In Search of Barbie’s Voice

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What does Barbie sound like? The original doll’s blonde hair, pointed toes and pointed breasts define her look, but her voice was, until the sing-song-then-sadistic vocals of Jodi Benson in Toy Story 3 of 2010 and the more recent and more anodyne envoicement by Margot Robbie in the pinkest movie in history now in every theatre in the solar system, supplied individually by the millions of kids who played with her, sang and spoke through her.

I can still hear my sisters ventriloquizing their fantastical dialogues and ditties across ever-changing scenarios, vivid dreams, twisted nightmares. Sometimes I joined in. There were special effects too: screams of delight and pain, especially when the hard doll was weaponized. My sisters didn’t know, as I just learned from Guardian chief film critic Peter Bradshaw’s pale review of the movie (three out of five stars), that the manager of the product line responsible for Barbie had come to Mattel from Raytheon where he designed missiles. This helps to explain the front-mounted twin rockets.

In my memory, my sisters’ Barbies were more often naked and missing an arm or leg or two than intact and clothed. I’m not sure what the statute of limitations on spoiler alerts is, but I don’t think it ruins anything to say that the legion of live-action Barbies of the current movie never get dismantled, only hyper-extended in the figure of Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon). She’s the most interesting of the non-fungible movie dolls—a clever, even devious paradox to thematize since the Barbie franchise, and the tsunami of merch that Mattel has unleashed and hopes to capitalize on, is all about fungibility. McKinnon’s voice is sneering, sly, ironic—the non-pink grit of it meant to impart texture to the saccharine tones of the rest of the sisterhood’s spoken words.

The real vocal energy comes in the songs through which the doll searches for a way to voice her desires. Commissioned by the movie’s producers from big-time pop stars, this hit parade is full of first-person lyrics that allow Barbie’s inner thoughts to sing forth in diverse ways, just as Mattel diversified its line of dolls in a marketing move masquerading as moral imperative. Variety isn’t just the stuff of life, it’s the fuel of consumer capitalism. (The company just unveiled its “most diverse line” which includes the first doll with Down syndrome.)

The movie rips out of the gate with Lizzo’s bespoke “Pink.” Mattel doesn’t have a trademark on any particular hue, but the color now universally advertises the merch and the movie wherever it is seen — and heard. (“Synesthetic Barbie”—Mattel, that’s my gift to you. She wears rose-colored glasses even though she doesn’t need them.) Lizzo’s “Pink” voice has gusto and grain, even if much of the latter has been polished away in the recording studio. Still, even over the bright and bouncy electronic backing the tune packs an irrepressible enthusiasm that spurs Barbie on as she greets the story’s first day—like yesterday and tomorrow, today is the best day ever. “When I wake up in my own pink world, I get up outta bed and wave to my homegirls.” The Chorus continues along color lines: “Me and you in pink goes with everything … We like other colors, but pink just goes good on us.” The limited-edition LP is pink, though you can also buy a blue one.

Another queen of pop, Dua Lipa, who also appears as Mermaid Barbie in the film, serves up her “Dance the Night Away” for a disco soirée at Barbie’s pad. Yet for all of its dazzling décor, this production number lacks choreographic imagination and kinetic punch. Flirting with the confessional mode (but not with Ken), the lyric presages Barbie’s confrontation with death and her journey away from the sisterhood safety of Barbieland to rough treatment in the Real World of The Patriarchy: “Lately, I’ve been moving close to the edge … I don’t play it safe.” The song’s verse has a static feel that stokes expectations that a brilliant burst is coming, as if it’s marking time before busting out the big-time moves. But the chorus doesn’t detonate any such ecstatic explosion. It’s hardly surprising, then, that the circling melody produces a lackluster and predictable succession of dance-floor maneuvers. The Disco Ball beamed in from Studio 54 of the 1970s and the glinting Bee Gees violin riffs do little to boost the energy. Bollywood would have done it all so much better.

Fallen arches after the dance party spur Barbie to thoughts of death and she’s off to the Real World to find out what has gone wrong with her feet and her feelings. On the road trip Barbie sings along with the Indigo Girls’ “Closer to Fine” heard on the radio of her Corvette. That’s what journeys are supposed to do—not just get you to your geographic goal but force you to go soul-searching along the way: “I’m trying to tell you something ’bout my life, Maybe give me insight between black and white.” Between these extremes of all color and none at all she lands on—surprise!—pink. She can only sing about herself, even if wanly, through others. Even her Route 66 solo can’t last. Ken (the bluff and buff Ryan Gosling) has stowed away. He pops up in the backseat and covers her voice with his.

Indeed, the only voice that really sings his own song within the world of the movie belongs to Ken. As that tune’s title makes clear, “I’m Just Ken” is a navel-gazing ode-to-self sung, as he puts it, at Barbie while strumming doggedly at his guitar in a surfeit of frustrated, displaced sexual energy emanating from the supposedly sexless figure.

In contrast to the hilarity of these outpourings of male self-pity and ego, the wondrous women—with Barbie their fearless, if sometimes doubting leader—are saturated in sentimentality. As always music serves as the barometer of bathos.

When, late in the movie, Barbie meets her maker (Rhea Perlman) in a limbo-land that looks a lot like heaven, we are subjected to a lengthy and cloying homily about women’s aspirations from Billie Eilish, her breathy voice wafting through the cloudscape, “What Was I Made For?” ascended this week to the top of the Billboard “Hot Alternative Songs” chart.

The song is neither hot nor alternative. Its simple, sedate chords prayerfully elaborate the familiar “amen” of church hymns. Somewhere late in the mix one can hear an organ. The song is so wispy and anemic that pink is blinding by comparison. Yet from among the succession of tepid invocations and queries, Eilish does manage to deliver the truest line of the movie over her plaintive piano riff: “Turns out I’m not real, just something you paid for.” The plastic totem wants to learn how to feel, but she yearns for an emotional life in the most vapid, airy manner. Eilish’s final chord hangs in the air, unresolved: it is up to Barbara to find her way.

In syrupy tones, Barbie’s desires and doubts are off-loaded to invisible voices. Ken commandeers the movie’s main comedic cargo, and, worse still, is given his own singing voice while Barbie is deprived of hers. This is the clearest sign that Barbie lacks nerve and imagination. This film is not a womanifesto but an unwitting paean to patriarchy.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com