Aqua’s Lene Nystrøm On How “Barbie Girl” Turned Her Into A Rebel
We catch up with the lead singer in honor of the 20th anniversary of ‘Aquarium’
The year is 1997. The average cost of a movie ticket is under five bucks, Titanic was the biggest film of the year, and a little band from Denmark released its debut album Aquarium.
We’re still living in the ‘90s in a lot of ways, but Aqua, the pop group that went on to be the most successful Danish band ever, and their earworm tracks feel like musical relics—and not the kind that inspire nostalgia for anything other than their kitsch value. Still, if you were bred in the ‘90s, you can’t hear the word "Barbie" without having that Aqua song—you know the one—make its way into your head. They made happy, strange music, the very embodiment of bubblegum pop.
It’s been 20 years since lead singer Lene Nystrøm, René Dif, Søren Rasted, and guitarist Claus Norreen invaded our airwaves. Ahead, we catch up with Nystrøm to see what she’s been up to since, her relationship with the iconic album now, and whether or not we can expect a reunion tour.
This month marks the 20th anniversary of Aquarium in the U.S. Does it feel that long ago?
In many ways, it feels like 20 years ago. And, in another sense, it also feels like it was really close by because there are so many feelings attached it. But mostly, when I see the photos and see the videos, it feels like ages ago. But also it’s been 20 years filled with so many experiences... So, it’s both.
How has your relationship with the album changed since its release?
We’ve always been super-proud of it, but I do believe when we became successful overnight, it was hard to deal with all the opinions of something we made on our own. We released our baby into the world and, in America, it was a different point of view than Asia… it was very strong opinions. And that was kind of hard to deal with, everybody—especially in America—wanted me to look like “Barbie Girl” and was quite disappointed actually when I didn’t. That made me kind of rebellious, actually. I turned into this rock chick just to kind-of be on the opposite side of whatever people wanted me to look like.
And then in 2008, we came out with the greatest hits and a couple of more new songs on it. And then things have calmed down, and we did tours and not many interviews, and then we fell in love with all the songs again because it was ours again. And the most important thing for us now—and always has been actually, something that we didn’t have too much time to do at the start—is having concerts. 'Cause we’re a really great live band, and so many people don’t expect that from a pop act like us. But what we do on stage is totally live, and we are kind-of interpreting the songs the way we want to, which is a little bit more rock-y.
Did you ever anticipate that “Barbie Girl” was going to become the hit that it became?
We were actually sitting in a small kind of studio in Denmark when we did the first album, and we were working our asses off just to survive. And you can’t really predict anything like that. Our first goal—our main goal, actually—was to try to make it in Denmark, and in my home country, Norway. But everything just kind of happened at the same time. When “Barbie Girl” came out, it instantly became a number one hit all around the world. So we knew we had a good card on our hands, definitely.
Do you ever get tired of singing the song or being associated with it?
No, I don’t. I mean, “Barbie Girl” is the strongest hit that we ever had, but we had 10 other hit songs around the world. So, for us, we’re just super-proud of performing the song, and I don’t get defensive or anything when people scream “Barbie Girl” after me. They sometimes still do. It’s something you have to be proud about, and you have to stand behind what you have done. But I remember, when we were doing the video, they did try to put a blonde wig on me, and then I protested and I said, ‘No, I can do a dark wig. That’s fine. I’ll agree to that.’
I didn’t realize, around the time of the song, that there were accusations by Mattel that the song ruined the reputation of Barbie (the company sued MCA Records over it). How did you guys feel about that?
I do believe that Mattel saw an opportunity to get some attention. Because the song was quite innocent, and it wasn’t sexist at all; it wasn’t our point to make the song sexist, at least. It was kind of more making fun of the Pamela Anderson kind-of girl that was existing at that time, and still are, of course. But it’s a super-innocent song if you listen to all the other shit that’s out there, you know?
You released a solo album in 2003 where you shifted to R&B a little. What’s your approach to making music?
I was working with a lot of different songwriters, and I was in America for a long time, and I was working with English songwriters. If it was today, I would do it differently because [at the time,] I was just out of Aqua, and I didn’t really have the strength to stand up for myself or didn’t feel secure enough to stand up for myself, because I was so used to having all of Aqua beside me, and suddenly I was standing alone. So, it was more like what Universal wanted to do, than what I wanted to do.
What have you been up to lately? I know you have some acting gigs under your belt.
I’ve had some main roles in movies, and I’m doing a TV series called Clown at the moment, which is the most popular comedy series in Denmark. It’s a lot of fun, I’m really enjoying it. And I’ve been a mentor on The Voice for a couple of years, I don’t do that anymore, but it’s stuff like that that I want to do that is connected to the music or to acting. I don’t say "yes" to many things, I’m good at saying “no.” I should say “yes” more to the kind of opportunities that come along, but I just want it to have a connection to what I do.
The band had a reunion tour in Australia in 2014. Will you guys be getting back together anytime soon?
We are together at the moment! We’ve been touring Scandinavia the whole summer, and we are going to Singapore and Hanoi in Vietnam in November, and then we are going to Australia and New Zealand in February. So, that’s only for concerts and maybe one or two TV appearances. It’s amazing to be able to do this… to just do a tour every once in a while with the others is just amazing.
Are there any plans to come to America?
We would love to come to America. To do maybe a little club tour or find a place in Las Vegas or something. It would just be great.
Have you guys been mostly performing older songs or have you come out with new music recently?
No, we haven’t been in the studio for any new music in a long time. But we’re actually going into studios to make one more single, and if that works, maybe one more will arrive. But we won’t give up before we have the right hit on our hands.
Can we expect a change in sound at all?
The most important thing with Aqua is that you can hear it’s Aqua. We don’t want to sound like anyone else, and we are going to keep it pop-ish. But pop is so many things today, so we can go so many ways. But we will first know that when we go into studios and start playing around.
What are you most proud of so far in terms of your career?
That’s a really big question. I have to say that coming out on the other side and still loving the other guys with all of my heart. We’ve been through our differences; it’s like being married when you are four people in a band, and we still have some of the same crew members and everything. I’m actually most proud of what we have achieved, of course, publicly, but also what we have achieved inwardly. We are still the best of friends, and we will never lose that.