Aqua's chart-topping 1997 hit "Barbie Girl" called the doll a "blond bimbo" and was full of innuendos.
Mattel sued MCA Records over the song, but a judge dismissed the lawsuit.
"Barbie Girl" is now being revived in Greta Gerwig's film with a performance by Nicki Minaj and Ice Spice.
"Barbie Girl," by Danish-Norwegian Europop band Aqua, peaked at number seven in the US Billboard Hot 100 in 1997. It topped the charts from the UK to Australia in the year of its release and was Belgium's second-best selling single of the entire decade, behind just Elton John.
But Mattel — which manufactures Barbie — hated the song, so much that it sued MCA Records, Aqua's American record label, which later became part of Universal Music Group.
"Barbie Girl," from Aqua's debut album, "poked fun at the squeaky clean values Barbie represents as well as the kinky fantasies she ignites," Orly Lobel wrote in her 2018 book "You Don't Own Me: The Court Battles That Exposed Barbie's Dark Side."
The music video features two members of Aqua dressed as Barbie and Ken, riding round in a pink convertible and frolicking in Barbie's Dreamhouse. Lene Nystrøm, playing Barbie, sings in a sickly-sweet, butter-couldn't-melt voice, while René Dif sings as a deep-voiced Ken.
Lyrics include "I'm a blond bimbo girl in a fantasy world," and "Kiss me here, touch me there, hanky panky."
Mattel, understandably, had some problems with this portrayal of its 11-inch doll. But, as Lobel noted, Mattel couldn't sue for copyright infringement because the video didn't include any actual Barbie dolls or images.
The toy giant instead sued MCA Records for using the trademarked word "Barbie," which Mattel said the song had used without approval and could lead the public to believe that Mattel itself had produced the song, Lobel wrote.
But no one really thought that the tongue-in-cheek song could have been written by Mattel, Lobel wrote. It was "clearly a parody," she wrote, "poking fun at Barbie rather than trying to pass off the song as a Mattel product." And copyrighted work can be used without permission if it's for the purpose of parody.
"The song title does not explicitly mislead as to the source of the work; it does not, explicitly or otherwise, suggest that it was produced by Mattel," the judge in the case, Judge Alex Kozinski, wrote.
A note on the back of the single's CD case even said: "The song 'Barbie Girl' is a social comment and was not created or approved by the makers of the doll."
"It's tongue-in-cheek," Nystrøm told Rolling Stone of the song in 2022. "If you want to see the layers to it, there's all the layers you want. But we kind of took the piss out of the Pamela Anderson 'Baywatch' perfect picture with silicon boobs. We wanted to take the piss out of that kind of perfect girl."
Kozinski wasn't swayed by Mattel's argument that the song was inappropriate and damaged Barbie's reputation, which Lobel wrote is beyond the scope of trademark law, designed to protect consumers from fraud or deception. Kozinski said that though the word Barbie now had connotations with both the doll and the song, the right to free speech in the case of criticism or parody outweighed this, per Lobel.
The lawsuit was ultimately dismissed. "The parties are advised to chill," Kozinski concluded in his decision.
The song was a massive success for Aqua and has become part of the cultural zeitgeist of the 1990s. In a review in Billboard at the time, it was described as a "a deliciously over-the-top send-up of America's most beloved doll" with references to "the inherent misogyny of Barbie" while also "gleefully verbalizing many of the twisted things people secretly do with the doll." On YouTube, the video has 1.2 billion views. On Spotify, it has 381 billion listens – over four times more than Aqua's second-most-listened-to song.
Years later, Mattel even bought the rights to the song from Aqua, Lobel wrote. Mattel began using a modified song in promotional materials from 2009.
The song is now making a comeback, in a way, thanks to Greta Gerwig's "Barbie" film, which is hitting cinemas this Friday.
"Barbie World," by Nicki Minaj, Ice Spice, and Aqua, revives "Barbie Girl"'s original chorus, which is sung by Nystrøm, alongside lyrics like "I'm a ten, so I pull in a Ken" and "he spank me when I get bad." It already has more than 48 million listens on Spotify.
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