Song by the Danish pop/dance music band Aqua; an amusing satire on the Barbie doll and some women's behavior. Much disapproved of by Mattel, the makers of Barbie, who tried to sue the band's record label despite the disclaimer on the album cover stating that the doll's manufacturers have not approved the song. (Preliminary rulings in 1998 were in favor of the label; Mattel were appealing the decision but may have dropped the case since then, since I can't find any mention of it and the band broke up in 2001.)

The first time I heard this jaunty, poppy song - especially since it was juxtaposed with a 90s, plasticy set designed to suggest the Mattel world of Barbie, I dismissed it as the sort of bouncy bubblegum that filled any of a number of dancefloors in the 1990s. It never quite hit the popularity of Haddaway's What is Love? but it will be one of those songs that will be played in a movie soundtrack to establish the decade.

And then I revisited the lyrics.

In Buddhism there is the notion that all of this world, the universe and everything in it, even your sense of self, is an illusion. They refer to it as Maya, and with this doctrine express the idea that under the influence of ignorance, people believe objects and persons to be independently real, existing apart from causes and conditions.

Very closely tied into it is the idea that everything is related and interdependent, there is nothing that stands by itself and isn't affected by others in reality.

When this is, that is
 This arising, that arises
When this is not, that is not
This ceasing, that ceases.

 

It is a powerful teaching. All phenomena in this universe are relative, conditioned states and do not arise independently of supportive conditions.

Returning to the song: there are two people ostensibly in the song, and an implied third.

"Hiya Barbie
 Hi Ken!
Do you want to go for a ride?
Sure Ken.
Jump in."

People have read into it the beginning of pre-adolescent play: a child with a Barbie and a Ken doll putting both into a car accessory and making believe that the two are going on a date. Others have taken the song to be a thinly-veiled double entendre for a sexual encounter. But there's a more powerful possibility at work here: that what follows is a ride, or a journey, the "magic show" of our perceived reality according to the doctrine of Maya.

I'm a Barbie girl, in a Barbie world
Life in plastic, it's fantastic.

"Fantastic" has a double meaning in English - colloquially, it means "excellent, pleasurable, good" but literally means "out of fantasy, not real". She's not describing her experience as fantastic, but life itself, as plastic - artificial, man-made, as "real" as the smoke and mirrors of a magic show. We buy into it because it's so pleasurable, and we form attachments. "Plastic" also means mutable, changeable - and fits into this interpretation perfectly as well.

You can brush my hair, undress me everywhere.
Imagination, life is your creation.

Some have scolded the song for suggesting a sexual encounter, reading "undress me everywhere" as being indicative of making the singer completely nude - however, it's speaking not to the degree but to the location of the act: a four year old girl can denude a Barbie doll just about anywhere without complaint because once unclothed, as any child will tell you, there's nothing to see. It's not "real", and it has no real consequence. The only thing that matters is that you create your own reality from pieces around you just as how a small child interprets a shaped piece of plastic as being like a human being living a glamorous life under her control.

No?

Consider. To a bored adult sitting across the hallway at the doctor's office, a small child is simply removing a shaped piece of cloth from a shaped piece of plastic. To the child playing, a woman is getting ready for an all important dinner date. To the boy sitting next to her, it's the opportunity to see a part of a girl he's not allowed to in normal circumstances. To the enlightened soul, life is the same way. Are we not all, in our own way, in our ever-changing, fleeting bodies, nothing more than plastic shapes, with the meaning assigned to them being what we make it?

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

Back to the idea of dependent phenomena: what she's saying here is that she's still playing. She's a doll only because there's someone to play with her. She recognizes on some level that she's doing with her own body that which she did as a child, engaging in a game. Only the materials change. To the second party, she is nothing more than a doll, a piece of plastic material with as much value accorded to it and the nature of understanding it thoroughly dependent on intent.

He explains his rules of his game:

You're my doll, rock'n'roll, feel the glamor in pink,
Kiss me here, touch me there, hanky panky.

And she explains the rules of hers:

You can touch,
you can play,
if you say "I'm always yours"

What's key here is, not that he believes that, but that he says it. That he maintains the illusion that she matters to him and is of importance to him, she will maintain the illusion that she is a beautiful doll to be played with however he wants. He admits thoroughly in return that that will suit him, as he sees the accessory of glamor and being a provider in this to be of importance to himself. Dependent circumstances.

It's a choreographed dance in which they both play their roles and acknowledge the rules of engagement of the other party.

Some of the lyrics repeat, and then we have:

Come on Barbie, let's go party! (Ah ah ah yeah)
Come on Barbie, let's go party! (Oh oh)
Come on Barbie, let's go party! (Ah ah ah yeah)
Come on Barbie, let's go party! (Oh oh)
Oh, I'm having so much fun!
Well Barbie, we are just getting started.
Oh, I love you Ken.

With the close of the song, we've come full circle. He's enjoying his fantasy of partying and being seen with something beautiful and glamorous and finding an identity in the illusion that he's a playboy and a fun-loving partier in order to win use of her time (and her body), and she agrees with that because she wants to feel worthy of being chased, of being cherished by someone who only wants her. She confesses that she loves him, it's this she seeks out of the game they play.

The question that's never answered is if either party is happy with the arrangement, or if this parallel track of interdependent illusion merely holds them together by convenience. Buddhism says they can never find happiness this way, ever. Only attachment and suffering. But the real question, the important question, is who is really talking here? Because Barbie and Ken are the trade namey s of dolls who form part of a couple - and quite possibly the entire dialog is scripted by a little girl or boy playing both parts at once and acting out the drama. 

In as much as the same way as The Matrix tried to bring complex religious ideas like Enlightenment, Mara, illusion, breaking free from attachment, and so forth in the first movie, and the second one warned of breaking through and out of one cage to find that one cage might be surrounded by another - Aqua brilliantly captures many of the same themes in the question of who's actually narrating the song. The only possible answer and the only real depth of understanding comes from the realization that "what's real" is irrelevant, and only what you make it - and that whether this is a woman underneath a rutting man trading use of her vulva for the pretense of love, or a small child acting out what she perceives a relationship to be about, or at the end of the day, a European pop dance act writing inane lyrics over some chords - it's only what you make it. So enjoy the transitory nature of that kind of disposable song for what it is, and try not to become attached to it or what it's trying to say.

 




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