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‘Barbie Girl’: Aqua’s Joyous, Meaningful Anthem Still Resonates

It may sound like frivolous pop at first blush. But listen closer, and you’ll hear a body-positive anthem that still hits.

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Aqua Barbie Girl single cover
Cover: Courtesy of Universal Music

“I’m a Barbie girl, in the Barbie world/Life in plastic, it’s fantastic.” These lyrics, from Aqua’s 1997 smash hit “Barbie Girl,” are undeniably still a part of the social consciousness 25 years later. It’s a bubblegum gem of 90s dance pop, featuring lead singer Lene Nystrøm’s vocals and René Dif’s raps as they serve up tongue-in-cheek social commentary over uber-danceable synths. The third track on their debut album Aquarium, it was the Danish dance-pop band’s first single released in the United States.

Soon after “Barbie Girl” was released in April 1997, Aqua went from being a small local band to an in-demand global sensation. It debuted at No. 7 on Billboard’s Hot 100 and No. 1 on the UK Singles chart, spending four weeks at the top to become England’s second-bestselling record of 1997, only behind Elton John‘s “Candle in the Wind.” It topped the charts across Europe – hitting No. 2 in Denmark – Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, and was named Danish Hit Of The Year in 1998. It was lucky timing: Just as Aqua released Aquarium, the bubblegum pop of Backstreet Boys, *NSYNC, and Spice Girls were starting to rule the charts.

Pre-order the 25th anniversary reissue of Aquarium.

While Aqua dreamed of being successful musicians and making an impact with their joyful music, they never thought they’d have a Top 10 hit in the United States. “Most of the Scandinavian groups that broke in America were from Sweden, though A-Ha were from Norway. Not many came from Denmark,” Nystrøm explained to Rolling Stone. “So I can’t even describe the feeling [of learning the song broke in America].”

The inspiration behind and video for Aqua’s “Barbie Girl”

The song was inspired by Aqua keyboardist Søren Rasted’s visiting an art exhibit in the group’s hometown of Copenhagen. He was captivated by a round orb of Barbie dolls. As he told Rolling Stone, “It made me think of, ‘Life in plastic, it’s fantastic.’ I thought that was a great line. Then I wrote, ‘Come on, Barbie, let’s go party.'”

All four members wrote “Barbie Girl” together, and Rasted and former guitarist Claus Norreen, along with Johnny Jam and Delgado, produced it. The Roland JV-2080 synth – the instrument that helped them find their distinct sound – was all over Aquarium, giving the album an upbeat dance-pop feel.

The music video, however, sealed the deal. It got regular play on MTV, and recently hit one billion views on YouTube. It was one of the first videos by now-celebrated director Peder Pedersen. His references included the Beastie Boys Spike Jonze-directed “Sabotage” video, and cartoons like The Flintstones and Scooby Doo.

Aqua - Barbie Girl (Official Music Video)

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Mattel controversy

While the song had a playful sound and colorful video, its suggestive lyrics caused controversy, including with Barbie manufacturer Mattel, who filed a lawsuit in 2000. The toy company claimed it turned the child’s doll into a sex object. The suit was eventually dismissed in 2002, when it was ruled that the song was a parody protected by the First Amendment.

Mattel would then license the rights to the song for a 2009 Barbie commercial directed by “Single Ladies” choreographer JaQuel Knight. The company sanitized the lyrics to fit the aspirational Barbie brand, with the dolls singing “You can be a star / No matter who are you are” and “I’m a girl in my world / Full of fashion and fun.”

The meaning and legacy of Aqua’s “Barbie Girl”

The lyrics were never meant to be a dig at Barbie, of course, but a culture that glorifies bodies perfected by plastic surgery. Instead, the message is to find confidence in yourself as you are. As Dif told Rolling Stone, “The message is that it’s OK to be the person you are and look the way you look and be confident in that. You don’t necessarily have to have plastic surgeries to be a better person. All these metaphors in the song were taboo to talk about, but we came out with a tongue-in-cheek way to present our song.”

The song’s impact is still felt today. In 2014, Ludacris nodded to the song with “Party Girls” featuring Wiz Khalifa, Jeremih, and Cashmere Cat. In 2018, pop queen Ava Max flipped the song into an anthem about consent with “Not Your Barbie Girl,” singing, “You can’t touch me there, you can’t touch my body / Unless I say so, ain’t your barbie, no.”

Pre-order the 25th anniversary reissue of Aquarium.

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