Whether you love her or find her offensive, there’s little doubt that the complicated and controversial curio that is Soundscape™ Barbie has left an indelible mark on popular culture*.
This exhibition traces the never-before-told history of Soundscape™ Barbie, focusing on the mixed reactions she has inspired since she first appeared on 9 March 2019.
The exhibition has seven topics:
- The History of Soundscape™ Barbie
- Barry Truax Reacts
- The Variations Begin
- Diverse Soundscape™ Barbies
- Sound Artist™ Ken
- Seasonal Variants
- 2020 Pandemic Edition
The History of Soundscape™ Barbie
To help celebrate the 60th anniversary of Barbie® dolls on 9 March 2019, the Museum of Portable Sound created one of its most popular – and controversial – parodies to date.
SOUNDSCAPE™ BARBIE was a concept image representing a Barbie® action figure decked out with all the equipment a respectable soundscape™ designer would need:
• Stylish Beats by Dre® wireless headphones (that match her colour scheme, of course!)
• Casual jeans, jacket, trainers, and Neu! t-shirt
• XLR Shotgun mic in a Rode BLIMP Complete Windshield and Pistol Grip System™
• Zoom F8n portable digital recorder in Orca over-the-shoulder carrying bag
• Facsimile copy of John Cage‘s SILENCE
In what was a complete shock for us, our conceptual Soundscape™ Barbie action figure quickly proved to be a hit – particularly amongst women working in sound. She garnered thousands of ‘likes’ and ‘shares’ across our Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts, along with a seemingly unending chorus of demands that MATTEL® begin manufacturing her – as first suggested by a tweet sent directly to Mattel® by experimental composer Mira Calix.
However, the adulation was far from universal. Soundscape™ Barbie quickly proved to be a lightning rod for mansplaining – particularly her Beats by Dre® headphones, which were relentlessly attacked for their inferior build and sound quality (never mind that this is the only realistic detail we included in her design, since this is the exact type of cross-brand marketing synergy that would be imposed upon a Soundscape™ Barbie were it ever to actually be sold).
Several cisgendered white men also made sure to let us know that Soundscape™ Barbie was extremely problematic from a feminist perspective – including, but not limited to, those egregious Beats headphones. Because of course, who better to explain feminism to us than cis white sound bros.
The fact that one of our inspirations for creating Soundscape™ Barbie in the first place was the complex gender politics (such as rampant sexism and downright misogyny) prevalent throughout the ‘sound and music’ community seemed to be lost on many of Soundscape™ Barbie’s most-offended male commentators.
Barry Truax Reacts
It did not take long for Soundscape™ Barbie to be brought to the attention of one of the founders of the contemporary soundscape and acoustic ecology movement.
An email list dedicated to the discussion of soundscapes featured the following exchange between Barry Truax (professor emeritus at Simon Fraser University and founding member of the World Soundscape Project) and Carla Santana (composer and occasional member of the Variable Geometry Orchestra):
> On Mar 17, 2019, at 7:06 PM, Barry Truax wrote: > > I guess it's inevitable, given the rising interest in > soundscapes, that we'd finally get a "soundscape Barbie"! > > Now, I really don't know if this is a spoof or not, but > it's indicative of something. On the one hand you might > notice she's holding not just the gear but a copy of Cage's > Silence, but the TM signs beside "soundscape" are a little > disturbing.... > > Anyway, I've added it to my lecture collection of commercial > uses and abuses of the term Soundscape (which you can see > in my HTML materials under Soundscape, included in the WSP > Database). Up until now my personal favourite was Soundscape, >the Party Game, but that might just have changed! > >Barry > ========== On Mar 17, 2019, at 12:35 PM, Carla Santana wrote: Hello Barry and all. The Soundscape Barbie concept and story was created and posted on Facebook by John Kannenberg through the Museum of Portable Sound page. So not an official Barbie, but a great and funny idea that has been putting a smile on our faces in recent days :) Here's the link for the original post: https://www.facebook.com/MuseumOfPortableSound/photos/a.1635601180023307/2201038580146228/?type=3&theater Best to all Carla Santana
The Variations Begin
Along with the excitement generated by Soundscape™ Barbie on social media came a deluge of requests for variants of our original design – naturally enough, given that Barbie® dolls in the real world have been produced in what seems to be endless variations.
First up was RETRO Soundscape™ Barbie, easily the most requested variant during the first 24 hours of Soundscape™ Barbie’s existence; fans wanted a throwback model featuring analog recording technology, and we were happy to oblige. RETRO Soundscape™ Barbie came equipped with a pair of classic Sennheiser HD414s, a vintage Brian Eno scoop-neck tee, and an iconic NAGRA reel-to-reel tape recorder, along with a hardback edition of John Cage’s SILENCE®.
Diverse Soundscape™ Barbies
In an ideal world, we would have planned ahead to make sure we revealed a line of ethnically diverse Soundscape™ Barbies on the day of the Barbie®’s 60th anniversary. However, having only learned of the anniversary the day before it happened, we only had time to produce a single “classic” Caucasian Soundscape™ Barbie for 9 March 2019.
Among the initial reactions to the original Soundscape™ Barbie were numerous requests for a more diverse approach which we were in full agreement with; so less than a week later, on 14 March 2019 we released five more Soundscape™ Barbies.
Unfortunately, they did not attract the same level of attention as the original, leaving them disappointingly overlooked.
Sound Artist™ Ken
Unveiled across social media on 13 August 2019, Sound Artist™ Ken features these strikingly detailed accessories:
• 1998 Dell laptop pre-loaded with MAX/MSP and CYCLING ’74 Sticker
• Sony MDR Studio Monitor Headphones held together with duct tape
• His latest cassette release on The Tapeworm made from the sound of him duetting with his refrigerator, to hand out for free after the gig to anyone who stayed til the end
• Fashionable Hot Topic-Exclusive Merzbow t-shirt
• CRUMPLER Messenger Bag filled with lots of great stuff including:
· That 1979 TNT 7-inch he’s been meaning to give back to you;
· Double-necked Ukulele;
· Broken Violin Bow (‘It sounds better this way’);
· Li’l Mackie 4-channel Mixer;
· Handmade Altoids™ Tin Kalimba!
And, last but not least…
• Boundless determination that the world will finally understand what he does if he can just get that commission to do the site-specific multichannel sound art installation inside Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall that he’s always wanted
It had always felt like it was only a matter of time before Soundscape™ Barbie would meet a straight white male to settle down into a dysfunctional relationship with. However, as a museum dedicated to displaying sounds as cultural objects, it was decided to take a brief break from producing more toy images to concentrate on more serious matters.
When the time came to return to the Soundscape™ Barbie project, we were prepared to once again attract a mixed reaction to the project. Sound Artist™ Ken’s design was, unlike Soundscape™ Barbie, clearly intended to satirise the ‘scene’ it depicts.
While Soundscape™ Barbie was intended mostly as a celebration of women who persevere in a sexist work environment, Sound Artist™ Ken was, we thought, pretty clearly intended as what British slang would refer to as a ‘piss-take’ – a sending up of the Sound Art™ scene in general (of which our Director was once a member).
It was to our surprise, therefore, that we were in fact accused of sexism, once again by mansplainers, who argued that by making Ken a Sound Artist™ we were inferring that he was somehow of greater importance or skill than Soundscape™ Barbie, who as a field recordist was apparently subordinate.
We can’t help but think that these criticisms clearly said more about the sexist attitudes of those who voiced them than any alleged sexism on our part.
Just because she’s a career-focused sound editor doesn’t mean she has to give up a holiday on the beach – not when there are underwater sound recordings to be made!
Summer Soundscape™ Barbie debuted the day before Sound Artist™ Ken, celebrating the world of hydrophone recordings while considerably upping her headphone game. Summer Soundscape™ Barbie™ comes equipped with:
• an Aquarian Audio H2a-XLR hydrophone
• Sound Devices 688 field recorder/mixer with custom shoulder bag by Portabrace Cases
• S’NEXT Sonorous X headphones
• Treatise on Musical Objects by Pierre Schaeffer
• Stylish Sunn O))) bathing suit
Reaction to Summer Soundscape™ Barbie was muted compared to her original unveiling, but – again, surprisingly – overall very positive.
This time, we received positive feedback from audio gear company Sound Devices, who joined in the Facebook banter. The Sun O))) bathing suit generated positive buzz, with several women commenting they wished they could purchase one. Our favourite acknowledgement came from world-renowned underwater recordist Dr Leah Barclay, whose triple smiley emoji comment made us feel we were definitely on the right track.
Just in time for the Christmas holidays of 2019, we posted Holiday Soundscape™ Barbie – a mostly retro (yet featuring anachronistic Beats by Dre® wired headphones just for kicks) elvish-dressed variation featuring:
• A mistletoe-bedazzled Boom Microphone
• A NAGRA reel to reel tape recorder with seasonal jingle bell-bedecked Field Bag
• Facsimile DECCA pressing of the 45RPM 7-inch single of Jingle Bell Rock by Bobby Helms
• As always, her trusty hardback edition of John Cage’s SILENCE®
No doubt owing to the busy holiday season, this iteration of Soundscape™ Barbie received almost no feedback beyond a handful of ‘likes’.
2020 Pandemic Edition
The day after the first COVID-19 lockdown officially began in the United Kingdom, the Museum of Portable Sound revealed NEW! for 2020: Work-At-Home Self-Isolating® Soundscape™ Barbie, a collector’s playset that featured furniture for the first time in Soundscape™ Barbie history. Packed with pandemic-related new features, including everything she needs to pursue an exciting career in freelance sound editing while practicing responsible self-isolation:
• Fashionable ripped jeans, The WIRE Magazine t-shirt, and replica jacket worn by Bea Arthur on The Golden Girls(?);
• Old dorm desk with hand-me-down Pentium-PC (used as backup for sending client emails when rendering big files with her main computer), a beat up old copy of R. Murray Schafer’s The Soundscape, and a pair of Beats By Dre® headphones hanging off the side of the desk from a pink hook installed by her father the day he dropped her off for college, fighting back a single tear as he fumblingly pounded the hook off-centre while she chatted loudly with her new flatmate about whether they would go to the students union dance party that night; he quietly thought to himself ‘my little girl’s a woman now’ before clumsily putting his tools back in his toolbox and loudly coughing so she would remember he was there, wanting desperately to hug her goodbye before beginning the long, lonely drive back home to his now much emptier existence;
• Mixing desk with pink studio monitors, 24-track mixer, autographed photo of John Cage [Note: It’s too small to read, but the autograph says “To Barbie: It’s ALL music! Love, John Cage“], hand sanitiser pump, 2 old Apple monitors and a Mac Pro (plus three giant refill jugs of hand sanitiser);
• Dusty pink Orca gear bag with field recording gubbins (to be used again when the quarantine is lifted…someday);
• Boom mike;
• 2-drawer pink file cabinet she’s had since high school decorated with stickers for Bad Brains, Black Flag, and the Velvet Underground, topped with a dirty coffee pot and a stack of unpaid bills.
• Mail-Away Offer! Bulk Loo Roll Playset (Please allow 4-6 weeks for delivery)
Obviously the rather detail-heavy florid description of Self-Isolating® Soundscape™ Barbie’s playset must have been a result of the overwhelming unease, panic, frustration, and helplessness which was the prevailing mood of the time – which also likely added to its mostly muted response from the public.
However, another significant figure in the history of soundscape™ theory managed to not only make a comment, but even re-shared the image.
It has been more than a year since the last variant was released, so there is always the chance that she is now a part of popular culture’s past. If she were to return to the world stage, we will make sure to update this exhibition.
* …in the minds of Museum of Portable Sound staff. [go back to the top]
About Soundscape™ Barbie’s Creator
Soundscape™ Barbie was created, designed, and photoshopped by Museum of Portable Sound Director John Kannenberg. His academic interests include museology, digital materialism, digital humanities, and media archaeology. As Director and Chief Curator of the Museum of Portable Sound, he occasionally writes about himself in the third person.