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Dec 14

EIFFEL 65 – “Blue (Da Ba Dee)”

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#836, 25th September 1999

eiffel65 “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.

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Comments

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  1. 51
    Mark M on 6 Dec 2014 #

    Re49/50 etc: So, for instance, the opening little hook on It’s Not Right, which is the only music for the first verse, and sounds to me (though I’m sure it isn’t) like a comb or maybe a Harry Partch lightbulb marimba. The song goes on for a minute too long and everything has been chucked in by the end, so it’s easy to forget how minimal it is at the start.

  2. 52
    funky sukrat 3 on 6 Dec 2014 #

    p sure it’s a kalimba aka mbira aka thumb piano: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Se4nqUgIL0

    (or a very good synthesiser replication)

    (the thumb piano is sometimes also called the marimba, confusingly enough) (this being the marimba i assume patrch’s is named for)

  3. 53
    Tom on 6 Dec 2014 #

    I’d forgotten Bunnied Bey Band were having such big hits in the UK – I thought the commercial breakthrough was next year and TLC were pretty much an outlier – so yes, indeed, nu-R&B was up and running here.

    My sense of what goes where is very scrambled around this time, though – I was mostly talking about music to Americans, I was getting MP3s of all this stuff from people uploading them in the US – there seemed to be a feeling (more in 2000-2001) that a week without a new R&B single doing something you’d never heard before was a poor week. It’s the closest I’ve come as a listener to what the fabled context of abundance of the high 60s in Britain must have been like, I think. A lot of them weren’t getting released here – but then you’d get something like Kelis’ “Caught Out There” which was a smash here and a moderate performer there. But I found it very hard to keep up with what had come out when and where.

  4. 54
    Mark M on 6 Dec 2014 #

    Re53: Yes, it was confusing. A lot of stuff did come out with that movie-world lag, but I guess I was used to that. Through the ’90s I was buying hip-hop on import (when it came out here, I’d still blag review copies of the UK release from the record companies, of course). In the context of this discussion, I was trying to figure out when I heard ODB’s Nigga Please, which was my first awareness of The Neptunes. It says 1999 on the record, so I’m pretty sure I heard it then, but the single, Got Your Money (ft Kelis) wasn’t a hit until summer 2000.

    Possibly worth mentioning that John Peel absolutely loved that first Kelis album, played loads of tracks off it for weeks I seem to remember (because to him it sounded like the ’70s, funnily enough). Don’t think Skateboard P is generally lumped in with the many Peel discoveries.

  5. 55
    swanstep on 7 Dec 2014 #

    Slightly more old-school, but Q-Tip’s ‘Vivrant Thing’ and ‘Breath and Stop’ were huge in clubs where I was at Xmas 1999. Beyond that though, my own sense at the time was that my home base of college radio rock was in good shape: Sigur Ros’s Agaetis Bjryun (rumored on campus as the album to get you laid! not sure that the band would have appreciated that), The Beta Band’s 3 E.P.s, and Flaming Lips’s Soft Bulletin (in addition to Beck and Magnetic Fields stuff previously mentioned) were exciting records on deserved permanent rotation (and still are really), and dominated lots of critics lists IIRC. And, at least in Seattle and Portland, alt-country/bluegrass was big with the cool kids, and, e.g., Freakwater’s album End Time w/ killer single Good For Nothing was also essential listening.

  6. 56
    Shiny Dave on 7 Dec 2014 #

    Perhaps in retrospect, 1999 was the year where the Britpop/Spice Girls/boyband era broke down – Britpop mired in melancholy, the Spices split and gearing up for solo careers of varying quality, the boyband mantle largely passed to Westlife’s “pan-generation romantic coalition.”

    No surprise then, that the innovations in largely-black American music once again shaped the UK charts as a void emerged – wouldn’t be the first time – but Europop was in position A to fill this very particular point in time. The millennium year would bring new-millennium US music – too often with old-millennium attitudes to gender relations, though one of the first examples of the sound we’ll see on Popular is arguably the defining counterexample – but for now, it’s mostly bubbling under, its big chart leap still to come.

    (#53: Maybe Caught Out There was bigger here because its shouty “I HATE YOU SO MUCH RIGHT NOW!” chorus earned it novelty-record status in a year that was awfully friendly to novelties and earworm choruses?)

  7. 57
    iconoclast on 7 Dec 2014 #

    @56 (first paragraph): from a pop-cultural point of view, this probably reflects more than two years of post-Diana Blairism in some way.

  8. 58
    pink champale on 8 Dec 2014 #

    #47 Yes, Bills, Bills, Bills was my epiphany about all this nu-R&B that I never knew was happening too. And astonishing as much of that stuff is, i still think BBB seems like a step beyond even the very best of the rest, an evolution in human achivement as much as just music. In fact it feels like the sort of music that should be playing in the room at the end of 2001 A Space Odyssey – with BBB’s harsicord standing in for 2001’s Louis XVI furniture

  9. 59
    ciaran on 15 Dec 2014 #

    I was one of very few in my school that had any time for this and though I wouldn’t say history has proven that it’s a work of genius it hasn’t aged badly for what was a novelty record.

    It loses a bit of appeal in the dodgy video and doing a bit of a Lou Bega with the follow up (You could also argue it sets the tone for another monstrous Mainlaind Europe Number One 2 popular years on) but it’s still something I am still slightly fond of now. Even Kayne West might have picked up a thing or two. 6

  10. 60
    lonepilgrim on 23 Dec 2014 #

    There’s a great piece spinning off from this songs use in ‘Iron Man 3’ at the One Week One Band Tumblr here:
    http://oneweekoneband.tumblr.com/post/105985708431/eiffel-65-blue-da-ba-dee-iron-man-3

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