ride here, and there’s nothing inventive enough in the sound to attach myself to that makes up for the lack of energy. The closest thing to a unique defining element to the song is the interplay between the shrill Lene Nystrøm and the inexplicably low-note René Dif, and they’re maybe the worst part of the sound.

I ask why the song became a hit in spite of knowing full well how it became a hit. “Barbie Girl” is about sex. It has no commentary or insight about sex, nor does it present its erotic images with any degree of emotion, and if that sounds terribly dull and ill-informed, welcome to the club. About the only thing “Barbie Girl” has going for it with its subject matter is its thin veil of its subject matter, so transparent that calling the lyrics a series of double-entendres registers as giving it far more credit than it deserves. From its chorus: “You can brush my hair, undress me everywhere / Imagination, life is your creation!”. Oh, how subversive. From what’s supposed to pass as the first verse (seriously, this is a fourth of the entire “verse”): “Kiss me here, touch me there, hanky panky!” None of this flew over my eleven-year-old head, and anyone who suggests they were ever confused about the subject matter is either lying or were far too young at the time of the song’s release to register what good art was at the time. In not committing to being too smutty or amusing, “Barbie Girl” became a song too dirty for children and too simple for adults, and that was sufficient novelty to make a song a worldwide hit in 1997.

Ironically, the biggest victim of “Barbie Girl”’s success may very well be the album it was featured on. “Barbie Girl” isn’t the only dud on Aquarium (the tracks of its first half range from “kind of okay” to “Barbie Girl”), but the second half is loaded with far more appealing Eurodance material. “Lollipop (Candyman)” sounds like an not-shitty version of “Barbie Girl”, and late track “Turn Back Time” is something of a stunner. It is enough that, had “Barbie Girl” not been here, I’d be tempted to give Aquarium a soft thumbs up. “Barbie Girl” is here, though, and no way in Hell am I recommending an album with a song that bad. That’s the destructive force of a song so vacuous and boring, and “Barbie Girl”’s success meant that others believed that being vacuous and boring. Bad art is bad; the worst art hurts the world. Fuck this song and the horse it rode in on.


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