Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Barbie Girl

My grown-up daughter accidentally left a flash drive on my desk with lots of backed-up music files.  Since I'm a musical bowerbird I've been listening my way through it, picking up on all sorts of stuff I haven't heard before or haven't really listened to.

One of the real gems is this little song, released in 1997 by the Danish-Norwegian bubble gum pop group Aqua.

Of course I've heard this song before.  How could I not have?  My first memory of it is around 1999 when we visited the UK and our pre-adolescent nieces were listening to it.  I wonder what they make of it now?  The song is a regular feature on lists of "Most Annoying Songs of All Time".  I doubt the group members care, given it means they never have to worry about how they will pay the rent.

However, listening to it properly and hearing the words, as opposed to being annoyed by it, is quite a revelation because it really is a very clever song.

I'm a Barbie girl, in the Barbie world
Life in plastic, it's fantastic!
You can brush my hair, undress me everywhere
Imagination, life is your creation

I'm a blond bimbo girl, in a fantasy world
Dress me up, make it tight, I'm your dolly
You're my doll, rock'n'roll, feel the glamour in pink,
Kiss me here, touch me there, hanky panky...
You can touch, you can play, if you say: "I'm always yours"

Make me walk, make me talk, do whatever you please
I can act like a star, I can beg on my knees
Come jump in, bimbo friend, let us do it again,
Hit the town, fool around, let's go party
You can touch, you can play, if you say: "I'm always yours"

Mattel, makers of Barbie and Ken, were less than impressed and attempted to sue Aqua for breach of copyright.  They lost, the judge saying that parody is perfectly legal. 

It's possible the irony of the song was lost on many of the band's pre-teen fans but it obviously wasn't lost on Mattel's management.  Barbie, the seemingly innocent children's plaything, is exposed as the lurid sex-symbol and impossibly unattainable ideal she is.  Its cutting edge is aided by the plastic nature of the music itself and the relentlessly silly, up tempo beat.  This song is annoying because it's meant to be.   

Yet the song is taking aim at more than just a children's toy.  It's aiming at the passive sexualised images of womanhood we see everywhere - on catwalks, in fashion magazines, in pop music, in the cinema.  I could earnestly whack you in the face about all that, but they don't, they hide it deliciously in bold-coloured wrapping paper, weave it into a tune so infectious that no matter how hard you try you just can't stop humming it.

In fact it's just like Barbie herself, that insidious idea of womanhood that just will not get out of our heads.  It sounds like joyous fun, but its not.  It's deadly earnest and it can wreck lives.  Just ask Britney Spears.  Ask Miley Cyrus in a few years' time.

Apropos of which, you really know your song is a pop culture icon when it is made over into a spooky electronic dirge by an avant garde indy act like, say, The Flaming Lips or Camper Van Beethoven or, in this case, Electric Chairs.

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