Somehow we recently found ourselves at Barbie at the Symphony, a very girly extravaganza featuring a full symphony orchestra on stage in their lovely black attire, dignified instruments gleaming, and behind and above them an enormous screen on which an animated Barbie floated in time with the music. The idea behind these concerts is to get kids to fall in love with the symphony, just the way (I suppose) cartoons or boiled down picture books of classics like Huckleberry Finn or Anne of Green Gables are meant to make them embrace literature. As I sat watching Barbie and listening to the works of Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, and Dvorak, I wondered whether such crazy attempts made any sense at all. Why not give them the real thing when they are ready, instead of substituting it with something void of all the complexities that make it meaningful?
Here’s how Barbie at the Symphony worked. The conductor came on and introduced the orchestra, and told us that these talented musicians would be playing musical accompaniment to clips of Barbie movies. Being such a huge and busy star, Barbie herself was unable to be with us in person, but periodically she would arrive via satellite – from Venice or Paris, zipping around the world with phenomenal speed and not a hair out of place – and she’d touch base with us and make sure we were all having a good time watching her in clips of her movies.
We settled in. The beautiful music soon drowned out the whining toddlers and the sound of potato chips being crunched and Koolaid Jammers being slurped through straws. N and I were unfamiliar with Barbie movies, but we quickly learned that they were (sometimes very loosely) based on things like The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, and the Grimms’ Twelve Dancing Princesses, and so in some bizarre way they were a natural fit with a symphony orchestra. Every once in a while, the conductor told a little story – like how Beethoven went deaf but still continued to compose, conduct and play music. (I guess he subscribed to the Barbie philosophy of “I Can Be Anything”). And I thought to myself that he’d been cranky as well as hard of hearing, and apparently somewhat pigheaded. I couldn’t imagine he’d think much of Barbie at the Symphony; but Joseph Haydn may not have minded the affair, and he was sometimes called the “father of the symphony.” Apparently he had a wonderful sense of humour and liked practical jokes. He may have particularly enjoyed the part of the performance where the conductor invited Barbie herself, via satellite, to conduct the orchestra from her place on the screen. She flashed a smile with her bright white teeth, pulled out her wand, and proceeded to guide the performers through the piece. I guess the feat was all the more amazing given that the orchestra couldn’t see her.
Barbie animation is saccharine and dreamy, just the kind of thing so many little girls love. And it seemed to me as soon as she appeared in her flowy dresses, the little ones forgot all about the orchestra working so hard to accompany her. I, however, became more and more curious about the people on stage. There were some who smiled wryly throughout; others who looked mortified, as if they couldn’t understand this strange path their instruments had led them on. But for the children, Barbie was more real than any of the performers on stage. And not just other people’s children, I must admit. At one point when the conductor was addressing the audience sans Barbie, my very own N, feeling a little dozy I guess, slipped her coat on backwards like a blanket, and put her hood over her face. “Tell me when Barbie comes back on, Mom.” At least she had the decency to whisper.
And yet I was heartened when, right at that moment, the conductor asked, “Does anyone here play a musical instrument?” and N whipped down her hood and shot up her hand with a jolt of enthusiasm. She plays piano, but that’s a topic for another post. For now it’s enough to say it’s not always easy to get her to practice. I sometimes think it’s because the learning curve is so steep, seemingly never-ending – she wants to be good at it already, rather than to learn inch by inch, note by note, while the pieces get harder and harder. In theory, Barbie should be able to help with that. The “I Can Be” line of dolls transforms Barbie into everything from Pet Vet to Pizza Chef to Race Car Driver, just by changing her outfit – though there are also of course the Ballerina, the Bride, the Ballroom Dancer, and the Rock Star. You can be anything, is her message to little girls, and yet, dressed in their pink dresses and sparkly tiaras, gazing up at her with adoration, they seem mostly to want to be her. And interestingly enough, when you visit the “I Can Be” page on the Barbie website, you see that very message in a cloud of pink: I Can Be … Barbie.
By the end of Barbie at the Symphony, the screen went blank and the orchestra played a piece without their glamorous artificial hostess. Little girls got up from their seats and danced in the aisle, swaying to the music and arching their arms up high and twirling, as Barbie had done in so many of her performances. And watching them, I couldn’t deny that they were embracing the sounds the instruments made. But would they take away anything more than memories of Barbie herself? I Can Be … doubtful. But I can also be hopeful. In the end, N and I thoroughly enjoyed our evening at the symphony, just the two of us a little dressed up and out on the town. We had fun. For me it was food for thought, and for her – well, that’s for her to decide.