Press the pop culture “rewind” button, and imagine the year is 1997…
The mighty Spice Girls are EVERYWHERE, James Cameron’s blockbuster Titanic hits movie theatres, Ellen DeGeneres shares her queer truth on national television, the world is introduced to a young wizard named Harry Potter, and Danish-Norwegian dance-pop group Aqua unleash ‘Barbie Girl’ onto radio airwaves.
Decades later, and hot on the high pink heels of the runaway success of Barbie – the highest-grossing film of 2023 – Aqua is experiencing a major resurgence, much to the delight of band members Søren Rasted, René Dif, and Lene Nystrøm.
The trio joined forces with Nicki Minaj and Ice Spice on the summer smash ‘Barbie World’, and in turn, scored their first-ever GRAMMY nominations ahead of the 2024 award ceremony.
As a result, the band is currently on a 21-city tour across the United States, treating devoted fans to a “happy 90 minutes of pop music” by dusting off early classics such as ‘Calling You’, ‘My Oh My’, and ‘Bumble Bees’.
Nicki Minaj & Ice Spice – Barbie World (with Aqua) [Official Music Video]
“I don’t believe we would be here on tour, this quickly at least, if it were not for Barbie”, the band tells CelebMix backstage just before their show in Phoenix, AZ. “We didn’t know we had that many loyal fans here in America. They are great. They are dressing up, they know the lyrics, they are screaming and shouting, they are loud – it’s just perfect.”
Whilst Aqua have been active in other parts of the world, and toured extensively every year since 2017 – minus 2020 – they have never brought their live show over to the States. So when the offer came in to make the trip stateside, the group says it was an opportunity they simply couldn’t pass up
“It’s the best way to experience the country. There are so many cities we haven’t seen before. It’s a dream come true to be able to tour over here and get to know the U.S. industry,” the trio say. “It’s tough, you’re pushing yourself, but we are having a blast. We’ve had a good time so far.”
Though acknowledging nerves at the beginning of the tour, audience participation thus far has eased worry and helped the group explore ways to inject new energy into their discography, something by way of a gift to their loyal fan base.
With 1997 debut album ‘Aquarium’ and 2000’s ‘Aquarius’ heavily featured on the tour setlist, the band have made a conscious effort to keep up with production trends, to ensure their music remains sounding current and new. That’s not to say however their live arrangements don’t feature all of the unique Aqua flavours we’ve all grown to know and love…
“We feel we’ve found a good balance of incorporating different elements into our shows to suit audiences in 2023,” the band explain. “It’s a give-take situation. You give love to the audience, you get love back. Every concert we do, we go on and fight to win everyone over. We are never lazy, it’s like the first concert every time. Therefore, the songs are new for us because the energy can change in the room.”
“We didn’t know we had that many loyal fans here in America. They are great – they are dressing up, they know the lyrics, they are screaming and shouting, they are LOUD – it’s just been perfect.”Aqua on the support they’ve received from American fans
At one time, performing for sold-out crowds in cities such as Seattle, San Francisco, and Austin would have seemed almost impossible for Aqua.
Following the breakout success of ‘Barbie Girl’, the band struggled to make a continued splash stateside, with follow-up singles such as ‘Lollipop (Candyman)’ and ‘Turn Back Time’ failing to make a similar impact on the charts. And by the time they began promotion for sophomore album ‘Aquarius’ – whose singles ‘Cartoon Heroes’ and ‘Around the World’ topped the charts in their native Denmark – they were distracted by legal action from Mattel, who claimed the band violated copyrights and trademarks of Barbie. Ultimately, the case Mattel, Inc. v. MCA Records, Inc. was dismissed in 2002.
“I believe it was a win-win situation,” the band say of that time. “I do believe Mattel knew what they were doing when they were going into the lawsuit, even though it was stupid. They should have engaged us with their company.”
“Ironically in 2009 they approached us to ask for our permission to let them use ‘Barbie Girl’ in their 50th anniversary campaign. We said no initially, but then agreed they could use an instrumental version of the song.”
Following their exhaustive legal battles and a secret Las Vegas wedding for Rasted and Nystrøm, Aqua announced a hiatus in 2001.
“We were tired,” the trio agree. “Mainly though, it was time to take some time off and start some families, build a normal life, and try some things on our own. We all needed to find out who we each were. We needed to do individual things. We never said we’d stop, we said we’d take a break, but the press took it as ‘finito’.”
True to their word, the band reunited to release a Greatest Hits album in 2009, along with their first new and original material in eight years, ‘Back to the 80s’, and ‘My Mamma Said’ – a stunning, mid-tempo ballad about love and loss.
Following the release of the record, the group began recording tracks for what was to become their third studio album ‘Megalomania’.
Having travelled to Thailand to craft songs such as ‘How R U Doin?’, ‘Dirty Little Pop Song’, and ‘Be My Saviour Tonight’, the project marked a shift in the band’s musical style. Gone was the out-and-out bubblegum pop of their debut, and in its place a more edgy, electro-pop fusion of 90’s and 00’s sonic sounds.
Don’t call it a reinvention though, rather a natural progression…
The project’s second single ‘Playmate to Jesus’ came complete with sweeping strings, dramatic violins and snare drums that only served to elevate Nystrøm’s flawless vocal performance. Though charting low, the song received positive critical reception for its theme of universal love and musical infectiousness.
“Some people think it’s a controversial song title. But for us, what you believe is your own belief,” the band reflects. “Whether you believe in quantum physics, or Jesus, it doesn’t matter as long as you don’t step on anyone else’s toes. You’re free to believe what you believe as long as you’re not pushing it on anyone or starting a war.”
Though original plans had explicit-heavy ‘Like a Robot’ lined up for release as the album’s international lead single, promotion for ‘Megalomania’ abruptly ended.
“We don’t have any regrets about ‘Megalomania’,” the band admit candidly. “We just wish we’d focused less on what everyone else was doing, and done our own thing.”
Aqua – ‘Playmate To Jesus’ (Official Music Video)
With their third album firmly behind them, Aqua spent the following years touring Australia, New Zealand and their native Denmark, until another unexpected twist shook them to their core.
In 2016, producer and guitarist Claus Norreen announced he would not be returning to tour with the group. His fellow bandmates credit his departure with him not being comfortable with the travel schedule or performing on stage. Soldiering on, Rasted, Dif, and Nystrøm continued to give the band their all.
Almost a decade since his departure, the surviving members acknowledge their love and support for Norreen, but do admit that their collective energy is the best its ever been since becoming a trio.
Now settled and relishing in their new normal, the group’s recharged energy and fresh dynamic paved the way for more new music, this time in the form of 2018’s ‘Rookie’ – to date the band’s last original musical release. This was then followed by a cover of ‘I Am What I Am’, a song originally featured in the Broadway musical La Cage aux Folles and then made famous by Disco Queen Gloria Gaynor. The band’s version of the song served as the Copenhagen 2021 WorldPride anthem.
So, what about plans for a potential fourth studio album?
“Soren has a goldmine in a safe somewhere, with so many songs in there. For all three albums, we recorded up to 100 songs each,” the band disclose. “We are pushing Soren from left and right. He can create the Aqua magic, and if we don’t have him fully on board, it’s not going to get done. But I think we’re going to get there.”
For now, Aqua say their focus remains solely on completing their U.S. tour, capitalising on the Barbie film’s impact, and the 2024 GRAMMY Awards.
Their ‘Barbie World’ collaboration alongside Nicki Minaj and Ice Spice earned the band two nominations – one for Best Rap Song, where they will compete against the likes of Doja Cat and Drake, and one for Best Song Written for Visual Media alongside three other cuts from the Barbie Movie soundtrack, ‘Dance the Night’ by Dua Lipa, ‘What Was I Made For?’ by Billie Eillish, and ‘I’m Just Ken’ by Ryan Gosling.
Reflecting on their nominations, the group say: “I think it’s cool that big artists like Nicki Minaj and Ice Spice gave us this opportunity! The fact that they even know that our song exists is mind-blowing.”
“Being nominated for two GRAMMYS has not sunk in! It feels so unreal, and we’ve said we’re going to the ceremony… whether we are invited or not; we’ll go to crash the party!”
Despite all of their ups and downs, Aqua go to great lengths to admit they are fully committed to the band, and remain forever grateful to their loyal army of fans who have supported them since day one.
“All the fans are part of our success, because if it wasn’t for them, we would not be here,” the band concede. “They have made history with us. Our fans all have a story to tell, and we love that our music has helped them through difficult periods in their lives. We hear a lot of touching stories from people and it’s amazing to us how our music has done that.”
After spending Christmas with family, Aqua will hit the road again in 2024. Australia, New Zealand, and Asia are on the schedule, with the hopes to return to the U.S. for festivals and more touring… Coachella, perhaps?