But What Sign Did We See Exactly?

Looking Back At 30 Years of Ace of Base
A photo-illustration of the four members of Ace of Base.
Illustration: Tyler Littwin

by Leila Brillson

Think of a ubiquitous song, an eternal song. The kind of song you might hear in a bar in Shinjuku or a wedding in Topanga Canyon, and nearly everyone knows the words—and not a few have begun belting them out. Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” Queen’s “We Will Rock You.” Madonna’s “Like A Virgin.” At the highest reaches of this list of songs with total global recognition, with its compressed, simplistic drums and instantly identifiable synth flute, is “The Sign” by Ace of Base. No matter who you are, no matter what your penchant or otherwise for pop culture, from elder Boomers to burgeoning Gen Zs, that loping rhythm is seared into your brain. 

These massive, transcendent hits usually come woven round with all the richly textured lore of superstardom, or with an exceptionally freakish backstory, like a shocking video or a meddlesome producer. In this way “The Sign” is almost ahistorical; a techno-reggae dance tune with near-clinical catchiness that emerged from Iceland? Denmark? Who knows. (Sweden.) The pop-culturally savvy might remember that the band was made up of siblings; some might even dimly recall a strange Nazi backstory. But the story of Ace of Base mostly slips through our collective memories.

And yet, Ace of Base is no one-hit wonder: The Sign was the first debut to produce three #1 hits on the Billboard top 100—“The Sign”, “All That She Wants”, and “Don’t Turn Around”. Tucked between Green Day’s Dookie and Whitney Houston’s Whitney, The Sign (the album) is one of the top selling albums of all time, surrounded by giants like Eminem, Prince, and Carole King. It could have been a juggernaut. A powerhouse. But among these hallowed names that shaped music history and changed pop culture, Ace of Base became another ‘90s relic, on the shelf with the bubble skirts and Tickle Me Elmos. 

The Sign debuted in 1993, and only a few months later Ace of Base took off—and crashed—in America. The reason for their sudden disappearance isn’t a Fleetwood Mac-style soap opera, but something as banal as it is familiar: The mistreatment of women in the spotlight. Just four months into their global domination, a crazed fan broke into the Berggren’s family home in Sweden and held singer Jenny Berggren, then just 22, at knifepoint. Her sister Linn began to break down, refusing to perform at Madison Square Garden and turning down Pepsi contracts. She didn’t want this. She leads a lonely life. 

And so, thirty years later, we COULD turn around to see that The Sign was the first album made for the cheerfully self-centered, fun-lovin’ cohort of millennials. As flannel-shirted Gen-X musicians strove gloomily for authenticity and rebellion (remember: peak grunge), Ace of Base shimmered in, offering a lovely and sunny pop experience that simplified underground euro-dance and added a nice reggae sheen. Why have angst when you can dance?

For its 30th birthday, I invited some who remember that breezy shift on the airwaves to reflect on why this album did—or didn’t—change the world. 

“All That She Wants”
Max Collins

“All That She Wants” is one of those songs that is musically way more sophisticated than it sounds. My band covered it a while back and when I sat down to learn it, I was like, Goddamn, this is so much more ambitious than it seems

"All That She Wants"

There are some wild major to minor chord changes in there and the melody in the verses is strange and unpredictable, but it still goes down like Peach Snapple. Add to that the inane lyric and the effect is transcendent. A perfect Swedish pop song. 

Max Collins is the lead singer of Eve 6 and gets the ‘90s better than most people.

“Don't Turn Around”
Lauren Caruso

I remember the day my sister ran home from school and interrupted my mom’s precious alone time to beg her to take her to RadioShack. That only ever meant one thing: A new cassette was out, and she’d saved up enough birthday money to buy it. She was barely nine, and I, just six, which meant everything she wanted and liked would eventually become my entire personality via osmosis. 

My sister wasn’t yet old enough to consider me gravely uncool, so we played the tape for two hours straight—or at least until we could memorize the lyrics. I stayed up late after she fell asleep making sure I had a good handle on the hook, and the next day, my best friend Lindsay came over, buzzing with the familiar anticipation that could only come from wanting to be included. 

"Don't Turn Around"

The beat—simultaneously moody and exuberant—was easy enough to carry for two kids who barely had control of their arms, so we did what any ‘90s-era kid with too much energy, not enough supervision, and a basement would do: We came up with a dance. A choreographed dance. On rollerblades. Three nights later, we’d invite our parents to join us in the basement to be dazzled as two little kids on blades dramatized the agony of a shattered heart. (Her mom played the part, but mine wasn’t impressed.) 

We didn’t know it yet, but “Don’t Turn Around”—the second and arguably the best song off the album—would eventually serve as the framework for dozens of choreographed dances to come. (Alanis Morissette’s “Jagged Little Pill” was our second go-round, and we’d perfected our coordination by the time Hanson’s “Middle of Nowhere” debuted in ’97.) Any time the song plays in a bar—often ironically, now—my body perks up just a few seconds before my brain catches up and I remember I’m not six anymore.

Lauren Caruso is a freelance writer, consultant, and editorial strategist who splits her time between NYC and Los Angeles. She has more than ten years of publishing industry experience, with a focus on fashion, beauty, and lifestyle, at outlets including Refinery29, Allure, and The Zoe Report.

“The Sign”
Tyler Dean

When I was ten, my younger sister and I pooled the loose change around the house for a few weeks and walked four or so blocks through suburban Woodland Hills, past our usual haunt—the Psychic Eye Bookshop–to Thrifty’s, where we purchased a brightly colored cassette of Ace of Base’s album The Sign. It was the first album I had ever bought: the first time I had ever really intuited, despite my father’s capacious LP collection, that the music heard on the radio could be acquired, placed in a boombox, and played over and over again in the privacy of one’s bedroom, uninterrupted, save for the time it took to rewind. 

The title track was inescapable, of course. The older, cooler teenage girl who lived down the street and briefly took the reins of my sister’s pop culture education was obsessed with it. My step-sisters’ deadbeat uncle did an exaggerated, genderfucked dance to it in our backyard; he probably meant it as mocking panto, but I was enthralled. I would spend long minutes on the front porch, auditory processing glitches from my as-yet-undiagnosed ADHD on full display, arguing that the lyrics were actually “the Sun” to my sister, step-sisters, and the little crew of kids-who-also-lived-on-the-cul-de-sac. I hadn’t yet been exposed to the Allegory of the Cave, but I think I must have interpreted the song’s meaning along similar lines: the singer steps into the (sun)light of understanding and consequently leaves her shitty boyfriend. Then I bought the album and the liner notes punched a decisive hole in my theory.

“The Sign”

Despite its Europop energy and aggressive BPM, “The Sign” always felt a little off to me—a touch sad, a touch haunted. Maybe it was something in the plaintive insistence with which Berggren sings, “and I am happy now living without you; I’ve left you,” as if trying to convince herself. Possibly it was the keening-wind sound of the synth flute–unnervingly similar to one used in the operatic and chilling Super Metroid soundtrack. (That game, with its core aesthetic of pernicious loneliness, was my other major obsession of Q1 1994.) I was ten, going through the most viscerally unpleasant part of my parent’s divorce; maybe I just felt sorrow even in the fizziest of anthems. 

Thirty years on, though, the song still sounds melancholy to me. Or perhaps I’m the one that’s melancholy—looking back on that era of slightly mistranslated English lyrics and Moog-powered blare—knowing that ATC and Eiffel 65 and Aqua and all those other bright confections are yet to come, but will not last. 

And gone with them are the Psychic Eye Bookstore (at that location, at least), the days of not being entirely sure of the lyrics to a chart-topping hit, and a childhood mired in worry about having lost the halcyon days while still in the midst of them. 

Tyler Dean is a professor of Victorian and Gothic Literature at a number of Southern California colleges. He is a frequent contributor to Tor.com and his recent academic work can be found in the December 2022 issue of Victorian Studies.

“Living In Danger”
Ira Madison III

The thing about Ace of Base is you never know what the fuck they're talking about. This song has been described by Jonas Berggren as being about not trusting people, because you'll do better on your own. His sister Jenny has said it's about not giving into peer pressure and doing drugs, which sure, I didn't realize The Sign was funded by D.A.R.E. The beauty of these Swedes making music in English is that something was always lost in translation and their songs are consequently equal parts mysterious and didactic. "I see lies in the eyes of a stranger, you'll been living in danger." Who? If it's about what they say it is, then the stranger is the danger. But the stranger seems to think the person THEY are viewing is in danger? For not doing drugs? For wanting to live solo?

"Living In Danger"

Whose expectations are they talking about? Truly, the song is about being happy go-lucky (you are listening to Ace of Base, after all, and it's 1993!) and then you encounter some mysterious stranger, whose eyes are full of lies. Stay away from them, or you'll be living in danger. I'm not sure why, but all strangers are evil. Maybe the stranger is Medusa.

Ira Madison III is host of the Crooked Media pop culture podcast Keep It! You can also read Ira's newsletter Frank over here, and you can (and should!) follow @IraTheThird. 

“Dancer In A Daydream”
Gene Park

I think of daydreams as the beating heart of creativity, where ideas flow in and out in the conscious self. “Dancer in a Daydream” kicks off with its thumping bass and dark synths, reminding me of that process; it's probably the hardest-hitting song on the LP, and that’s why it stands out to me among the hit parade. Also, I’m a sucker for any song titles with the concept of dance in them, and it all started with this underrated gem; I grew up a punk rocker in the 1990s, but dance music was my secret passion. It was Ace of Base who first gave me permission to embrace beats.  

I hated not being able to express my admiration for house and techno, but the popularity of Ace of Base made it impossible to keep it entirely hidden away. When Jenny and Linn sing, “I want to be lover but you’re so shy, what you need is perfect assistance, let me guide you,” I absolutely knew that it meant my own love of dance. 

“Dancer in a Daydream”

When I finally learned to drive, this song was burned into my “cardio” homemade CD of dance tracks for cruising. If I boot it up now, there’s renewed confidence in my step, like I’m 14 again, skating along on rollerblades, daydreaming of who I’d dance with. 

Gene Park is a features writer for the Washington Post who’s covered video games and music. Born and raised in Guam, he studied journalism in California and transitioned into social media and audience work. He has been writing for the Post since 2018. 

“Happy Nation”
Leila Brillson

In 2016, before that year somehow stretched on and on until it was 2023 but also still, somehow, also 2016, Cracked.com wrote an article about how Ace of Base secretly got us all into Nazism. It was classic Cracked clickbait, with exuberant writing and an SEO-worthy headline with little nuance and a lot of poorly sized images. 

The article proclaims that Ace of Base’s main motivation was Nazism. Indeed, member Ulf "Buddha" Ekberg did have a white supremacist past, which he openly discussed before The Sign even arrived in the States. In a 1998 Nordisk doc on the group that somehow only survives on YouTube, Ulf doesn’t shy away from his time as a fascist, and talking about it, he seems embarrassed, saddened, apologetic. The other Ace of Base members, siblings who grew up down the street, stayed away from him during this time, and when he turned 17 he realized that "this isn’t how he wanted to live his life." Which: Yes, fair.

So, nearly 18 years later, when Cracked wrote, “How A Pop Band Tricked 9 Million Americans Into Being Nazis”, it felt like it would be an old rehash of Ulf Ekberg’s racist punk past which was openly discussed in 1993, but no. Oh no. Oh no no. It is an obsessive breakdown of the secret NWO signs, symbols, and messages that float through Ace of Base’s songs, specifically, “Happy Nation,” that reached Swiftian levels of Easter egg hunting.

You see, The Sign was originally called Happy Nation in Europe, where it had been out for a few months before being swooped by Clive Davis personally on Arista and brought over to America, where a few songs were added, and the label insisted on calling the album The Sign. (The article also makes the nefarious claim that Rupert Murdoch was somehow involved in bringing Ace of Base to the States, and I simply cannot find a connection there.) 

“Happy Nation”

No doubt, there are some bizarre cultural mashups going on here with Ace of Base, a Swedish band using a dub reggae tempo, with half-hearted stabs at Indian ragas and a smattering of whistle. “All That She Wants” did this better, but “Happy Nation” is an even clearer example of the bizarre and inexplicable hole into which the band’s history has fallen. First, there’s Ace of Base, a tech-reggae group with hippie-esque lyrics promising unity and brotherhood. Then there is Cracked.com’s QAnon-lite interpretation reminding us, frankly, how weird Ace of Base really was, how their impact both shook the world and was immediately forgotten. 

And now there is us, looking back over thirty years and wondering if something this manufactured can still feel timeless. 

(I would be remiss to omit that the “Controversies” section of “Happy Nation’s” Wiki entry, which was the soul of the Cracked article, has eerily disappeared. Someone call Rupert Murdoch.)

Leila Brillson is a sell-out who left years of journalism to work in entertainment and is hoping to make up for it by joining the incredible people at Flaming Hydra. Read her weird thoughts at Night Creeps

“Voulez-Vous Danser”
Maria Bustillos

In the early ‘90s, when it was new, I found Ace of Base’s relentless sprightliness just wildly irritating. I was living in LA then, where I’m from, and these chirping disco-reggae Swedes clashed very hard with the doomy hangover were experiencing in the wake of the Rodney King riots, which had put a hard stop to the carefree glow of LA’s New Wave years.

I could escape into music only if it had some sadness in it—the Cocteau Twins, Peter Murphy, Japan, the darker Bowie, John Cale etc.—and later Beck, whom I first heard play, and bewitchingly (from across the street, at our place on Pico Boulevard), at Jabberjaw, a club/coffeehouse that gave off an unruly vibe despite the Pop-Tarts on offer. There were some happy, sugary songs in our house, to be sure, for my baby daughter, songs from Sesame Street, and Disney’s Aladdin, etc., not for (lol) grownups.

It’s hard to communicate how completely The Sign blanketed the world in 1993-94. When I revisited the record last week, I’d been thinking of writing something about shopping malls and their place in urban life. Flirting, gossiping at the “food court” (who made up this weird phrase), trying on clothes at Bloomingdale’s with our moms on long and lazy afternoons. The mall was the place where one was guaranteed to hear Ace of Base in 1994. “Hit songs” in those years were both universally shared, and inescapable.

“Voulez-Vous Danser”

But when I heard the Eurodisco strains of ‘Voulez-vous danser’ I was rocketed back, not to 1994, but to 1981, and the all-ages LA club called the Odyssey, which burned down in a mysterious arson fire in 1985. It’s a brainlessly phoned-in dancefloor tune evoking a brainless moment that was lost decades ago.

It bears mentioning that any song lyric mentioning Voulez-vous would take someone of my vintage right back to the “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi” of Labelle’s mid-70s hit, ‘Lady Marmalade’. Patti LaBelle swears she had no idea what she was singing about, and I believe it. Who did?

Maria Bustillos is a journalist and critic, and founding editor of the Brick House and Flaming Hydra.

“All That She Wants (Banghra Version)”
Julianne Escobedo Shepherd

That Ace of Base spelled "bhangra" wrong in the title tells you exactly where this is going: an approximation, a gesture, a simulacrum signified by digital dhols. Still, the adoption in 1992 of bhangra's general vibe by a Swedish band—and most notably the omnivorous producer/DJ Denniz Pop—presaged the West's wider embrace of bhangra influences in pop music by a full decade. (Jay-Z hopped on Panjabi MC's "Mundian To Bach Ke" in 2003, to cite one significant example.) It also positions Ace of Base as a fascinating and dismaying postmodern subject—a group that included a reformed neo-Nazi, performing a maybe-admonishing song about a woman pursuing a series of one-night-stands, over a dub reggae beat-turned-bhangra refix. 

"All That She Wants (Banghra Version)"

Ace of Base scholars know that this song came to fruition after a demo version got stuck in Denniz Pop's tape player and his initial disdain was worn down to fascination and finally adoration, a story that encapsulates a neat little microcosm of the popularity of this song, and of a lot of others that emerged from terrestrial radio (RIP). I remember it playing constantly when it came out, and while I initially found the vocals grating and the lyrics inscrutable (I was a teen), by the 13th or 36th time I heard it it was suddenly under my skin or sneering inside my hippocampus. After that, it became a mystery: Why was this lady so sad? Who were these babies, and why did she want so many of them? Wasn't a human fetus's gestation period nine months? And when could I dance to this thing next? The "banghra version" just added another layer to its unknowability, the curiosities of a crate-digging DJ mining, and experimenting with, another sound from the global south, dropping heaters into an icy fjord.

Julianne Escobedo Shepherd is a journalist and editor, and a contributing writer at Pitchfork. Her first book, Vaquera, about growing up Mexican American in Wyoming and the myth of the American West, is forthcoming from Penguin.