Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Steven Ivory: Before Ryan Gosling’s ‘I’m Just Ken,’ There was Stew Stewart’s ‘Ken’ | LISTEN

In the original 'Ken' song, Barbie's man confided in Black Barbie and had a serious thing for G.I. Joe

Ken Doll
Ken Doll

*“My name is Ken, and I like men.” That’s the first line from “Ken,” a song about Barbie’s Forever Man written and performed by singer/songwriter/educator/playwright Stew Stewart.

In 1999, when “Barbie” star Margo Robbie was just nine years old, way before the “Barbie” blockbuster movie earned more than a billion dollars globally and jettisoned a cultural phenomenon into the stratosphere, and before Stewart added the title of playwright to his business card—“Passing Strange,” his semi-biographical Broadway rock musical won the Tony Award for Best Book in 2008—Stewart, with longtime collaborator and bassist Heidi Rodewald,  helmed the eccentric art-rock Los Angeles-based indy band The Negro Problem.

And on 1999’s  Joys And Concerns, the band’s second album appeared as a ditty about Barbie’s main squeeze.

Written and sung by Stewart in the sardonic, introspective first-person voice of Ken over a quirky, mid-tempo reggae-tinged beat, the world’s most famous male doll sings that he is keenly aware of the dilemma his sexuality lays at the feet of his corporate god:

“The people at Mattel, the home that I call hell/are somewhat bothered by my queer proclivities. It’s safe to say that they are really pissed at me.”

And Ken is just getting started.

“They always stick me with Barbie,” he complains. “But I want them to know/I prefer G.I. Joe/but any able-bodied man-doll will surely do/just someone to love since I am not set up to screw.”

For a tune penned more than two decades ago, today Stewart’s “Ken” stands smack dab in the intersection of 21st-century LGBTQ politics and the surreal resurgence of an iconic American toy. Remarkable, considering that when Stewart wrote it, moral/societal heaviness was the last thing on his mind.

“There was nothing political about it whatsoever,” Stewart says. “It was just this silly thing that came to me while I was sitting on my daughter’s bed tuning my guitar, waiting for her to find her socks. She’s grown now, which tells you how long ago that was. It took her longer to find those socks than it took me to write the song.  I went and recorded it so fast that I didn’t even need to write down the words. I just sang them as I recorded it.”

Stew Stewart
Stew Stewart

Not that a “gay” Ken was out of the question. The early ‘90s, a watershed decade for the LGBTQ movement, saw Mattel introduce “Earring Magic Ken.” The legendary toy company never said as much, but to many the doll’s flair for looser, hipper fashion styles and penchant for lavender inferred that Mr. Magic could be gay.

Stewart’s “Ken” doesn’t peddle such ambiguity. “Someday soon I’ll be in your child’s room,” the doll laments. “And I’ll be forced to kiss Barbie’s plastic tits/And I will hate myself but what’s more, I’ll hate you/For not allowing me to love as I wish to.”

“The reaction to the song has always been twofold,” says the now Brooklyn-based Stewart, 62. “Some people hear ‘Ken’ as funny and others say it’s so sad that he can’t find love. During live shows, when I’d perform it with just my acoustic guitar, the song would take on a more poignant nature.”

Either way, be warned: “Ken” is a certified earworm, as infectious and mind-imprinting as Bobby McFerrin’s 1988 catchphrase-as-pop anthem, “Don’t Worry Be Happy” or Pharrell’s contagious 2013 smash, “Happy.”

“I appreciate those who like the song for whatever reason,” says Stewart. “I hadn’t thought about it in years.”

Ken doll (surfing)
Ken doll (surfing)

That’s because he’s busy. The ever-prolific Stew balances a rock and roll career that has produced seven Negro Problem,  five solo “Stew” albums, and a collection of songs under the moniker Baba Bibi, with his post as Professor of the Practice of Musical Theater Writing at Harvard University.

Currently, Stewart is creating music for Chris Rock’s Broadway-bound “Good Hair,” and he and Rodewald composed songs for Spike Lee’s movie musical in pre-production about Viagra.

On March 22nd and 23rd at Upper Manhattan’s esteemed Harlem Stage in Harlem, Stewart premieres High Substitute For The Head Lecturer, his musical reflection on the influence iconic writer/Black Arts Movement founder  Amiri Baraka (previously known as Leroi Jones) has on his life and work. It is the second Harlem Stage presentation in Stewart’s ambitious series of “Black super-hero free-constructions,” the first being his critically acclaimed Notes of a Native Song, the musical meditation on James Baldwin.

Since the success of “Barbie,” Stewart’s “Ken” has become an underground confection among Negro Problem/Stew devotees, who dangle the tune before all-things-Barbie fans as if to say, ‘Yeah, but you didn’t know about this.’

“When “Barbie” hit the theatres, people started calling me with, ‘Man, you gotta get ‘Ken’ back out there,’” says Stewart. “Actually, it’s been out there for years, just waiting for people to find it.”  

Steven Ivory
Steven Ivory

Steven Ivory, veteran journalist, essayist and author, writes about popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio, TV, and the Internet. Respond to him via [email protected]

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