I snuck in to see Aqua play at the Hifi in Brisbane last night. I’m not a huge fan, but it seemed like an experience too surreal to pass up.
As it turned out, it wasn’t actually that bizarre. It was pretty similar in a lot of ways to most gigs, especially the kind of show in those big venues with an overseas band – lots of multicoloured spotlights, smoke machines and “Australia is our favourite country”, “Australia has the cutest guys.”
The setup too was just that of a live band – drums, bass, guitar, keyboard and another member who swapped between an extra guitar or keyboard depending on the song. And of course the two lead singers.
It’s funny, I don’t think I would have seen a picture or clip of Aqua for 15 years, but the two singers looked strangely familiar. Rene has a shiny bald head, and was wearing a singlet, suit jacket and the obligatory bling. Lene wasn’t wearing much to begin with, but as the show went on she discarded items of clothing until she was wearing just a see through bodysuit, with electrical tape over her nipples.
Several men, without needing much invitation, made super sleazy remarks to me about Lene. I found it hard to believe that they had really paid $70 just to stare at her for an hour or so, but I guess there were a lot of things I found strange about the night.
The guitarist was wearing a shirt and tie, and had a beard down to his chest. He looked pretty out of place, but he, like the other members of the band, displayed the kind of stage moves that suggested they didn’t consider the whole thing ironic.
The audience was an interesting mix. The other Brisbane show was sold out, and last night the Hi Fi was pretty full. A lot of middle aged people, but also lots of people in their twenties like me, who remember Saturday mornings singing along with Aqua on Rage or Video Hits. There was a fairly broad variety of people actually, I was neither the only person there with dreadlocks or a punk rock t-shirt.
The floor was packed. I had expected I guess to be on the dancefloor down the front, but there was no easy way of getting down there. Most people actually weren’t dancing, instead standing still and watching intently as if it was Leonard Cohen or something. This was maybe the strangest thing about the whole night, but up the back near the bar there was a bit of room, so a few people had created their own little dance floor, which is where I headed.
I missed the first few songs, so by the time I walked in the band were already into “Dr Jones”. The sight that greeted me was incredible – the staff behind the bar were dancing, people were singing along, the band was jumping around and the song (to which I knew all the words) gave me flashbacks to a primary school disco.
The songs from there were less familiar and received a more subdued reaction, although the ending of each song still triggered an enthusiastic round of applause. The music mostly stuck to their usual theme, that being somewhat obvious and tasteless (“She’s a sucker, a starfucker”), occasionally attempting some kind of morality (Gonna steal from the rich… gonna give to the poor”). Meanwhile the between song banter was mostly a kind of tacky sexual innuendo, punctuated by them reminding us frequently how much they loved Australia and how happy they were to be here.
A highlight was the classic power ballad, complete with most of the band leaving the stage as the lights went down; a request to wave our mobile phones around; and then the band returning for the last chorus to huge lights and massively reverbed drums.
The opening of “Barbie Girl” was obviously the moment the audience had been waiting for, and it was greeted by wild cheers and the instant appearance of literally hundreds of camera phones filming it, as if this was some kind of significant cultural moment you would tell your grandkids about.
It was followed by a shout of “Do you like house music?”, then an explosion of strobe lights and the opening of “Candyman”, which actually featured a hardcore style breakdown (honestly – I’m not making this up). It didn’t quite produce the mosh moves, but did get a bit of hair flying around. Then they finished off the set with another big ballad.
The audience though was not satisfied. The encore chant lasted for minutes, and included so many people stamping their feet that the floor shook beneath us.
The band returned to deafening cheers, and finished this time with “Turn Back Time” (remember that? They actually had more hits than I thought). They all took a big bow and Lene stage dived into the audience, almost sending the room into delirium.
They left the stage and the house lights came up, but people lingered around smiling from ear to ear, queueing at the merch table, hanging out blocking the street like every good show at the Hifi.
So what is to be made of all this? The certainly left the crowd happy. Is it all just ironic? Nostalgia? Or is this a genuine cultural moment? Do those distinctions even exist? If I wanted to get all intellectual I could write something about post-modernism but the truth is you can’t really make an objective comment on our post-modern culture – it’s all around us, consuming everything.
Maybe “Barbie Girl” really is a significant cultural moment. Maybe middle aged people singing along to “Barbie Girl” 15 years after it was released really is a significant cultural moment. Who knows what will emerge from the rubble of our generation when cultural archaeologists in the future sift through the mountains of plastic, through every self-indulgent blog like this one.
That’s if there is any future culture beyond the regurgitating of trends, imagery and ideas at an ever faster rate; or if there are any future generations, because I’m pretty sure that Aqua selling out venues around Australia is a sign of something.