Aqua’s René Dif, Lene Nystrøm, and Søren Rasted were on a flight from their native Denmark to San Francisco, to play the first date of their current U.S. tour, when the 66th annual Grammy Awards nominations were announced earlier this month. Upon landing, they received a very surprising group text from their manager.
“All of a sudden it pops up and goes: ‘Congratulations, guys! You are nominated for two Grammys!’ And I went, ‘What the f***?’” a chuckling Dif tells Yahoo Entertainment. “A lot of different feelings go through your mind. Is it real? Is it not real? It’s the most impossible thing when you’re young, thinking it would be nice to stand up there or just be nominated, but it was so far from reality at that time. But then, 26 years later, it apparently happened.”
The Europop band’s first-ever Grammy nods — Song Written for Visual Media and Best Rap Song, for Nicki Minaj and Ice Spice’s Barbie soundtrack hit “Barbie World,” which heavily samples Aqua’s 1997 signature song “Barbie Girl” and credits Aqua as co-writers — cap off what has been an unexpectedly amazing year for the group. Of course, the Barbie movie has elevated Aqua’s profile — but this unlikely renaissance predates and goes way beyond that.
“I don’t think anybody’s going to go to an Aqua concert just because of a Nicki Minaj song, but we have a lot more monthly listeners because of the movie, and that might give us some attention. It’s a perfect timing for us to do the American tour now,” says Rasted. But he and his bandmates realized that the Aqua revival was already in full motion this past summer, when they played New York’s Irving Plaza and Los Angeles’s Belasco Theatre — notably before Barbie premiered in theaters — admittedly not knowing what to expect when they took the stage.
“We were super-nervous at the New York show, because we were wondering, ‘Who’s going to show up?’ And we can’t play ‘Barbie Girl’ for all 75 minutes — would people know all the songs? But the most fantastic thing happened. Kids were singing all the lyrics, from the first song to the last song — and they were screaming,” says Dif. (It should be noted that while “Barbie Girl” was Aqua’s only hit in the U.S. — which Rasted blames on their American label, MCA Records, making the “weird decision” to pick “Lollipop” as the follow-up single — the group charted multiple No. 1’s around the world and sold 33 million records, making them the most successful Danish band of all time.)
“And then the same thing happened in L.A.,” Dif continues, recalling Aqua’s sold-out Belasco show. “It was super-overwhelming. I got emotional, but I was also trying to suck all this new information in. I took my in-ears out and just looked around and went, ‘Wow. Is this seriously possible, to experience this so many years after?’ I get goosebumps thinking about it.”
All this must feel vindicating for the band, a quarter-century after Mattel filed what Rasted calls a “silly court case” against MCA, claiming that “Barbie Girl” had violated the beloved doll's copyrights and trademarks and had depicted Barbie as a sex object and “blonde bimbo.” (In 2002, a judge ruled that Aqua’s song was protected as free speech under the First Amendment, and both parties in the lawsuit were “advised to chill.”)
Minaj’s Aqua-sampling tune was actually a last-minute addition to the Barbie soundtrack (“I heard that Margot Robbie insisted on having our song in the movie and asked for it — that’s pretty big, I think,” Dif marvels). And the irony is not lost on the band that while Mattel had an issue with “Barbie Girl” — which was actually written about plastic surgery — supposedly “taking the piss” with the Barbie image, Greta Gerwig’s film does just that.
“It’s politically correct and politically incorrect at the same time, and I think most people are up for that. The film has an important message, but it doesn’t take itself too serious. It was actually a lot more fun to see than I thought it would be,” says Rasted, who admits he was worried that Barbie would be a “s*** movie.”
Dif actually says when he saw Barbie, he felt like he was “watching our own ‘Barbie Girl’ video,” which was directed by Peder Pedersen and Peter Stenbæk and shot in Technicolor, a rarity in the 1990s. “It has so many similarities — the colors and the things. It was like being back at the video shoot 26 years ago. I actually think at one point I said to [former Aqua keyboardist] Claus [Norreen], ‘See, I told you we were way ahead of our time!’”
“I think there’s a lot of things in the Barbie movie [that reference Aqua]. Like, when they say, ‘Hi Barbie! Hi Ken!’ — I don’t think if they would’ve done that if we didn’t have that in our song. I mean, you can’t make the Barbie movie without listening to our song,” Rasted laughs.
Dif chuckles as he recalls shooting the “Barbie Girl” video — which he jokes could win a “new Grammys category called ‘Best Music Video from the ’90s’” — feeling like he was “walking into a big dollhouse in some big pink backyard.” The resourceful Pedersen and Stenbæk had chopped a repainted old Ford car in half and sawed off its roof, and had rented a plastic horse “because they couldn't get a real horse,” and Dif wondered: “Is this even going to look good?” But Aqua’s cartoonish imagery stood out — first in their home country, and then around the planet.
“In Denmark at that time, a lot of the music was very rock-orientated, very black-and-white. Being very colorful was a new thing at that time. Nobody looked like us when we came out,” says Rasted. “We shopped a lot in secondhand stores where they had pink shirts and all these colorful things. It’s not that we wanted to overdo it, but just do it. It felt natural to us.”
“I remember we went to the Danish Music Awards party and when we walked the red carpet, they were shouting ‘wannabes!’ at us because they apparently associated us a little bit with the Spice Girls. In Denmark, they were not used to seeing people dress up that colorful,” says Dif. “We took a lot of chances with the hair, the spikes, the bright clothes, when everybody [in the ’90s] was super-dead-serious with guitars and singing about how awful they had it. But then a piece of fresh air like us comes in, and it’s just one big pop party.”
In retrospect, Rasted feels that Aqua helped usher in “one last era of naïve pop music,” but he stresses, “Yes, we're tongue-in-cheek with our humor, and yes, we do pop, but we don’t have an ironic distance to the stuff that we do. There’s got to be a layer underneath that is a little bit more serious than the obvious layer, even when you’re doing pop.” He theorizes that that’s why they’ve “jumped the generations” and are connecting with Gen Z fans now.
And now the future is looking especially Technicolor-bright for Aqua, as they embark on their sold-out U.S. tour, look forward to attending the Grammy Awards in February, and plan to release new music. So, what else is next for the group?
Dif answers with a laugh: “Oh… we need our own dolls now.”
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