“Blue” is the crest of the late 90s Europop wave – extravagantly successful not just on the continent but worldwide. Including – most startling of all – the US, where it picked up a Grammy, made the Billboard Top 10, and sent the Eiffel 65 album double platinum. You could draw comparisons with another parochial 90s movement that was big business Stateside for a moment or two: “Blue (Da Ba Dee)” is Europop’s “Wonderwall”.
Could the comparison run any further? Pushing it might cast an interesting light on what gets to be called a movement, or a genre – what gets written into history, and what survives as fleeting moments on clip shows. It seems unlikely the BBC will be commissioning retrospectives a few years from now on the 20th anniversary of Aquarium, Europop and The Party Album but considered from a distance the late 90s feels like a time of successive waves of pop fashion – Britpop, post-Spice tweenpop, and then party-friendly Eurodance.
Britpop is remembered most because of the drama, the stories, and the material immediacy of it all – the way the bands were gigging and drinking near you. But as a pop style people bought and loved, the distinction in importance is less clear cut. “Blue” feels like a novelty hit, for sure – but it reached massive success at a time when there was an awful lot of Eurodance about. Once you have half a dozen novelty hits in a similar style happening at a similar time, you have to admit that they probably aren’t novelties. Novelties are joyful nose-thumbs to pop’s current order: “Blue” is a huge success because “Blue”, in 1999, is that order. This is what pop in 1999 is.
Only more so: the thing that stands out about “Blue”, returning to it, is how skull-bashingly committed it is to its peculiar aesthetic. Which is? Ultra-treated vocals – surely the most brutally full-on use of Autotune on any number one, bending words into enticing or repellent robot croons and caws. Stentorian piano melodies – the old ABBA trick of big, romantic keyboards up front. Lyrics that ramble and half-scan, giving the song an improvised, spontaneous feel that helps take some of the edge off the inhuman and maximalist parts. And that mocking, looping, endless, infuriating chorus. But this is not a record that gives half a shit about whether it’s annoying.
The result sounds demented but also – if you’ve paid any attention to what else has been selling this year – the most surefire hit imaginable. “Blue” is the magnificent and awful culmination of what Lou Bega, Aqua, the Vengaboys and the pop-trance contingent have been doing for a while: it couldn’t but be massive. Fortunately it’s also, behind the bluster, an oddly touching little record. Blue was simply a random choice of colour, claimed the band, but you don’t get to invoke blue in pop without the blues coming to mind. And while “Blue (Da Ba Dee)” is in no useful musical sense a blues track, sorrow is timeless, and its sketch of a sad blue world and a small life has a power anyhow. It’s a piece of simple, effective storytelling, like a nursery rhyme or a Mister Men book. And, in my experience, even its most brainstem-aggravating qualities resonate with the circular inward momentum of melancholy: “Blue”’s chorus feels like a thought you just can’t leave well alone.
“Blue”’s specific qualities still leave a broader question – if the Euro-wave was a commercial movement, why it and why then? Particularly dumb luck, perhaps, but it’s also worth remembering people were gearing up for an especially huge party season, with a certain amount of overwrought concern about whether the world would come out of it alright. Forced jollity and global sing-alongs were on the agenda. If it’s a stretch to claim “Blue” and its fellows as artefacts of pre-millennial jitters, it’s also true that the Europop trend turned to vapour soon after the century ended. The need people had for them faded, and Eiffel 65 and their ilk are remembered for the hangover more than the party. Inevitable, but still unfair.