As Barbie the movie finally arrives in theaters, Barbie: The Album, its soundtrack LP, lands with similar cultural conquest in mind. And like the Greta Gerwig–helmed film—an unusual but inspired match of director and movie franchise—the artists turning in soundtrack songs are many flavors of oddball.
The soundtrack campaign kicked off with its most normie single: Neo-disco hitmaker Dua Lipa’s frothy “Dance the Night” was released back in May, has already cracked the Top 30 on Billboard’s Hot 100, and is a solid pop-radio hit. From there, the tracks have gotten quirkier and more eclectic. Latin superstar Karol G’s reggaetón jam “Watati,” named after featured artist Aldo Ranks’ favorite nonsensical exclamation, aligns Barbie’s beachy vibe with a dembow beat. Sam Smith’s “Man I Am” applies their recent shift toward high-camp art pop to the Ken character with a very 2023 gender-nonconforming twist. Quirkier still is Billie Eilish’s watery, heartsick “What Was I Made For?,” which speaks to the movie’s existential plot while giving Eilish a chance to play the saddest-ever game of dress-up.
As peculiar an assortment as these tracks are, I’d argue that the most unlikely Barbie song of all is the one that has charted highest: Nicki Minaj and Ice Spice’s “Barbie World,” which debuted on the Hot 100 at No. 7 in June and seems likely to remain Barbie’s highest-peaking hit.
Mind you, I’m not saying the song itself is weird. In fact, you might say “Barbie World” was inevitable—Minaj has been analogizing herself to Barbie for so long her fans call themselves the Barbz. And as for Ice Spice, as Pink Pantheress and Taylor Swift have proven in the past six months, adding the Bronx drill-pop rapper to a single is one of 2023’s surest paths to a radio hit.
No, I mean that “Barbie World” is improbable because it both is officially affiliated with Barbie the movie and samples “Barbie Girl,” the 1997 single by Aqua. If you know the twisted, contentious history of Aqua’s smash, it’s a wonder Mattel let anything associated with that quarter-century-old song anywhere near its authorized IP. Over the past decade-plus, the toy company has softened considerably on the song that parodies its flagship product, but it took a while.
If you were alive and anywhere near a radio or MTV in the late ’90s, you heard “Barbie Girl.” Its mercilessly chirpy Europop lyrics (“I’m a Barbie girl in the Barbie world/ Life in plastic, it’s fantastic”) were set against a relentless post–Spice Girls beat. Norwegian lead singer Lene Nystrøm playacted as Barbie and Danish singer-rapper René Dif played Ken. Dif’s gruff “Come on, Barbie, let’s go party” is one of the song’s most unkillable earworms.
Loathed by rock fans—a 2011 Rolling Stone readers’ poll ranked it the worst song of the ’90s—“Barbie Girl” was, with the rest of America and much of the world, extremely popular. It topped charts in more than a dozen countries, including the U.K., where Aqua scored two No. 1 follow-ups: the moodier “Turn Back Time” and the Indiana Jones–inspired “Doctor Jones.” In America, where the Scandinavian pop band was essentially a one-hit wonder, “Barbie Girl” powered Aqua’s debut album Aquarium to triple-platinum sales all by itself. Aqua’s U.S. label MCA pulled off this trick through chart gamesmanship: At the height of the music business’s Great War Against the Single, MCA pumped up airplay for “Barbie Girl” on terrestrial radio for weeks before issuing a retail single. That enabled the song to debut on the Hot 100 all the way up at No. 7 (coincidentally, the same No. 7 peak where “Barbie World” debuted this year), but MCA issued a deliberately low number of singles to force most consumers hankering for “Barbie” to purchase the full-length Aqua CD instead. If anyone felt ripped off, they were in good company: 2 million Americans bought Aquarium by the end of 1997, 3 million by 1999.
Definitely feeling aggrieved was Mattel, owner of Barbie and very protective of its brand. Not only had the four Aqua performer-songwriters not sought permission for their references to Mattel’s property, but they had also cast Barbie and Ken as—horrors!—sexual beings, basically acknowledging what generations of tykes had done with their dolls, to say nothing of Barbie’s origin as a doll inspired by a German sex toy. This raciness is actually the wittiest thing about “Barbie Girl.” The lyrics are PG-rated yet hint at a greater lewdness that’s left to the mind of the beholder. “Dress me up, make it tight, I’m your dolly,” sings Nystrøm’s Barbie, with Dif’s Ken responding, “Kiss me here, touch me there, hanky-panky.” (Remember: This was the same decade when Madonna reached the Top 10 singing about hanky-panky and “a good spanky.”)
Mattel was not amused. The same month “Barbie Girl” and Aquarium debuted on the Billboard charts, the toy company sued Aqua and MCA Records in federal court for trademark infringement. And they weren’t just protecting their copyright, which would have been heavy-handed but predictable. In the lawsuit, Mattel specifically took issue with the “sexual and other unsavory themes” the song associated with Barbie. Lawyers for MCA and Aqua fired back that, essentially, Mattel execs were the ones with the dirty minds. Lower courts kept rejecting Mattel’s claims, but the toymaker kept appealing. The fight got “ugly,” CNN reported. At one point, MCA countersued for defamation after Mattel likened the record label to “a bank robber.”
In the middle of all the suits and countersuits, Aqua threw gas on the fire. At the 2001 Eurovision Song Contest, held that year in Aqua’s home country of Denmark, the band performed an out-of-competition medley of their hits. During their rendition of “Barbie Girl,” on live TV, Nystrøm’s Barbie called Dif’s Ken a “dirty bastard” and began the performance by telling him to “fuck off.”
After five years of appeals, Mattel took its complaint all the way up to the Supreme Court, which dismissed the suit without comment. In the final judgment that was allowed to stand, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had rejected the idea that consumers were misled by the song, and Appeals Judge Alex Kozinski’s opinion threw shade at Mattel, noting that the original ’50s Barbie doll resembled a “German street walker” and still possessed a “fictitious figure.” “With fame often comes unwanted attention,” Kozinski wrote, closing his opinion with a warning to both companies: “The parties are advised to chill.” (Later reports revealed that Kozinski had his own issues with giving “unwanted attention”: He abruptly retired from the court in 2017 after multiple allegations of sexual harassment.)
After a yearslong, scorched-earth approach, what would have made Mattel change its tune toward “Barbie Girl”? Perhaps it was a bit of competition. In the mid-aughts, Barbie suffered a sales slump, widely attributed to the introduction of MGA Entertainment’s millennial-friendly Bratz dolls. In 2005 Mattel reported a staggering 30 percent drop in Barbie sales. New management was brought in to reverse the slump, and among the new team’s decisions was keeping their former enemies—specifically Aqua—closer. In 2009 Mattel licensed “Barbie Girl,” not only for a new Fab Girl Barbie commercial but also for a YouTube music video that introduced a new Barbie dance and rewrote the song with new, more G-rated lyrics.
“We were not always in love with one another,” Mattel’s senior vice president for marketing of Barbie told the New York Times that same year, about the company’s long feud with MCA and Aqua. But “the beauty of Barbie,” the Mattel exec added, is that she gets “to kiss and make up.” The Barbie slump took nearly a decade to turn around, but by 2018 the more-chill Mattel had brought Barbie sales back above the $1 billion mark—and that’s before it greenlighted Gerwig’s movie.
Which brings us back to Nicki Minaj and Ice Spice’s “Barbie World.” Frankly, Minaj’s Barbz fan army would probably have pitched a fit if their queen were not permitted to align with the movie soundtrack, so perhaps Mattel’s greenlight was preordained. But nonetheless, 14 years after Mattel buried the hatchet and brought Aqua under the tent, “Barbie World” is further evidence of the toymaker’s savvy, 21st -century we-get-the-joke approach. It is hard to imagine the starchier Mattel of the late ’90s approving Minaj lyrics like “That pussy so cold, we just chillin’ out” or Ice Spice’s “I give the box with no shoes in it.”
And then there’s the Aqua samples and allusions. Minaj has a history of interpolating old hits and scoring, from 2014’s “Baby Got Back”–sampling “Anaconda”, which slithered to No. 2 on the Hot 100, to last year’s Rick James–remixing “Super Freaky Girl,” which in August entered the Hot 100 at No. 1. By comparison, the Aqua interpolations in “Barbie World” are subtler—a somewhat rearranged version of the “Barbie Girl” melody rides underneath the track, but only as the song fades is Nystrøm’s original chorus (apparently re-sung by another vocalist) allowed to play in full. Nonetheless, because it is 2023 and the music business is now more punctilious about song credits, Aqua is given full artist credit on “Barbie World”—the official Billboard entry reads “Nicki Minaj & Ice Spice with Aqua.”
Despite its high chart peak—that No. 7 debut is poetic, given that Aqua entered the Hot 100 at the exact same position in ’97—“Barbie World” has so far not been a lasting hit. It opened big three weeks ago, then dropped out of the Top 40 this week at No. 49. As I say so often in my Slate No. 1 hits series, songs that open big have to prove themselves at radio to become enduring hits, and right now stations are more focused on playing Minaj and Ice Spice’s earlier teamup, “Princess Diana.” One imagines that the release of the Barbie movie this weekend might turn that around somewhat.
Still, just by debuting in the Top 10 a few weeks ago, “Barbie World” saved Aqua from One-Hit Wonder status in America—even if their new hit is really just a reboot of their old one. The original “Barbie Girl” not only survived Mattel’s army of lawyers, but it turned the company into one of its most powerful allies. And whatever rock snobs think of “Barbie Girl,” the song is now so durable that, earlier this week, no less a rock star than Chris Martin was asked by two fans to sing it live onstage. Though it’s been 26 years since Aqua’s infamous anthem was first unleashed, Martin still remembered the melody.