Author: Owen McCue

Aqua’s ‘Barbie Girl’ and the meaning of Barbie

BY OWEN MCCUE

Image from Aqua’s Barbie Girl music video. (NSS Magazine)

Sitting in class earlier this week and listening to the conversation on Barbie, I was hoping to find a topic for my blog. Then someone threw out the phrase, ‘Barbie World’ and something clicked. “I’m a Barbie girl, in a Barbie world”[1] … I’d heard that line before.

The line comes from the Danish dance-pop group Aqua’s 1997 song ‘Barbie Girl.’ Though the song was voted the worst song of the 1990s by Rolling Stone magazine’s Readers Poll in 2011, the catchy tune is one I’m sure almost everyone knows.[2] I remember hearing it and singing along quite a few times growing up.

“Playfully naughty Euro-dance ditty,” is how Billboard’s Chuck Taylor described the song in August 1997.[3] Take a look at the music video, and I think that would be a good description. The song and the video are both cartoonish in a way, yet very, very sexualized.

The music video is full of pink. The female, who is supposed to be Barbie, has lots of makeup and several different outfits throughout. The band obviously does not see Barbie as some type of symbol for feminism or an innocent children’s toy. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. This was all lost on me as I grew up listening to it, but examining the lyrics now… Yikes.

You can brush my hair, undress me everywhere.

I’m a blond bimbo girl, in a fantasy world. / Dress me up, make it tight, I’m your dolly.

Make me walk, make me talk, do whatever you please. / I can act like a star, I can beg on my knees.[4]

Those are all lines sung by a female member of the band, playing the role of Barbie in the song and video. The male voice, or Ken, is even less subtle with his sexual innuendos, starting the song with the line, “Do you want to go for a ride?” which is supplemented with a wink in the video.[5] I don’t think he is asking Barbie if she wants to hop in his car. That’s made pretty obvious with the later line, “You’re my doll, rock’n’roll, feel the glamor in pink. / Kiss me here, touch me there, hanky panky.”[6]

The way Barbie is portrayed in this song reminds me of Barbie’s origins. She was a knock off from the “Bild Lilli” doll, a German doll for adult males that was essentially a “three dimensional pin-up.”[7] This song to me feels like a sarcastic take on the American Icon, highlighting all the damaging stereotypes Barbie portrays.

One of the most interesting parts of this song is that Mattel originally sued the band for copyright infringement.[8] The makers of the children’s toy were not so happy that their product name was being associated in this sexual manner. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court. It was ruled that the song was parody and therefore did not violate any copyright laws.

The reason I may remember having heard it so much growing up is that Mattell actually used the song in one of its marketing campaigns in 2009.[9] Though the lyrics were certainly altered a bit, the hook remained the same: “I’m a Barbie girl, in the Barbie world / Life in plastic, it’s fantastic.” I can understand the idea of having a catchy song associated with your product, but that just screams all kinds of weird. I think the saga of the ‘Barbie Girl’ song fits right into some of the other interesting chapters of Barbie’s “playfully naughty” history.

[1] Aqua. “Barbie Girl.” Released May 1997. In Universal, MCA.

[2] “Readers Poll: The Worst Songs of the Nineties.” Rolling Stone. August 31, 2011. Accessed March 29, 2018. https://www.rollingstone.com/music/pictures/readers-poll-the-worst-songs-of-the-nineties-20110831/1-aqua-barbie-girl-0315695.

[3] Taylor, Chuck. “Danish breakout group Aqua toys with U.S. pop success with its ‘Barbie Girl.'(Air Waves)(Column).” Billboard, 30 Aug. 1997, p. 92+. Academic OneFile, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A19845280/AONE?u=temple_main&sid=AONE&xid=595116d9. Accessed 29 Mar. 2018.

[4] Aqua. “Barbie Girl.”

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Lord, M. G. Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll. Fredericton, N.B.: Goose Lane Editions, 2004.

[8] Elliott, Stuart. “Years Later, Mattel Embraces ‘Barbie Girl’.” The New York Times. August 26, 2009. Accessed March 29, 2018. https://mediadecoder.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/08/26/years-later-mattel-embraces-barbie-girl/.

[9] Elliott, Stuart.

 

American Gothic: A puzzling piece of American Iconography

By Owen McCue

Grant Wood’s 1930 painting, “American Gothic” is probably the most intriguing American icon we’ve studied this semester in that it is so different from the rest.

There is no doubt the image is universally recognized. As Wanda Corn describes, it “pervades our culture.”[1] She mentions its use in greeting cards, political cartoons and advertising.[2] It continues to have an impact in pop cultural today, especially through social media.

Like the statue of Liberty and Betsy Ross, the likeness of “American Gothic” has been merchandised and widely circulated, one of Martin Kemp’s qualifications for an icon, but why?[3] Unlike Ross and Lady Liberty, there is no clear American value the image evokes. The Statue of Liberty has tied to it values of freedom and opportunity. Ross’ tie to the American flag celebrates the patriotic woman and evokes the patriotism tied to the American Revolution.

So what about two stern looking Midwesterners posing in in front of their house? You could point to the pitchfork and say the painting carries with it the American value of hard work or look at the farmers in front of their house and make a claim people get a feeling of the individualism of the Heartland when they look at the image. However, as Corn explains, even those who studied the work at that time felt Wood’s work was a piece of satire directed at his upbringing.[4]

With all apologies to Wood, I think whatever the original intent of his image was, that message has been lost. His use of the gothic window, his painting of the potted plants on the front porch are no longer, or even is decision to substitute a rake for the pitchfork seem trivial when the pitchfork is now being replaced with light sabers and golf clubs.[5]

American Gothic doesn’t carry it with the sacredness or holiness, as Martin Kemp describes it, of the other American icons, which makes it OK to distort.[6]You can see how liberally people use the image above.

The reason the image is so iconic today is simply due to it’s … wait for it … simplicity. Because it is so simple, the painting can easily be manipulated for a quick joke or political and/or cultural jab. Add a prop in the man’s hand or paste some faces on the bodies, and suddenly you’ve got yourself a viral image. There is even an American Gothic meme generator.

It doesn’t sound academic, and I’m sure Wood would roll over in grave if he saw his work of art is being used today, but I believe the reason that’s the reason it continues to be an image recognized by so many Americans.

[1] Wanda, Corn. The Birth of a National Icon: Grant Wood’s American Gothic. The Art Institue of Chicago, 1983.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Kemp, Martin. In Christ to Coke: How Image Become Icon. Oxford University Press, 2012.

[4] Wanda, Corn. The Birth of a National Icon: Grant Wood’s American Gothic. The Art Institue of Chicago, 1983.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Kemp, Martin. In Christ to Coke: How Image Become Icon. Oxford University Press, 2012.