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Apr 14

AQUA – “Barbie Girl”

Popular72 comments • 5,540 views

#776, 1st November 1997

barbie Branding, unsurprisingly, started with cows. When it moved from livestock to consumer goods, it expanded from a mark of ownership to a mark of consistency, but also of quality. As Andy Warhol put it in 1965, “All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.” The same went for Barbie.

What this meant was brand owners could begin to decouple consistency and quality. If all the Cokes are good, they need not actually be the same. You can have Diet Coke, Cherry Coke, Vanilla Coke. You can have coke bottled in Bialystok and Bilbao. You can have squirts of Coke syrup mixed with nozzled soda water, and by the power of the brand, all of it is Coke. The material existence of the product and the symbolic existence of the brand become more separated than ever but also more mutually dependent. Marketing, advertising, research (and a chunk of Warhol’s art) is very often about understanding and exploiting the relationship between them. The product Barbie creates the brand Barbie, but the brand Barbie is what then makes the existence of Ken possible.

By the late-90s – when I sold out and started working in the ‘communications industry’ – excitement in the symbolic side of branding had reached a new level. Much of the talk was around the intangible assets a brand represented on a balance sheet – its “equity”. But the new models of branding held that those assets sprang from a brand’s existence as a symbol for something wider than just a product range – what it represented in people’s mind beyond the product. Escape. Joy. Security. Rebellion. This was its brand image, or brand personality. Coca-Cola, for instance, meant happiness. Volkswagen meant safety. As for Barbie, Barbie meant fun, imagination and aspiration – three qualities the brand knotted firmly together. “With Barbie”, gushes the Superbrands site, “A little girl can be whatever she wants to be!”. A paragraph or two before they write “Barbie is always successful… always fun.”

Marketers and businesses loved this new emphasis on the symbolic aspect of branding. For a start, if a brand could plausibly claim to be different because of its ‘personality’, it could make savings at the sharp end, in production and quality control. But more – aligning a brand with happiness or fun ennobled it, and let marketers see themselves as something more creative than simple businessmen. Like artists, brand owners had their hands deep in the clay of the human psyche, manipulating powerful, ancient ideas. Research into brands became ever more focused on brand image – whether or not people could detect their symbolic identities.

This emphasis on brand image had two huge potential flaws. First, business people were not especially good at the manipulation of symbols. They tended to approach brand in the same way they had approached production – something to be set, scaled up and controlled. They wanted their brands not just to be symbols, but fixed symbols, which left them running to catch up with more playful or imaginative uses of their brand. “Subverting” a brand is one of the oldest tricks in the DIY artist’s book, but it works partly because brands are – or were – so uptight about their symbolic potential.

The other flaw is that brand image glossed over the other side of branding – the everyday reality of the product. And not just the often awful conditions in which it’s made. Marketing books are full of stories of managers spending time with the people who actually bought their stuff and being astonished at what they actually did with it. The idea that the intended use of something and its actual uses are different is a no-brainer for any critic, just like the idea that fixed symbols are vulnerable to inversion and playful manipulation – but marketers have rarely paid much attention to critics.
“Barbie Girl” works because it hits both of these brand flaws at once. It starts from part of the everyday reality of dolls which is absolutely familiar to most adolescents but which Mattel can’t directly admit: one of the things bored kids of a certain age do with toys is make them have sex. And then it exploits the Barbie brand’s attempt at being a fixed symbol for fun by making Barbie’s chirpy sexy funtimes be an exploitative relationship with a leering brute.

For me, both of these succeed because of the other – it means “Barbie Girl” doesn’t settle down into commentary or crassness. Crassness on its own gets you “Cotton Eyed Joe”. Commentary on its own is more worthy, but ends up fighting fun with not-fun, often to their mutual bafflement. Aqua, very obviously, are flirting with crassness a lot more than anything else, but they’re also happily complicating their hooks-first annoyance value at the same time as they push it unashamedly hard.

Their best – meaning funniest – asset in all this is René Dif as “Ken”, playing the Einar to Lene Nystrom’s Bjork. At the time some critics took “Barbie Girl” entirely at face value and condemned its Neanderthal attitudes and/or gross materialism – criticisms that really shouldn’t survive their first brush with Dif’s saucer-eyed, wolfish voice, which is absolutely committed but an easy tip off that whatever else this record is, it’s not seriously endorsing much of anything. Most of the rest of the anti-Aqua focused on the record’s hammering catchiness – “Barbie Girl” infuriated enough people to be voted the worst record of the 90s in Rolling Stone, only three years ago. People can’t choose what annoys them, of course, so all I can say is that this song doesn’t bother me. Aqua – like most Europop – are remorseless in their dedication to earworming you, and accept your later loathing as collateral damage. After four weeks I was as pleased as anyone for Barbie to bugger off back to her dream home, but I’m happy to hear the record now.

The third big criticism of “Barbie Girl” is that it sexualised Barbie. There’s no way of refuting this – it’s much of the point of the record, and even if the lyrics had no undressing or hanky panky, the entire duet dynamic relies on smutty oversinging, So why not go all in? Another way of hearing “Barbie Girl” is as a consensual kink scene – playing dolls as playing roles. The (glorious) video even backs this up to an extent: Barbie World may well be Barbie’s world, but Lene and René are certainly making no attempt to cosplay Barbie and Ken (“Why is Ken bald?” cry several of the 110 million YouTube viewers). They’re tourists here, having a splashy delight of a time, acting like naughty toys. In the final scenes someone dressed very like an actual Ken shows up, and looks – like Mattel – entirely horrified.

A footnote: In my outline of branding I’ve stuck to the past tense because attitudes have shifted a little recently – the Internet has forced brand image to become more flexible and has seen a huge surge of interest in ‘user experience’ which connects brands and products more intimately. This will end up being important to Popular – honest! – as you can also see a difference in how pop acts are conceived and marketed. Meanwhile, Aqua’s ambiguity is something a savvier company can and will catch up with – after years of embarrassingly trying to sue the band, Mattel inevitably ended up in 2009 just adapting “Barbie Girl” for an ad campaign.

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Comments

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  1. 51
    AMZ1981 on 3 Apr 2014 #

    Barbie Girl was the first climber to hit the top since I Believe I Can Fly (obviously I’ll Be Missing You had a split run between the two) and at the time it was a little bit embarrassing for the Spice Girls to be barged out of the way by a novelty record after a week. I was relatively neutral on this at the time in that I didn’t hate it – however I did hate the Spice Girls so this got a brownie point for putting them in their place.

    One thing I’m finding with nineties chart toppers is that I remember them from listening to the top forty religiously on a Sunday. Obviously I was too young to go to bars and clubs at the time so I often end up rediscovering them when a DJ plays them on a night out and I realise what the appeal was first time round. I mention because I heard Barbie Girl for the first time in about a decade last year and thought it had aged remarkably well.

    Tom made the point last time around that Spice Up Your Life seemed to mark the end of the mourning period. I’m wondering if that might arguably be more true of Barbie Girl, a record that entered the same week and ultimately proved more enduring. Even at the time I thought it apt – Diana and The Spice Girls were (in very different ways) trying to position themselves as icons who were breaking the female mould when (again in different ways) both were ultimately dollies, shaped and manipulated by men.

  2. 52
    Izzy on 3 Apr 2014 #

    50: ha! Pretty much every parent I’ve talked to can report something similar. So much so that I do wonder what effect committed gender-neutral parenting hopes to achieve.

  3. 53
    Alfred on 3 Apr 2014 #

    Post-CD Single Era Alert: Aquarium, like Chumbawumba’s Tubthumping, debuted much higher than expected in the States (and both sold 3-million-plus).

  4. 54
    Alan Connor on 3 Apr 2014 #

    Scandinavia might today evoke clean design and BBC Four serials, but I wonder whether Aqua’s Scandiness might have contributed in 97 to some taking them at face value – even five years after ABBA Gold, a tendency to think that if it’s Euro, it’s probably ignorant disco silliness?

  5. 55
    James BC on 3 Apr 2014 #

    Goodness Gracious Me (the sketch show) did quite a good parody of this called Punjabi Girl. It was a bit better than most sketch show parody songs, anyway.

    There was one of Men In Black, too, called Blacked Up Men. But Punjabi Girl was better.

  6. 56
    Tom on 3 Apr 2014 #

    It’s interesting that despite the welcome flood of comments crew approval for Aqua – suggesting I’d got the mark wrong (persuading me I had, in fact) – the average is a disappointing 5.8 at the moment. The lurkers ain’t buying our arguments!

  7. 57
    Tom on 3 Apr 2014 #

    Gender-neutral parenting: there’s no way to impose outcomes on kids but for me as a parent of boys it’s more a case of giving them as many options as possible within a general bare-minimum-requirement project of helping them understand that women are people not a scary/secondary Other. Ending up with a child who identifies as a boy and strongly likes ‘boy stuff’ is not a problem and may even be the most likely outcome (one of our kids is very stereotype-male in terms of his interests, the other quite a bit less so) but the point is to work to create a space where no other outcome is a problem either*. But – to get back to pinkification – marketing is very majoritarian: once it scents a “most likely outcome” there’s a tendency for it to focus on it and drive other options out.

    *not that I’m saying we have succeeded at this! There’s some obvious things we didn’t do. And no parent realises their own mistakes until their kids tell them.

  8. 58
    ciaran on 3 Apr 2014 #

    56 – I was half expecting and would not have been surprised for this to be in the lower regions of the bottom 100 giving Grandma or Liverpool a run for its money so a 5.8 so far isn’t all that bad.

    Given the day that was in it you could have written up a Rick Astley style ’10′.

  9. 59
    Tom on 3 Apr 2014 #

    It’s currently a (slightly disappointing) 89th most controversial in the reader scores.

  10. 60
    Garry on 3 Apr 2014 #

    On Barbie: My almost school-aged girl was given one for Christmas by a distant relative. I knew it would inevitably happen but was comforted by partner who said her Barbie had lost limbs and ended up horribly destroyed during her childhood. This actually correllated with what I had been hearing from most of my friends of our generation over the years. Barbie was often used for role-playing, but not the tea-party, romantic type.

    Sure enough Barbie is lying naked underneath my daughter’s bed forgotten, while the knitted doll an aunt knitted for her birth is still her favourite.

    On another song: Australian band Regurgitator released a song called Polyester Girl at the end of 1997. It also revelled in crassness – twisting between the double-meanings of blow-up doll and idealised, pliable, cosmestically beautiful girlfriend. At college, with Aqua fresh in our heads, the two songs seemed twins. She was the very girl he was singing about, though neither band take the concept too seriously.

  11. 61
    anto on 3 Apr 2014 #

    #56: I wouldn’t call myself a lurker, I just find it supremely ugly to listen to so a low mark it had to be. The comments about it’s d.h.m are very interesting though.
    re: Gender and toys – I always envied all the cool stuff my sister’s Barbie had including her own bathroom complete with walk-in shower.

  12. 62
    Tom on 3 Apr 2014 #

    Yes sorry – not everyone giving it low marks is a lurker, clearly – there were just an awful lot of 8s, 9s and 10s upthread!

    (It doesn’t surprise me that the commenters and voters are separating out a bit at the moment though.)

  13. 63
    Alan not logged in on 3 Apr 2014 #

    it’s in the top 100 highest std devs http://freakytrigger.co.uk/populist/6/ (oh I see you already remarked on this, d’oh)

  14. 64
    glue_factory on 3 Apr 2014 #

    How do we vote? I thought we only got to vote at the end of 1997?

  15. 65
    Tom on 3 Apr 2014 #

    It’s a perk for registered users – when you’re logged in you get to put your own mark out of 10 in for each entry (as well as seeing my one).

  16. 66
    glue_factory on 3 Apr 2014 #

    Ahh, cheers. Who knew.

  17. 67
    Kat but logged out innit on 3 Apr 2014 #

    #61: Sindy had a CARAVAN which the merciless My Little Ponies stole and repurposed as a luxury horse box, and the heads of poor old B&S were perched on the top as trophies. Come to think of it, my little playtime universe had worrying fascist leanings – maybe that’s what Mum was actually concerned about.

  18. 68
    Middlerabbit on 7 Apr 2014 #

    It’s bubblegum pop, isn’t it? I like some bubblegum an awful lot, especially the Kasanetz Katz, Buddha stuff from about 1968.

    There was, and is, always goings to be snobbery about this sort of thing and, due to Bubblegum’s innuendo ridden lyrics, a sort of ‘won’t someone think of the children?’ handwringing, as if to suggest that not only is it bad because it’s not 4 men with guitars and drums expressing angst, rebellion, it’s quantifiably bad as well, because of the double entendre inherent within.

    Well, I don’t buy it, myself.

    Nor did I buy this. I don’t mind it. The best thing about it is that it isn’t a happy sounding record in the slightest. It sounds yearning and full of regret. That’s due to the girl’s singing, which is of the Minnie Mouse on helium (cheers, Mick) variety, but that’s just a cover up for the sadness at the heart of this record.

    I’m not saying it’s deep and I’m not saying it has a deep message. Maybe it does, but I wouldn’t claim to know what it is.

    Why I admire it is because it’s easy to write mawkish, sad sounding songs – cf (The) Verve. This is far more intelligent and far more subtle than the supposedly deep and meaningful grunts of Richard Ashcroft and Noel Gallagher, for instance.

    Great pop music, as has been commented by Neil Tennant and Johnny Marr, tends to be simultaneously joyful and melancholy. Barbie Girl is both and, as such, is a good, if not quite great pop thing.

    7

  19. 69
    Lazarus on 7 Apr 2014 #

    I gave this a 4, but reading the subsequent comments have made me wonder if I acted in haste. I thought this was just a dreadful novelty song, as if someone had said “hey, little girls are buying Spice Girls records, let’s make a record for them! And what do all little girls like? Barbie, let’s make it about Barbie.” It never occurred to me that there was anything more going on than that. If I feel slightly more kindly towards it now it’s only because radio has scarcely touched it in the intervening years – in marked contrast to ‘Torn’, the record it kept from the top. And as I say the review, and comments, have made fascinating reading.

  20. 70
    Tommy Mack on 8 Apr 2014 #

    I didn’t realise I’d never listened to this properly before. I had no idea how lascivious the verses were. I always remembered the subversion as being more understated and ambiguous but like I said, I never listened properly. I was at the dog end of my Britpop snobbery so probably couldn’t quite believe that continentals could do irony: besides Eurotrash had shown us that they were all demented, glib perverts anyway…

    What grips me most, listening to it now is a sort of sad nostalgia: this was the first time I implicitly realised that I was too old for a record: I’d loved No Limits, Cotton Eye Joe and, forgive me, Mr Blobby and I remember taking the piss of this with my mates but never hating it or even engaging with it that much, that we knew it wasn’t for us and as such was immune from our criticism (not that I would have ever articulated like that and I now think I was wrong anyway).

    It’s smart and hook-laden, sharp-witted and well put together but it’s a bit harsh on the ears and it shoots its wad in the first two verses and choruses. 6 seems about right. A quick trawl through spotify tells me there’s much better to come from Aqua.

    On toys: our macho older cousin passed on a bunch of toys most of which ended up broken because we played rough. My brother picked Action Man, undressed him, wrapped him in a baby blanket and fed him with one of those magic bottles that appeared to empty. I suspect he hasn’t shared the story with his colleagues at the lumber yard.

  21. 71
    Mark M on 8 Apr 2014 #

    Re57 etc: I know it’s dangerous to read too much into individual experience, but as a kid I went through a massive military phase from about three to nine, towards the end of which I read Liddell Hart’s hefty History Of The Second World War several times over. That was followed by a car obsession that lasted up to about 14. Meanwhile, my dad – from when I was about four – was giving me sips of beer on the theory that I would acquire the taste and not get sick on silly cocktails when I was a teenager.
    Anyway, so I grew up to be, if not a complete pacifist, someone who thinks you have to have a watertight case for military action. And a non-driver who is quite anti-car. And someone who barely drinks alcohol, but when I do, it’s cocktails. So I don’t read much into what my nephews and nieces like now…

  22. 72
    etc on 11 Apr 2014 #

    All René, all the time:
    https://soundcloud.com/disasteradio/aqua-just-the-dude

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