For many, it’s impossible to think about Barbie — or the upcoming Barbie movie — without also thinking about the hit song “Barbie Girl.” The single, released by Danish-Norwegian band Aqua in 1997, quickly became a global success — being described as both a masterpiece and the most annoying tune ever made.
What is less well known is that Barbie maker Mattel tried to sue the band over the song — even attempting to take the case to the Supreme Court — and that the case ended up contributing to what legal experts call an important precedent related to free speech.
In the late 1990s, “I’m a Barbie girl, in a Barbie world, life in plastic, it’s fantastic,” were some of the lyrics lodged inside the minds of millions of listeners who were sucked into the sheer quirkiness of the song, with its high-pitched vocals and tongue-in-cheek rhymes. Its glaringly pink music video was also popular and has, to date, been viewed more than 1 billion times on YouTube.
The song, which describes Barbie as a “blond bimbo girl in a fantasy world,” may have given Mattel free global advertising, but the toy giant was not amused. Within six months of the song’s release, Mattel launched a lawsuit against Aqua’s label, MCA Records — a dispute that would end up lasting years.
Mattel claimed that lyrics such as, “Kiss me here, touch me there, hanky-panky,” were damaging to Barbie’s reputation, and it accused the music group of trademark infringement, unfair competition and trademark dilution. Among its arguments was that, through its glossy music video, Aqua infringed on the color “Barbie pink” and mimicked the doll’s accessories, including the pink Barbie Dreamhouse.
The band’s label defended the single as “just a fun, funny pop song” and said that all copies of the hit came with a disclaimer inside the accompanying CD and cassette tape booklet that informed listeners the hit “was not created or approved by the makers of the doll.”
After years of legal tennis, the case eventually made it to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, where Judge Alex Kozinski wrote in his legal opinion, “If this were a sci-fi melodrama, it might be called Speech-Zilla meets Trademark Kong.”
On a more serious note, Kozinski ruled in favor of MCA, noting that the song was parody and therefore protected by the First Amendment. But he concluded his opinion with the memorable line, “The parties are advised to chill.”
The court document itself ends, amusingly, with an appendix displaying the lyrics of “Barbie Girl,” with lines such as, “Come on, Barbie, let’s go party, ah ah ah, yeah,” and “Oh, I love you, Ken!”
The dismissal was upheld on appeal, and attempts by Mattel to get the lawsuit heard by the Supreme Court were unsuccessful.
In the years since the lawsuit, members of the European band have spoken of their surprise at being sued by Mattel. “The first thing I thought was, ‘Wow, the biggest toy company in the world is going after the little band from Denmark?’” Rene Dif, one of the group’s vocalists, told Rolling Stone in 2022.
Meanwhile, lead vocalist Lene Nystrom told the magazine that she thought the lawsuit was “hilarious,” adding, “Only in America.” Other members of the band said the case fueled publicity for both parties.
MCA’s defense was also helped by the fact that Barbie was originally inspired by a German sex toy called Lilli — helping the record label’s lawyers defend against claims that Aqua had sexualized the doll.
While the lawsuit — and the judge’s comments — left many people amused, it was also an important case from a trademark perspective, Rebecca Tushnet, a professor of law at Harvard, said in an interview.
At one point, Mattel was “very aggressive in suing parodists and other unauthorized users” of the Barbie brand, Tushnet said. Its lawsuits included one made against a British artist who modified Barbie into a bondage doll, and another against an American artist who produced a series of images titled “Food Chain Barbie,” showing the dolls placed inside blenders or skewered over a fondue pot.
“Mattel lost all those cases and got the message,” Tushnet said. “These were important precedents protecting commentary at a time when the internet was just allowing people to reach larger audiences without traditional gatekeepers. Then the ‘Barbie Girl’ case confirmed that traditional, commercial media also had the freedom to parody and comment on well-known trademarks.”
Mattel’s argument that people could be confused about whether the company had backed Aqua’s hit song also had “nothing to do with the core of trademark law, which is to allow people to know from whom they’re buying,” Tushnet said.
“Everyone knew that the song came from Aqua,” she said. “Confusion about whether there was some sort of permission — or, even worse and more likely, whether the law mandated that Aqua get permission from Mattel to talk about Barbie — is not harmful in anything like the same way. Trademark owners do not need and should not have the right to control how they’re talked about.”
Mattel did not reply to a request for comment on the “Barbie Girl” song and subsequent lawsuit.
The company eventually embraced the hit single, using its melody in a 2009 advertisement — but with more family-friendly lyrics.
And if there’s any doubt over the longevity of the “Barbie Girl” song, or the fact that Mattel has come around, look no further than the upcoming movie “Barbie,” where a new version of the song — “Barbie World,” featuring Aqua, Nicki Minaj and Ice Spice — is featured on the soundtrack. So it seems that “Barbie Girl” may wind up amusing — or annoying — yet another generation.