Welcome to Throwback Thursday, a weekly series showcasing an album, single, music video or performance of a bygone era and its personal and/or cultural significance.
Yeah, “Barbie Girl” is now 20 years old. Let that sink in for a minute.
When the salacious, bubbly Aqua track hit the airwaves, I was 11 ⎯⎯ and even then, I knew the song was about sex. Maybe that’s because I was in the middle of puberty, questioning my gender and sexual identity and feeling isolated from everyone. René Dif’s scruffy baritone was enough to make me whither (if I’m being real for a second), and I was ridiculously envious of Lene Nystrøm, who was Dif’s Ken counterpoint as the song’s central figure, Barbie. Taking on femininity and society’s constructs for womanhood and sensuality was clever, if even a little trite. The Eurodance club song was an anthem for an entire generation; entrenched in the post-grunge, pre-bubblegum era, its unapologetic promiscuity was empowering, refreshing and thrilling. It embodied sexual awakening.
The lyrics aren’t particularly enlightened, but context is everything. Women and non-binary individuals are instructed to uphold a pre-determined and archaic set of characteristics, poses and emotions. “I’m a Barbie girl, in a Barbie world / Life in plastic, it’s fantastic,” Nystrøm claims, a fake, plastered smile curling her lips in the song’s fantastical, rainbow-drenched visual. “You can brush my hair, undress me everywhere / Imagination, life is your creation.” When you take a second to consider what is actually being said, it’s heartbreaking. Representing a wide swath of the population, Barbie believes she is not worthy of having her own thoughts, intentions, ambitions or sexual exploits. It all hinges on a man and his ego…
OK. Perhaps, I’m taking this far too seriously. On the surface, it’s a guilty pleasure, but given continued sexism in the media and from the mouth of 45 himself, you can’t help but be creeped out ⎯⎯ at least a little bit. Because it is reality for so many. The song is appropriately self-aware, a parody of real life, where masculinity is deemed In case you’ve forgotten, this is the actual first verse (true but gross): “I’m a blond, bimbo girl, in the fantasy world / Dress me up, make it tight, I’m your dolly.” Seriously. What. the. fuck. To which Ken replies, licking his lips, “You’re my doll, rock’n’roll, feel the glamour in pink / Kiss me here, touch me there, hanky panky.”
“Barbie Girl” is ripped from the band’s debut album, Aquarium, which is a bizarrely addictive, adventurous and dubious pop experiment. You might also recognize their other signature hit, “Doctor Jones,” a fluttering, glittery banger. “Girl” went on to sell eight million copies and become the 13th best-selling song in the U.K. It’s often dubbed one of the worst pop songs of all time, but it’s core intent was never to be taken seriously but as social commentary. In retrospect, the spirited and weirdly gratifying music video is an obvious precursor to many of the millennium’s boldest performers, including Katy Perry whose biggest hits examine sexuality (“I Kissed a Girl,” “Teenage Dream,” “Dark Horse”).
“Barbie Girl” didn’t break down any barriers here, but it did spark a new age.