Danish-Norwegian dance pop group Aqua are remembered, above all else, for "Barbie Girl"—an international smash hit recontextualising the much-loved child's toy as some sort of enthusiastic sex slave for a guy who says things like "hanky panky" in an upsetting tone of voice. It is, hands down, one of the most iconic songs of the late 90s, packing a decade's worth of shameless innuendo, throwaway feelgood content and bubblegum aesthetics into one perfectly trashy single way before Katy Perry came along. All things considered, it would be reasonable to assume that "Barbie Girl"—or even follow-up single, the slightly soppier but still heavily couched-in-playful-eroticism "Doctor Jones"—marked the moment Aqua was spending, as well as making, the most money. This is apparently not the case.
Do you remember the song "Cartoon Heroes" released by Aqua in the year 2000? Because I sure don't. The title triggers no memories, rings zero bells, is without place or meaning in my life at all. Listening to it conjures up a faint feeling of familiarity, like a story about the first time you swore, aged three, during a family trip to Blackpool after you dropped your chips on the floor which has been relayed to you so many times by other people now that you've formed the shape of a memory even though you don't actually remember it.
The song is from their second studio album Aquarius, which you may or may not be aware exists, and did pretty well commercially, thank you very much. It debuted at number 1 and became the best-selling single of the year 2000 in Denmark, for example, but they would say that wouldn't they. Successful as "Cartoon Heroes" may have been on certain papers, it simply didn't have the impact of "Barbie Girl."
Anyway, turns out the video for "Cartoon Heroes" cost $3.5 million to make—three and a half million dollars??—meaning it is the eighth most expensive video of all time. I think I speak for everyone when I say: what the fuck.
To put things into perspective, that is more expensive than "November Rain" by Guns N' Roses ($1.5 million), which features a complete wedding, funeral and live orchestral performance—not to mention a five-tier cake designed specifically for someone to dive through in slow motion. It is more expensive than Michael Jackson's "Bad" ($2.2 million) which, at 18 minutes and five seconds long, is essentially a very costly and impeccably choreographed B-movie. It cost over half as much as Madonna's "Die Another Day," and that only had the funding it did because it was the theme song for an actual James Bond film. All are definitive and memorable moments in pop culture that have stood the test of time. Aqua, on the other hand, jizzed one of the biggest budgets ever awarded in music video history away on a short film in which four Fifth Element-cum- Battlestar Galactica-inspired Martians vanquish a giant cyclops squid only for asshole children of the era to turn around 17 years later and say: "Excuse me? I do not recall."
Look, "Cartoon Heroes" does not have less value than "November Rain" just because it is intentionally silly. But… Three and a half million? Three? And a half?? MILLION? DOLLARS???? Harmony Korine could have done three Gummo's for that. That is only $500k more than Lost In Translation. That is precisely the same budget as The Full Monty. I love Aqua as much as the next 90s bitch but this is some next level commitment to eurodance.
I feel compelled to ask: what, how, and—indeed—why?
I tried to get in touch with actual Aqua or at least someone Aqua-adjacent to find out the story behind this video whose budget could have paid for several Pacific islands. Why this particular concept? Who believed in it so deeply that they sunk Iconic Once-In-A-Lifetime Artist amounts of dosh into the cause? How can we justify the fact that it is by far one of the most expensive videos ever made and it made less of a lasting impression than Pepe the alt-right frog?
After hitting dead end after dead end, I unfortunately cannot provide you with any concrete answers. Aqua were too busy playing six shows in Scandinavia to speak to me, said their booking agent via email. Where the idea came from and whomst signed off on it will remain among modern life's great mysteries. What I can provide you with, though, are a few under-informed guesses about why it cost so fucking much.
PERSON TO DESIGN GIGANTIC MONSTER™ ($23,000)
FAKE CRYOGENIC PODS ($70,000)
THE FEW SECONDS OF FLOATING THAT TAKE PLACE JUST BECAUSE ($7,000)
SET DESIGN ($350,000)
SPACE PORN ($100)
SPACE BUFFET ($300)
THESE GUYS ($50)
VERY INTENSE UNDERWATER CGI SEQUENCE OF GIGANTIC MONSTER™ BEING OBLITERATED BY LASERS ($3,149,530)
HAIR AND MAKEUP ($20)
Someone help me budget this my industry is dying.
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