Everyone who was sentient in the ’90s knows “Barbie Girl”—the sticky-sweet, deceptively simple tribute to the then-omnipotent cult of Barbie. For Danish artist Kill J (a.k.a. Julie Aagaard), the song has even more significance, as it was authored by fellow Danes Aqua. It’s such a highly regarded piece of work in Denmark that it’s not to be messed with: “You don’t fuck with it!” Aagaard told us.
Nevertheless, Aagaard decided to tease out the song’s more subversive undertones in a new cover, which debuted on P&P last week. She also took the time to speak with us about what inspired the unlikely endeavor—and, more broadly, why she thinks it’s more important now than ever to be talking about sexism in the music industry.
Read on to get to know the singer—even though her vibrant, polished singles speak for themselves.
What made you decide to cover “Barbie Girl?”
I know, it’s pretty weird. I was reading the lyrics one day, for some reason, and I realized how brutal and potent they were. Like, they’re ridiculous—they’re hardcore. I was just thinking, if you take these words, and put them into this dark, dystopian soundscape, you could get some real heavy shit. You could get, like, a feminist manifesto from this.
So I played around with the idea in my head for a couple of days, and then I just did it. It’s actually been sitting there for a long time—I did it around this time last year.
The song itself is interesting—it’s on a fine line between this sort of light, ironic twist on the idea of Barbie, and (like you said) something much more dystopian and scary.
I never really thought about that [before doing the cover]. Maybe it’s because I was so young when the song first came out? I never really listened to the words, I just thought it was a silly song about a Barbie doll. I think the soundscape that they put it into—and this was in what, 1997?—there was this toy element to the music back then. It fit well with the time.
It does sound kitschy, but that style of pop was in vogue then: boy bands, Britney Spears, etc. You can see why it was a huge radio hit, because it didn’t sound like a novelty song. Aqua is from Denmark too, right?
Actually I wrote a letter to Soren Rasted, who wrote the song and is in the band. In Denmark, everybody knows who he is. His career started with that song, but then he continued producing for lots of other projects. So he’s really famous here in Denmark. “Barbie Girl” is sort of like, um, a national…
Yes, it’s a very Danish thing! I don’t know the English word. You don’t fuck with it, you don’t mess with it. So I wrote him this long letter asking him permission. It took a couple of months, and then we finally got permission.
Did he say anything else about your cover?
Well, no he didn’t. I actually never got an answer from him. He’s a very busy and important guy [Laughs]. No, I’m sure he is! I just wanted to show him the respect, and try to tell him that I wasn’t trying to mock the their version of the song, because I think their version of the song is perfect. I just felt that I could take it and make it something even more extreme than maybe they had thought [it could be] at the time.
It was fairly subversive at the time, but as you said, the aesthetic sort of masked that.
Exactly. The message is still so extremely relevant, probably now more than ever. More than 15, 20, 17… 17 years ago.
I was never really confronted with my own gender, or gender inequality, before I entered this crazy business.
This isn’t the first time you’ve tackled gender issues in your music. What has your experience been like as a woman in the industry?
I was never really confronted with my own gender, or gender inequality, before I entered this crazy business. Where I’m from in the world, it’s probably the best place to be a woman—Scandinavia. And we still have a long way to go. But I was never really that interested in looking at gender inequality, and that was probably because I had never really experienced it.
It’s funny, because when I was younger, I always thought that the music industry was like, on the forefront of things. But the music industry is ridiculously conservative. I’m not trying to tell a story about how my label is really evil, and there are all these guys who get to decide everything and all the women, blah blah blah. We’re not victims.
But on a daily basis, I feel that I have to claim what I do. No, I actually wrote that song. No, I actually produced this bit. No, I do know how to play an instrument. Playing live, a sound guy comes up to one of my musicians, and compliments him on the production. I’m like waving in the background going, “Thank you!” People asking me not, “Did you produce it?” but, “Who produced it?”
It’s like it doesn’t even cross their minds.
Exactly. So it’s very easy to become constantly annoyed, or angry—then, it’s very easy to label you as a bitch. As someone who complains all the time. So I had written a couple of songs about this theme, and in general my music has a female view of life, because I am a woman. But I don’t see it as something that I will continuing to talk about that much. It’s weird—we’re almost in 2016.
How did you first get into music?
I was always into music. I was supposed to become a classical singer, and my big rebellion against my mom and dad was that I didn’t want to go to the conservatory. I started classical piano training when I was seven, and vocal training when I was about 12. When I was 19, I realized that I didn’t want to be a classical singer, and then I packed my bags and moved to the States for a couple of years. I lived in California, three different places—mostly Orange County.
When I came back, three years later, I hadn’t been playing any music for those three years. I realized that I really missed it. I knew I wanted to write, so I took a lot of creative writing classes while I was in the States. I think I already knew at that point that I didn’t want to perform something, as you often do as a classical singer—that I wanted to write something creatively.
I think I already knew at that point that I didn’t want to perform something, as you often do as a classical singer—that I wanted to write something creatively.
Do you still listen to a lot of classical music?
I… don’t [Laughs]. Not anymore. I had this long period in my life where I was fed up with it. I’m over it! And I never really picked it up again. I started messing around with synthesizers instead.
Who are some of the women in music who you look up to, or whose careers you’d like to emulate?
Of course there’s Björk. You can’t really not mention Björk if you’re a female electronic musician. Didn’t she just turn 50?
Yeah, it looks like her birthday was November 21.
Awesome. She’s 50 and she’s awesome. I remember watching TV as a teenager, and there was this interview with Björk. She was defending her style of music, and she was defending her instrument: the computer. The computer was her instrument, still is her instrument. She’d get a lot of criticism, that she didn’t really play a real instrument. I remember I saw her walking around this Icelandic landscape, and there was a waterfall, and she’s walking around with this huge box, pushing buttons. She’s like, “So this is called, ‘How you make a sound!'” That was really inspiring.
As a teenager, I listened to a lot of super pop music, besides classical. I listened to a lot of Mariah Carey, and I learned the lyrics phonetically, because I didn’t speak English. Not that I think I could ever emulate her career, but I think I’m still inspired by some of her sounds. I think I am inspired by Mariah Carey.
How do you explain the disproportionate influence of Scandinavian artists on the world’s music scene?
I grew up here, and I didn’t grow up in, for example, the States or Kuala Lumpur. But I know that Denmark, and especially Sweden, is very, very good at funding music and the arts. Sweden is ridiculous—someone told me recently that you can get a rehearsal studio for free. I was like, “Holy shit.”
A lot of things, that’s where it starts—it starts with who has the money, who wants to put the money into it. I don’t think that we are more creative or more interesting than anyone else in the world. I think it’s a culture that we have built through the past 30 years. It all started with ABBA—I’m serious, it did! Then we just got really good at exporting music.
Who are you listening to right now?
Shit… I don’t know. I have to answer truthfully, but it’s a little bit embarrassing. I’m finishing up my EP, which is going to be out like two seconds from now, so I’ve been listening to a lot of my own music. But I can’t answer with that! It just makes me sounds so self-obsessed.
You know what I’ve been listening to a lot, my guilty pleasure—I don’t even know if it’s a guilty pleasure anymore—the new Justin Bieber. I really like some of the productions.
What’s your favorite?
I heard a new one that I hadn’t heard before yesterday. A friend of mine’s little sister was listening to it. I can’t remember the name, but she’s 14, and was like, “How haven’t you heard this song?!” It’s like a singer-songwriter kind of song. I thought it was very Ed Sheeran-ish?
He did write a song with Sheeran for the album [“Love Yourself”].
Oh, that was the one!
Kill J’s upcoming EP will be released in 2016.