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Apr 14

AQUA – “Barbie Girl”

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#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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  1. 31
    Rory on 2 Apr 2014 #

    I had somehow missed this song’s growing reputation as the Worst Ever, although remembering its late-1990s reception it shouldn’t surprise me. I might have been tempted to think that myself, given my musical proclivities, if not for the fact that my wife loved it, and Aquarium was rarely off our CD player at one point. Aquarium has a fair claim to being the Europop album of the 1990s (but as the Bunny shall eventually reveal, only my second-favourite Europop album of the decade): looking at its Wikipedia entry I see that seven of its 11 tracks were singles, which isn’t that surprising – the surprise is that some of the remaining tracks didn’t form an 8th or 9th. I’ve just relistened to it, and only one track (“Be a Man”) strikes me as a weak single prospect, which is pretty incredible.

    Thinking on it now, I realise that I’ve always grouped Aqua in my mind with No Doubt, with “Just a Girl” and “Barbie Girl” as the mission-statement hits, and parallels in their subsequent singles as well. The cover of Tragic Kingdom also has echoes of what Aqua did with theirs, all bright and cartoony. The strong Aquarium brand replaced a couple of more literal single covers for their first two Danish singles (photos of the band visiting an aquarium), and feels like a master-stroke of marketing. It’s hard, too, to imagine them doing as well with their original band-name of Joyspeed, although it does suit their music. (If you’re curious to hear what proto-Aqua sounds like, YouTube provides. Of course it would be a nursery rhyme. Not only that, but my daughter’s favourite nursery rhyme. I’ll have to try the rap section on her.)

    I don’t remember ever doubting the subversive stance of “Barbie Girl”, or thinking that it was a simple celebration of the toy. Some of that must be down to my wife, whose ingrained feminism wouldn’t have let her enjoy any sort of uncritical celebration of Barbie, not even ironically. But the clues aren’t exactly hidden. “Life in plastic, it’s fantastic” was obviously not to be taken at face-value in the late 1990s, when “plastic” had long been a byword for fakery and cheapness, not to mention its reputation as an environmental menace and symbol of overconsumption. (I read this fascinating history of it around that time, which gave me a better appreciation of the much-maligned stuff, but there was no doubting its popular reputation.)

    I’m amazed to see “Barbie Girl” described (on the blurb at the top of its Deezer page) as “one of those inexplicable pop culture phenomena”: what’s inexplicable about a song crammed with hooks which can be enjoyed on multiple levels becoming a hit? I wouldn’t dismiss those who hate “Barbie Girl” – if you don’t like Europop you’re gonna hate this, and even if you do this could irritate in other ways – but there’s no way I can give one of the key songs of the ’90s anything less than 8.

  2. 32
    Tom on 2 Apr 2014 #

    (The critic I was referring to in the piece who took BG at face value was J1m D3r0G4t1s who is reliably tin-eared about everything)

  3. 33
    Cumbrian on 2 Apr 2014 #

    #26: This is interesting (to me at least). I think a functional problem for quite a bit of the research that is done in my organisation is that none of us have kids – there are few of us of the age that are even considering it to be honest – and I think it inarguable that, although the sample size is small, constant immersion in what is going on is more instructive than getting 2 hours worth of time with a wide variety of kids on a semi regular basis.

    There’s definitely a sense that kids will quickly discard things when they find them babyish and we see that a lot. That said, the number of 7 year olds still hanging in with relatively young products that I have seen has given me a bit of pause. Ultimately, I suspect it is about stages not ages, and have seen evidence that kids quickly learn about the types of things that they won’t talk about with other kids (in case they get teased) but will continue to enjoy on their own. Children obviously mature at different rates, so it seems sensible to view their world through this prism – but it is very difficult when business is generally done on the ages that children are at (for good reason in the main, as they are still likely the easiest way to draw some generalities that can be aimed at – NB: I wrote and hit comment on this before seeing your comment at 29 – I too have a bit of a distrust of target demographics but have to use them, otherwise I’m not going to get anywhere in terms of delivering required work in company).

    I also found your comment on umbrella brands interesting. I doubt this is supported in the theory on branding but aren’t all brands umbrellas in some sense? What makes Coke Coke is a collection of traits and I imagine that if Coke did something that was incongruent, kids would be able to pick it out.

    Another thing I have been playing around is that , I think, some of the things kids take out of brands are things like “my friend has a Barbie, so I like it because I like her/it means I can play Barbie with her” etc, which kind of brings in some of the things you’re talking about re: gender specificity. There’s been a general move at my company to try and develop things with regard to play patterns rather than genders (in some respects) but whatever happens, we still find that the traditional boys stuff sells to boys and the reverse – even though that’s not the explicit intention. There’s a lot of influencing stuff in the ether, in general, around how kids grow up and what they get into. In my experience, a lot of it is reflections of parental experience too, which I think is a reinforcing factor (we see a lot of “I played with xxx, so I trust it and will put xxx in my child’s hands”/”I watched xxx, so I am happy for my child to watch xxx”). In some respects, this is why I am interested in who the branding of Barbie is for? I genuinely think that the primary audience for Barbie branding is parents but I am willing to be persuaded otherwise.

  4. 34
    Cumbrian on 2 Apr 2014 #

    #30: I’m not sure it does. A lot of the work we’ve done on extended family gifting indicates that people are not going to take a punt on what the child likes and will ask the parents what the child is into, what other stuff they might be getting, etc.

  5. 35
    Rory on 2 Apr 2014 #

    #34: I can see how that would be true in most cases. But it only takes one to buck that trend, and all of your careful selecting is undone: for example, one great-grandmother who sends your daughter this. (She loved it, and it was sent out of love, so I’m not complaining. Just reminded how impossible it is to exercise absolute control.) (Not that I really want to exercise absolute control.)

  6. 36
    Cumbrian on 2 Apr 2014 #

    I agree with this – but I think we’re talking at cross purposes. It will have an affect at the individual level within families (and I don’t think I’d want it any other way – we’re not, nor should we be raising, perfect little automatons, so the happy accident/unpredictable idea taking hold should be encouraged) – and there will be as many stories of outliers as there are kids and families that you’re talking about – but if you’re trying to create any kind of policy to promote a product (itself, as Tom points out, a problematic thing to do), you still need to deal in generalities, which means accepting things like this will happen, that you can’t do anything about it but nevertheless pressing on with the likely most successful route.

  7. 37
    Tom on 2 Apr 2014 #

    Definitely that kind of transference from your own upbringing is a stronger factor now – we have a culture which encourages you and enables you to stay in touch with the things you ‘grew up on’ to a much greater extent than it ever did before. Which creates its own parental dilemmas – you need to be very alert to the extent to which your kids are actually into stuff you are exposing them to, and also happy to follow their own enthusiasms and trust in their own boredom (to nick Mark S’ excellent phrase).

  8. 38
    glue_factory on 2 Apr 2014 #

    Re: 34, I don’t work in marketing or have a grounding in research, so apologies if I’m teaching you to suck eggs, but I assume that work involves speaking to both the parents and the extended family In my case, the extended family would be convinced they check their gift choices with us, and we would be convinced that they don’t/

    EDIT this has been superceded by the intermediate replies

  9. 39
    Rory on 2 Apr 2014 #

    Yes, I wouldn’t want toy manufacturers or marketers to run scared of parents who might be irritated by aspects of their toys, because that would seem to be a total capitulation to the parents’ interests in all of this, rather than the child’s. Another example that comes to mind is a learning drum that some friends gave our son when he was born, explicitly because their son’s one irritated them no end and they were sharing the joy. Sure enough, it was annoying, but he loved it. It may also have helped him pick up numbers and letters faster. It may also be the reason he’s now a proficient drummer. So I don’t for a moment think that we should have smashed it into tiny pieces with a hammer while chanting “Slay the Drum, Everyone, Slay the Drum”. Though the thought may have crossed my mind.

    The toys that are more concerning are the heavily gendered ones, because of the baggage they carry. But apart from not buying our daughter a Barbie ourselves, and being fairly confident that most of her extended family wouldn’t, we accept that there are limits to our influence. If she ends up with one, it’s going to be from one of these left-field sources, or from buying it with her own pocket money one day – and if the latter happens, it will be because of the influence of friends (wanting to be able to play like and with them, as you say, Cumbrian) and of the wider culture. It is what it is.

  10. 40
    Cumbrian on 2 Apr 2014 #

    37: I’d agree that the culture is more set up for retention of formative experiences by parents and the potential for passing them on is greater than it ever has been. Companies have spotted this and exploited as appropriate though (just in TV, there’s a number of reasons why the Turtles have come back again, that Dr Who was resurrected when it was, that Scooby Doo is pushed by a number of different kids’ TV channels in its different incarnations and that Disney is making content for its pre-school channel that at least is obliquely linked to their heritage films – but the one I keep coming back to is that the cohort that grew up on a lot of this stuff is starting to have children of the relevant ages themselves).

    I’d also argue that this has been going on forever though, just in different ways and that it’s only more visible now. Taking myself as an example, my musical preferences are, at least in part, a reflection of the stuff that was put on when I was growing up – which is the stuff that my Dad and Mum were into (so I prefer the Stones to the Beatles and, following from that, tend to prefer the harder edged to the more mellow – it would have been interesting to go back and see what would have happened to my tastes had theirs been different). It’s the increase in visibility of this which seems to be the main difference between then and now though (itself allied to technology retaining a lot of old content and that companies seem to be actively looking at what was big with kids 20 years ago and rehashing it to try and use this as a point of leverage).

    Linked to this, a thought has just flashed across my brain. Is rockism amongst some groups possibly linked to the fact that rock music was the music that they grew up with, possibly because parents exposed them to it at a young age? So they are fighting for the primacy of their formative influences rather than anything specific about the music itself – though it may manifest itself in fighting for the music in the end? What will happen when the children of the trance era have children of their own and, perhaps, pass on formative experiences of listening to this music to their children?

  11. 41
    Rory on 2 Apr 2014 #

    #33 “I genuinely think that the primary audience for Barbie branding is parents but I am willing to be persuaded otherwise.” A tentative observation from me, because this is something you think about a lot more than I have, but I would have assumed that a lot of branding for kids is around that whole age-aspirational phenomenon, where kids aspire to be older than they are, and want toys that code older than they are. The Barbie branding reads to me like an 8-year-old’s idea of an 11-year-old’s world, designed to entice young girls into Barbie play. I don’t get a strong sense of parents as primary audience, but this may be because of the circles I move in, where the pinkification of everything is a concern – plenty of people must not be bothered by that, or contemporary toy stores would never have any adult customers.

  12. 42
    thefatgit on 2 Apr 2014 #

    There’s an episode of Man Alive from 1967 (which can be found on Robin Carmody’s You Tube channel…unable to link to it at work, unfortunately) which underlines the assertion that some adults, in this case men, continued their boyhood interests well into middle and old age. Using their expendable wealth to make the childhood worlds they created as “real” as possible. So that kind of culture which Tom mentions @37 is nothing new.

    It’s almost too much of a coincidence that Robin posted this episode on the same day Tom posted BG on Popular ;)

  13. 43
    Cumbrian on 2 Apr 2014 #

    #41: Firstly, all ideas are welcome. I am not an expert by any means – if I have learned something in my time doing my job, it’s that my preconceptions are wrong more often than not and that the kids/respondents will swiftly kick me in the brain to get me in the right place and anything that makes me think again about something is likely a general good.

    I think that there is something in that – though perhaps not for Barbie, I’ll come onto why in a second – as we definitely see that kids have an aspirational view of quite a lot of toys/books/content and so on. A lot of popular stuff for younger kids is based on what happens at secondary/high school (Harry Potter being one example), where they kind of know what is going on or have a good idea at least, and hope that their experience when they get there will be something like what they’re imagining (though in Harry Potter’s case, whilst it might be cool to save the world, this might be based around the friendships that they might have there, putting the bully in his place and so on).

    Barbie, from what I understand, tends to be the type of thing that is not aspirational focused towards older kids though. To start with, for the younger kids, it’s probably about replicating the types of things that Mummy does – which is why there are kitchen set, hairdresser sets, you can paint Barbie’s nail, etc – that they can’t do but have seen happen and, thus, is aspirational to her (this then leads onto a number of questions about what Barbie is saying about women in general). Later on, you get into the ages where they make the dolls have sex with each other as Tom points out.

    That said, the dolls have to appeal to kids who want to do those sorts of things (i.e. mimic Mum not make the dolls have sex with each other), so maybe some of the branding is aimed at kids (but from my original post, I’m not certain whether this is branding and more about product features – I can take Barbie to her new swimming pool or to the nail bar or whatever – that they might want to help expand their make believe world). This stuff still, typically, needs to be bought by parents/other adults though, so the branding itself probably still needs to assure parents about the qualities of the product. It’s probably not as black and white as I was originally making out.

  14. 44
    Tom on 2 Apr 2014 #

    Barbie is also a storytelling toy, I’d guess (i.e. like any other “character” toy kids tell stories around her) which complicates things in that Mattel lean so hard to promoting a particular kind of aspirational domestic storytelling (I suspect by this point we’re offering crude cave drawing versions of the feminist Barbie theory stuff Tonya mentions upthread, though…)

    On Wikipedia there’s mention of a soap-esque example of centralised brand storytelling when Mattel announced that Barbie and Ken had broken up – commencing a long “plotline” about will they get back together etc. This seems a weird publicity stunt – introducing a “central narrative” to Barbie who really doesn’t need one. (I guess it only works because basically nobody gives a fuck about Ken)

  15. 45
    Cumbrian on 2 Apr 2014 #

    I tell you what else Barbie is – the finest mind of her generation. And why would anyone give a fuck about Ken, given what he’s like actually like?

    Toy Story 3. Excellent.

    I guess, tying in with one of your original points, that the number of ways you can play with Barbie is limited only by the child’s imagination – i.e. they’ll do stuff that the makers never envisaged (and I’m probably not capable of imagining either).

  16. 46
    Kat but logged out innit on 2 Apr 2014 #

    I had a Peaches & Cream Barbie and a Sindy inherited from my sister – they generally took a back seat to the herd of My Little Ponies (talking animals deemed to be more interesting than talking humans) or the GIANT Jem doll (a good 3″ taller than B or S and who turned into a rockstar when she put different earrings on = amazing). The turning point came when one day I realised Barbie’s head came off really easily, and I could offer her and Sindy as human sacrifices to the MLPs (blame a combo of Secret Water and Mysterious Cities of Gold for that idea). Mum was quite alarmed, even when I showed her that Barbie’s head popped right back on again.

    Aside from Aqua, Barbie’s best contribution to popular culture IMHO is Joan Cusack’s slideshow torture scene in Addams Family Values. Malibu Barbie. The nightmare! THE NERVE!

  17. 47
    thefatgit on 2 Apr 2014 #

    Here’s the link relating to my own post @42:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xFjHNMvxrDo

  18. 48
    Kinitawowi on 2 Apr 2014 #

    #45: “Authority should derive from the consent of the governed, not from the threat of force!”

    (An infinitely better subversion of Barbie as a concept than this song could ever hope to be.)

  19. 49
    punctum on 2 Apr 2014 #

    To most music commentators, irony remains a type of metal, like goldy and silvery. Damning “Barbie Girl” as setting feminism back a millennium is a particularly pointless pastime; Aqua were all about cartoons, as the gleamingly bright blues and whites of the cover of their Aquarium album demonstrate, though theirs was an image in the direct lineage of Zillionaire-era ABC and Deee-Lite rather than the Archies; one which examined the nature of its own artificiality and the unbridgeable chasm between line drawings and lived life. The 78 rpm female lead on “Barbie Girl” brightly chirps “Make me walk, make me talk, do whatever you please” but also notes “Life in plastic, it’s fantastic” and “I’m a blond bimbo girl in a fantasy world.” This is no idle or idiotic submission to submission. Moreover, the gravel-voice lunkhead oaf that is Ken growls “Come jump in, bimbo friend” and “Come on Barbie, let’s go party” without once realising that he is as much of a doll, as artificial a construct, as she. So enamoured were Mattel, manufacturers of the Barbie and Ken dolls, of the record that they unsuccessfully attempted to sue Aqua for brand defamation. Not exactly a ringing brand endorsement.

    What Aqua really represented was a Nancy and Lee for the dawning of the New Pop Mk II era; as Abba had rescued pop in 1974, so did Aqua demonstrate that New Pop, not being a finite cage of a genre like Britpop, could have nine lives. On the cover of Aquarium Lene Nystrøm looks like a Swedish Goth, all black mascara and scowls, while René Dif is all goofy shaven headed grins. And the group were their own masters. Demonstrating a sophisticated grasp of post-Pet Shop Boys/SAW nuances and stratagems, their bubblegum swam like eager goldfish striving towards the sun. “Barbie Girl” is fully aware of the constructs which it sets out to undermine – note Nystrøm’s rank laugh of “ah ah ah, yeah” in the bridges – and they set out to drive on the road to nowhere except the other end of the bedroom wall; and yet, through its pop magnificence, “Barbie Girl” transcends its own commentary, or rather enlarges it so that it is the unavoidable centre of its beauteous bounce. After a summer of sternly sombre reflections on death, it arguably tackled the subject of living death more subtly than any of its recent predecessors at number one, and so persuasively that almost despite itself it restored life to the top of the charts.

  20. 50
    Nixon on 2 Apr 2014 #

    #33 This has nothing much to do with pop music and the marketing thereof (although, I dunno, maybe it might?), but I can offer a first-hand case study: as parents of a boy (3) and girl (1), parents who confidently and loudly stated we’d never intentionally pressure or steer either of them towards gendered pursuits, and indeed parents who indulged in some hands-on interference to prove a point by buying each of them toys that were explicitly marketed towards (or whose packaging was covered in actual pictures of) children of the opposite gender, nonetheless we watched in bemusement to discover my son almost exclusively favours toy cars and a football, and my daughter almost exclusively favours cuddly pink teddies and bunny rabbits and soft dolls. Many of these things were chosen themselves, some of them were bought for them by relatives, and in several cases they’ve co-opted something of their brother’s/sister’s which wasn’t bought with them in mind, which had lay barely-touched, and made it a beloved companion for a couple of weeks.

    (Weirdly, the only area where gendered marketing hasn’t shown a seemingly innate effect (whether it’s really innate, or whether gendered marketing is simply so pernicious it beat our efforts to circumvent it) is storybooks, especially Disney tie-in ones; my son’s just as happy reading about Cinderella and Tinker Bell as he is with Cars and Planes. My daughter mainly just wants the one with the most easily chewable content, I’ll report back when she’s older.)

    #49 Marcello, who/what is your first paragraph reacting to? I don’t remember too many accusations of anti-feminism at the time (probably because as a tedious indie kid student in 1997, I wasn’t looking), and there’s only one reference upthread to a critic who made a face value reading of the record – was that a widespread thing that happened?

  21. 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.

  22. 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.

  23. 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).

  24. 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?

  25. 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.

  26. 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!

  27. 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.

  28. 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′.

  29. 59
    Tom on 3 Apr 2014 #

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

  30. 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.

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