Barbie's New Suit

Danes 'R Us: Aqua's "Barbie Girl" guns down pop plasticity.

AN INESCAPABLE STAPLE on The Box for the last six weeks, "Barbie Girl" by the Danish band Aqua is getting a chance to go down in history--legal history, that is. On its saccharine surface the song is an innocuous enough stab at pop genius. Over a Eurodance backbeat that you thought went out in 1990, Norse-born diva Lene Norstrom plays the title character in a girly-girl vocal overdubbed in triplicate. She rhymes, "I'm a Barbie girl/in a Barbie world," as if yelping an advertisement for her well-scrubbed plasticity. Norstrom's jingle is at once the stupidest and sexiest single of the year.

But try convincing Mattel of that. The toy maker has filed suit over the song--not so much over trademark rights as for the idea that "Barbie Girl" slanders our little blonde friend. Never mind that Mattel in Europe already agreed that the song was "fun" and "positive"--totally missing the song's point, and leaving it up to Aqua to unfold their own agenda. The band's CD contains this disclaimer: "The song 'Barbie Girl' is a social comment and was not created or approved by the makers of the doll." U.S. Mattel sees it differently, charging that "Barbie Girl" portrays women as "sex objects."

Or it might be something a little more biting than that. Maybe it's the way Norstrom sings the deliciously suggestive "You can brush my hair/Undress me anywhere" in the chorus. Or is it the verse "You can touch, you can play/If you say I'm always yours"? Or, better yet, could it be thuggish male vocalist Rene Dif (pop's answer to Dolph Lundgren?), who, in the role of Ken, growls, "Kiss me here, touch me there," like some frat-boy bonehead gearing up for harassment charges? It certainly can't be the cartoonish day-glo video, which barely contains a visual reference to dear ol' Babs--except for the fact that Norstrom's plastic arm pops off midway through the song.

But here's where over-analysis misses the mark. Let's return to Mattel's thesis. "Barbie," the totally disposable techno-tune, is sexist, but Barbie, the woman-as-plaything construct, is not. Uh, yeah. Perhaps Mattel's never heard of the genre of Barbie body-image identity art created by a generation of pissed women's-studies majors; or the deluge of Barbie-hate literature in the bookstore and online (See related links for the "Xena and Barbie" Web site--you'll be glad you did). And the doll probably does little for gender relations among Mattel workers in China, Indonesia, and Malaysia, for whom Barbie simply signifies another day at the sweatshop.

Execs at Aqua's label, MCA, seem completely nonplussed by Mattel's claims. Nevertheless, Mattel--a mega-conglomerate that's bought out eight major competitors this decade--wants to put Aqua (a minor annoyance at best) out of business and recall their wondrous one-hit from all radios, stores, and video channels. Aqua is already one of Denmark's all-time biggest acts, and their album Aquarium debuted in the U.S. last month at number 15. If Mattel's claim is successful, it could conceivably mean the end of an era in which pop culture freely commented on its own idiocies. But don't count on it.

 
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