When the readers of Rolling Stone were asked to pick the worst song of the Nineties back in 2011, they didn’t go with “Macarena,” “Achy Breaky Heart,” “MMMBop,” “Mmm Mmm Mmm,” “Nookie,” or even “I’m Too Sexy.” The proud honor went to “Barbie Girl.” And even if you’ve never heard of the Danish-Norwegian Europop group Aqua, you’ve definitely heard their song that proudly declares, “Life in plastic, it’s fantastic.” “Barbie Girl” was inescapable when it arrived 25 years ago, and it’s never truly gone away. This past February, the video racked up its billionth view on YouTube, landing it an elite club alongside Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” and Guns N’ Roses’ “November Rain.”
To celebrate a quarter century of “Barbie Girl,” we spoke with Aqua members René Dif, Lene Nystrøm, and Søren Rasted about the formation of the group, the creation of “Barbie Girl,” the iconic music video, the song’s global explosion, the lawsuit from Mattel that followed, and their life in the aftermath. We also interviewed “Barbie Girl” video director Peder Pedersen; actor Mads Tagel, who played Ken in the video; and attorney Russell J. Frackman, who represented their label in the lawsuit. (Former Aqua member Claus Norreen didn’t respond to our request for an interview.)
Along the way, we listened to “Barbie Girl” more times than we can count. And we must say that our 2011 readers were incorrect. The song is a pop masterpiece and we hope people are still celebrating it when its 100th anniversary comes around in 2097.
I. The Rise of Aqua
The roots of Aqua go back to a meeting between Danish musicians Søren Rasted and Claus Norreen in the late Eighties.
Søren Rasted: Claus and I were about 18 when we met. I was into Simple Minds, David Bowie, and U2. He was a little more electro than I was and into Depeche Mode. We got an apartment together and our biggest goal was to make music even though we both had other jobs. We started making money when we made the music for a Danish movie [Naughty Frida and the Fearless Spies].
Right around this time, their compatriot René Dif was making a name for himself as a DJ on the Danish club circuit.
René Dif: As a DJ, it was important for me to read the people in the club and know exactly what tune to put on to get them to dance. The music I played was very varied. It was funk, hip-hop, house, and then electro [acts like] Erasure and Depeche Mode. But my all-time favorite, and always will be, is Rick Astley. I really, really love Rick Astley.
Unlike many DJs on the scene, Dif liked to rap during his sets.
Dif: I thought to be a DJ that just stood there and played records was a little bit boring. I was also break dancing from when I was very young. I was influenced by American DJs and rap music. And then I just started one day. I actually went outside the DJ booth and started rapping without knowing what people would think about it. They freaked out and thought it was cool.
He got a job as a DJ on a boat that went back and forth between Norway and Denmark. One day, he noticed the young hostess of a Wheel of Fortune–type game on the ship.
Lene Nystrøm: It was a totally silent role [like Vanna White]. When I look at the show now, it was totally corny. But the last program I did, I was allowed to sing a cappella. I loved that since I grew up on classic rock like the Rolling Stones and the Beatles. Michael Jackson has always been my favorite, but when it comes to female singers, I have to go with Annie Lennox.
Dif: To make a long story short, Lene and I went out for a few years after meeting on the boat.
Nystrøm: He spent a couple of months flirting my pants off.
When Rasted and Norreen were working on the soundtrack for Naughty Frida and the Fearless Spies, they needed a rapper for one of the songs. Dif just happened to be working on a project in the same studio.
Rasted: He was a different guy than anyone I had met before. He was so cool. We invited him into the group.
Dif: At one point, I played some of our music for Lene. She said, “I can sing better than that.” I knew that we needed a girl to sing.
Nystrøm: I wasn’t a very competitive person, but my elbows came out and I was like, “You found her! You have to listen to this! Take me to Denmark. I’ll audition for you!”
It became clear that the unique combination of Nystrøm’s sugary vocals and Dif’s gravelly raps was a compelling sound that nobody had ever quite heard before.
Dif: People really opened their eyes and went, “What is this? It’s super catchy, but what is this? How can she sing like that? How can he growl like that? Is it rap? Is it singing?” It became our signature sound.
Nystrøm: We had huge dreams and we were working on music night and day. We didn’t see friends or family, but we became the best of friends. All of us wanted to make our mark on Norway and Denmark. It was like a bad omen thinking anything bigger than that. We are very modest in Scandinavia. It’s a different culture where you can’t say your dreams out loud. We didn’t dare to dream too big.
II. Writing and Recording “Barbie Girl.”
In 1995, recording under original name Joyspeed, the quartet released its debut single, “Itsy Bitsy Spider.” The song was a minor hit in Sweden, but even the group admits that it wasn’t very good. Their sound changed when they got their hands on the Roland JV-2080, a synthesizer that was able to replicate the sounds of organic instruments like piano and saxophone. It changed everything about their music, just as wildly catchy new pop songs like “Doctor Jones” and “My Oh My” were pouring out of them. Unlike many pop groups of this era, they wrote and produced all their music themselves.
Rasted: When we were writing songs for the first album, I went to an art exhibition at a store in Copenhagen. They’d taken a bunch of Barbie dolls and made a planet out of them. It looked like a big, round ball. 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.”
He brought the idea into the studio and showed it to Norreen.
Rasted: It was in major chords at first. He really wanted to change it to minor chords. And so we started on a minor chord instead. I don’t mean to be too technical, but the change means a lot. And what I had was too wordy. I remember Claus taking out words that rhymed in the verses. We disagreed quite a lot.
Dif: I wrote all my own verses. We ping-ponged between the four of us about the lyrics. We all chipped in.
Nystrøm: I just remember a few brief moments from the studio, but we knew we really had something worth gold in our hands.
Rasted: There was a lot of back and forth when we recorded the vocals. Lene wanted to take it down a notch. She thought it was too high. If she was going to do it live, it was just ridiculously high. There was a lot of fighting about that. But we just said, “This just sounds out of this world. Please, let’s just do this. We can always take it down one note live. Nobody is going to notice.”
Nystrøm: Everyone believed it was pitched up in the computer, but I really did it.
The lyrics to “Barbie Girl” are full of sexually suggestive lines like “I’m a blond bimbo girl in a fantasy world,” “Dress me up, make it tight, I’m your dolly,” and “You can brush my hair, undress me everywhere.”
Dif: 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. It’s a pop song, but it’s also a song about how it’s OK to be who you are, love who you are, and be yourself.
Rasted: It was, of course, a song about plastic surgeries. Other parts of the songs were just sexual. When we had the lawsuit from Mattel, which came later, the lawyers made us change the story. They said, “Please don’t say it’s anything sexual.” But we were not really trying to make a statement. We were just trying to write a fun song.
Nystrøm: It’s tongue-in-cheek. It’s pop music. 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. That was the main thing we discussed. We didn’t say it very often, but that was the main thing behind it.
III. The Video
When “Barbie Girl” started taking off on the radio in Denmark, Universal decided to make a video for it. They hired director Peder Pedersen to make it.
Peder Pedersen: I was just starting out as a director, and it was hard. The night before I got the request to do “Barbie Girl,” I was doing some grainy black-and-white art stuff in a basement. While we were setting up, “Barbie Girl” came on the radio. I remember saying [angrily], “What the hell is this?” The next day, I got a call asking if I wanted to do the video for it. I went [cheerfully], “Yes, of course!”
The video was filmed in two days at an old wine warehouse in Copenhagen that was converted into a makeshift studio.
Pedersen: In my view, the video needed to be like the song, cartoonish, that kind of feel. That’s also what the group had in mind. We had a session where we went, “What does Barbie do? What kind of props does she have? Well, she has a house, a car, a horse, a hair dryer, a telephone, a dog …” Then I went back and did a complete storyboard for it. And we had a timeline saying, “Barbie does a lot of things, and it ends in a party.”
He drew inspiration from unlikely sources.
Pedersen: We had watched Spike Jonze’s video for “Sabotage” by the Beastie Boys. I love those crime movies and exploitation movies that they were referencing. It was an inspiration, since it had the Beastie Boys playing characters. That was a good reference for me to say, “If we can go this way and have a kind of irony, we can go a long way.” Our references for the looks were Hanna-Barbera cartoons like The Flintstones and Scooby Doo. That made it look different from all the other videos.
He originally envisioned dressing up Nystrøm in a blond Barbie wig.
Rasted: We had a meeting a few days before the shoot, and Lene said that she wasn’t going to be Barbie. We were like, “What? You can’t fucking do that!”
Nystrøm: I don’t get angry very often. You can stretch me far. But I had my own kind of opinion about that. I didn’t want to look like Barbie. That’s against the whole point of the song. I came into the dressing room and the stylists were there. We had a long, hard argument. Universal came in. The director came in. And I just stood my ground.
Pedersen: She said, “I will not wear a wig. I will not dye my hair.” I promised her, “OK, you can have your normal color hair.” I went back and colored all the frames in the storyboard black.
But he still wanted actors to play Ken and Barbie.
Pedersen: The art director [Peter Stenbæk] said, “I have friends, and they look like Barbie and Ken.”
Mads Tagel (Ken actor): We were invited on the day of the shoot. Peter called us and asked if we were busy and if we wanted to be part of the shoot. Since it was a free lunch and we were both studying at the time, we said yes.
Rasted: The really interesting thing is they met each other on the set that day and they are married now and have two kids. We could never have expected that!
Tagel: Søren keeps telling that story, and even though it’s definitely more romantic, it’s just not true. We met back in 1993, both working at the same cafe, me needing a place to stay, [Barbie actress and my now-wife] Lisbeth having room to spare — the rest is history.
Even though the video was carefully storyboarded, everyone was encouraged to improvise and have fun with it.
Pedersen: We were all pretty young. It’s not like today where you have to think about everything. We didn’t know it would go and be viewed so many times.
Tagel: I had my hair colored pitch black. And even though the lady promised it was easy to wash out afterward, it was not. I had black hair for over a year.
Dif: Lene was in a tight red dress with Sixties hair. Søren had bleached hair with spikes, motocross shorts, and a tight shirt. Claus had orange hair and Sixties clothes. I had a Scottish kilt on with military boots and glitter on my face. We didn’t look anything like a normal band you’d see walking down the street.
Tagen: We did not rehearse anything. And we didn’t know each other. So everything you see in the video, the smiles, the waving — I think we were trying to imitate a doll-like movement — is improvised. And because of the setting, the whole thing had this weird vibe that Lisbeth and I just leaned into — just trying to have fun, because an hour before we were lying on the couch watching a movie.
Nystrøm and Dif were naturals on camera, while their bandmates had a bit of a harder time.
Pedersen: René and Lene had very comedic timing. They understood what we wanted to achieve. They embraced that and gave it more than you could hope for. Their timing and their contribution is what draws the viewer in. Søren and Claus were a little more nervous, but I think their stiffness in the background helps that plastic feel.
Tagen: Everyone, the crew, the band, the director, we were all having a good time, listening to this very happy, childish, upbeat song over and over again, and that created this surreal vibe that we just went with. And I think that shows in the video.
IV. Going Global
The song hit just as new pop acts like Backstreet Boys and Spice Girls were taking over the charts. On Sept. 6, 1997, the song debuted at Number Seven on the Billboard Hot 100 in America, sandwiched between Third Eye Blind’s “Semi-Charmed Life” and Dru Hill’s “Never Make a Promise.” It did even better in Australia and Europe.
Dif: Shortly before this, everyone was dressed in black and had a guitar, and they were singing about how bad they felt and playing really depressing music. People were ready for something different. In some magical way, we came in at just the right time. The moon, the sun, everything had to stand still at that one second. It did for us. We went from zero to hero pretty fast.
Pedersen: I remember somebody came running into my office and was like, “The video is on MTV!” I said, “Really?” I didn’t understand it at that time. I still don’t understand it.
Very few Scandinavian pop acts have scored big hits in America, and most of them came from Sweden. Breaking in America felt like an impossible dream for Aqua.
Dif: It’s the biggest country. They have the biggest bands. Everything you heard in the music industry, about 80 percent came came from the States.
Rasted: Denmark is just a really small country. But we had a very distinct sound, our video was really distinct, and Lene and René were just perfect. They were nice to look at.
Nystrøm: Most of the Scandinavian groups that broke in America were from Sweden, though A-Ha were from Norway. Not many came from Denmark. And so I can’t even describe the feeling [of learning the song broke in America]. I think it was one and a half or two years of information and good news. You were so overwhelmed. You changed countries every day. Everything moved so fast. We’d visit a country and then the song would hit Number One. Then it would go to Number One in another country. It was just amazing to see something you’d been working on so hard with your best friends was actually loved by other people around the world — and hated.
They came to America near the end of their world tour.
Nystrøm: We came to the States after a month in Asia. We actually kissed the ground when we landed. It’s just hard to be in Asia for such a long time since the cultures are so different. But America was amazing, but it was also really hard. It’s such a huge continent. You’re starting over in every state. It was really hard work.
Dif: We did about 14 cities in 21 days in the States. We tried to give each country as much attention as possible, but the U.S. is the biggest country and you need to be there more. Looking back, we were not there that much.
The follow-up singles to “Barbie Girl” in most countries were “My Oh My” and “Doctor Jones,” and both songs became hits. But the American label opted to release the underwhelming “Lollipop (Candyman)” as the follow-up. It stalled out at Number 23.
Rasted: We didn’t think that song was a hit. That was a weird decision.
Dif: In retrospect, I would have gone with “Around the World” as the next single.
Nystrøm: I think maybe “Doctor Jones” would have been a better choice in America, but there was so much politics at that point. At that point, America was over our decision level because of the powerful people at Universal. There were a lot of cooks in the kitchen, a lot of people that wanted to be a part of it, but the second single should have been left to us to decide.
V. The Lawsuit
The CD booklet for Aqua’s album Aquarium included this sentence: “The song ‘Barbie Girl’ is a social comment and was not created or approved by the makers of the doll.” This wasn’t nearly enough to appease Mattel, and they filed a lawsuit against MCA in 2000.
Russell Frackman (lawyer): The lawsuit had 11 different claims. They pretty much threw the kitchen sink at us. They all boiled down essentially, in one way or another, to trademark infringement. They even claimed that they infringed on what they called “Barbie Pink.”
Dif: The first thing I thought was, “Wow, the biggest toy company in the world is going after the little band from Denmark?”
Nystrøm: I thought it was hilarious, to be honest. I have to say, only in America. They didn’t sue us. They sued our label. For a long time, we couldn’t talk about it. If we were interviewed, we couldn’t speak about it. There were a lot of hassles around it, bit it was also hilarious. And it was a free commercial on both sides, for Mattel and for us.
Frackman: I felt that Mattel had a weak case. My view was reinforced when I learned more about Barbie’s background. Barbie began her life as a German doll known as Lilli. And Lilli was a plaything for adult men, so her background was not pristine. It also became very clear that Barbie had been represented in books and other media, even in recordings prior to “Barbie Girl,” as representing a certain type of person. She became an icon standing for a certain type of person. That led to the major defenses in the case, which were essentially First Amendment defenses.
Rasted: Our label paid the legal fees, but I think the whole thing was a setup in a way. Nobody has ever said that to me, but I think they made a deal early on. I think they made a deal that they were going to sue Universal. I think they wanted the attention. You can’t really be frustrated about that. I don’t think that we wanted to hurt the doll. It’s difficult to have a clear law about that.
Frackman: We hired literary experts, record-industry experts, marketing experts, and we came up with all sorts of material that was a lot more critical of Barbie, and a lot more sexual, frankly, than “Barbie Girl.” There was no doubt that for many, many years, even people who didn’t buy Barbie dolls were aware that Barbie was either viewed as a feminist or as a bimbo. That was an indisputable fact. Also, trademarked names have been used in songs for many, many years. Think of Janis Joplin’s “Mercedes Benz,” Paul Simon’s “Kodachrome,” Bruce Springsteen’s “Cadillac Ranch.” At one point, Mattel argued they could have called the song “Party Girl.” But obviously, calling it “Party Girl” does not convey the same message as calling it “Barbie Girl.”
The lawsuit dragged on for years and ultimately went to the United State Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit. Judge Alex Kozinski ruled in favor of MCA. He ended his opinion with the line, “The parties are advised to chill.”
Frackman: It was four or five years of litigation in the trial court and in the court of appeals. One could say it’s a lawsuit that never should have been litigated.
Amazingly, in 2009, Mattel licensed “Barbie Girl” for use in an ad campaign, meaning they had to pay Aqua to use it. They changed some of the more suggestive lyrics to “You can be a star/No matter who are you are” and “I’m a girl in my world/Full of fashion and fun.”
Nystrøm: That’s what they should have done from the start.
Frackman: It’s kind of ironic that Mattel was basically arguing that the label should have licensed the rights or at least negotiated the rights to use Barbie. And it ended up with Mattel licensing the rights to use the song from MCA. The shoe was basically on the other foot there.
Rasted: The lawsuit was really just a good advertisement for us since you can’t really get rid of the song, but everyone knew about the lawsuit. We couldn’t have asked for anything better.
VI. The Aftermath
Aqua followed up Aquarium in 2000 with Aquarius. It sold well around the world, especially in Scandinavia, but stalled out at Number 82 in America. They took a break in 2001 that lasted until 2008. During this time, Nystrøm married Rasted and they had two kids. They separated six years ago.
Nystrøm: We’re the best of friends. We have two teenage children. We have been through conflicts, but you just have to think bigger and remember why you love each other. We have the music and we have the children. We take care of each other. We look after each other.
Rasted: I was married to Lene for 16 years. Honestly, I love her very much. As a matter of fact, me and Lene are moving into the same building next month. We each have our own apartment.
Nystrøm: My boyfriend is Søren’s studio technician. We go out to dinner with Søren and his girlfriend. It’s just a big, modern, happy family. René and Søren are my two best friends.
Rasted: I can imagine it looks really weird from the outside, but it feels good from the inside.
Claus Norreen left the group in 2016.
Rasted: There were a lot of reasons Claus left, but not serious ones. It wasn’t like he was going to kill us, or anything. I think he needed a break. We’ve had breaks during this. You’re going to kill each other if you don’t have breaks.
Nystrøm: I miss Claus in the group. He was my musical soulmate onstage. I was always looking for him onstage. If he felt comfortable, I felt safe. It was really sad when he left the group. But I have to say that the dynamics within us three are really, really amazing. And so on a general basis, I don’t miss him today.
They released their third album, Megalomania, in 2011. Their focus since then has been on touring, often playing at European festivals with other Nineties groups. Needless to say, they never get offstage without playing “Barbie Girl.”
Dif: The feeling when we play it is sometimes a little bit surrealistic. When you look at the crowd, they are 14, 15, or 16 years old. We wrote the song 25 years ago. You’d think it would be Mom and Pop in the front row, but it’s not. Every time we play, there are hardcore fans and new fans. When they see us perform, they understand the whole concept of Aqua. We’re a pretty wild band when we play. We sometimes say that we’re performing like a rock band, but we’re a 110-percent pop band. We kick ass every time.
Rasted: I never get tired of [the song]. I really, really don’t. I enjoy playing it live every time. Of course, sometimes three times in a row is a lot. But I feel so fortunate that everybody pretty much in the whole world knows that song.
Nystrøm: I feel really proud of the song. I have to admit there were times back in the days where I was like, “Oh, my God, not again.”
In November 2021, they flew all the way from Denmark to the Parque Fundidora festival in Monterrey, Mexico. They were asked to play just one song: “Barbie Girl.”
Dif: Let me tell you, it’s a pretty long way to go from Denmark to Mexico. It’s 26 hours.
Nystrøm: It was so much fun. We went a couple days earlier and our luggage got lost. There was so much chaos. We had to stay in Mexico City for a couple days. We just played one song. It’s over before you even know it, but it was great to even be there.
They hope it leads to more dates in North America.
Dif: I have a few things that I would really, really like Aqua to experience in the years to come. I would like to do two weeks or a month in Las Vegas so I could say, “Check, I had a show in Vegas.” And it would be the two biggest festivals you have: Coachella and Vegas. That would be fuckin’ amazing.
Nystrøm: A dream for all of us is to be able to do a festival or two in the USA. That would be fuckin’ amazing.
Dif: What’s the name of that guy who does the carpool thing? James Corden? I saw him yesterday. He did a funny thing where he was playing keyboards in the Beatle movie [Get Back]. He mentioned “Barbie Girl.” I nearly fell off my chair when I saw that. It was so funny. Now I’m just waiting for the invitation so we can do Aqua in his car. That would be so cool.
Nystrøm: We really fought hard to be taken seriously as a live band. We are now allowed to travel the world and play live. My father is with me. My whole family is with us when we travel. It’s amazing to focus on playing live now. I love going onstage and seeing the reaction.
They’ve also started work on their long-awaited fourth album.
Nystrøm: We were in the studio last winter when the second lockdown happened. We’re going back in soon. It’s difficult. There are so many directions we can take it. I want it to be pure pop music, happy music. Søren wants it be a little more serious. I’m like, “Nope. I want happy music. Come on, dude, you can do it.” I’m hoping he hears me. Nobody wants dark music from Aqua. Let’s just agree on that.
All three members of the group say they don’t mind being called one-hit wonders, even if that title isn’t really fair.
Nystrøm: In Europe and Asia, most people know we aren’t one-hit wonders since we had other hits. But it is what it is. You just have to come out and prove them wrong.
Rasted: I’ve never felt like a one-hit wonder. To be honest, of course, when “Barbie Girl” went crazy around the world, we were afraid we’d be a one-hit wonder. Then “Doctor Jones,” “Turn Back Time,” and “My Oh My” took off, and it was certain we weren’t a one-hit wonder. But that song is a gift. I won’t be bothered by that even though lot of people probably want to kill us.
Tagen: The weird thing is that “Barbie Girl” was pretty dormant through the 2000s and 2010s, but it feels like it’s picking up again over the past years. I think it’s because the kids listening to the music back then are now grown-ups with their own kids, and that brings the music back again. And at work now, every time a new person or new client comes in, the story gets told and they all laugh. It’s still funny, and I guess everybody has a relation or memory attached to the song.
Nystrøm: I can totally understand people getting pissed at it. It can be super annoying. It sticks like glue.