2023 will be remembered for the Battle of Barbie vs. Oppenheimer, two extravagantly-budgeted films which both drop today (July 21). But in the soundtrack department, ‘Barbie’ is an instant winner: the legendary Mark Ronson was recruited to co-produce the album with the film’s director Greta Gerwig. And what a brief he’s been given: convincing the world’s hottest popstars to make a soundtrack that was somehow both eagerly camp, soberly meta and full of Kenergy is a hazardous affair. Have the pair pulled it off?
The best songs of the album eagerly play into the unnerving undertones of ‘Barbie’. Opener ‘Pink’ is a smooth disco number from Lizzo, who is her effortlessly charismatic self. That same earnestness is the perfect delivery for the inklings of Barbie’s existential crisis: “Pink! Pretty! Eye? Intelligent! In! Never Sad. Kay? Cool!…”
Same goes for Sam Smith’s 80s-inspired ‘Man I Am’, a hilariously campy foreshadowing of Ken’s codependent predicament. Smith’s shifts from deep, sexy smokiness to diva vocals makes them the perfect candidate for the song, and they absolutely smash it with their pitch-perfect piss-take of machismo.
It’s Billie Eilish’s heartbreaking ‘What Was I Made For’ that really shapes the album. Her sincerity never comes off as contrived given how much of her personal life has bled into the lyrics: “Think I forgot how to be happy / something I’m not, but something I can be”. Eilish’s vocals are somehow even more whispery than usual, as though this is Barbie’s deepest, darkest secret – thanks to the delicate arrangement, it works.
There are plenty of surprises on ‘Barbie’; Ryan Gosling is perhaps the biggest wild card. If you can sincerely belt the words “blonde fragility” in a glam power ballad and hit every single note – my God, you Ken do anything in life.
But there are also plenty of disappointments, especially from the heavyweight contributors. Charli XCX and cars should be a winning formula, but the lacklustre verses and odd vocal processing betray the fantastic chorus on ‘Speed Drive’, whilst Dua Lipa’s ‘Dance The Night Away’ is merely ‘Future Nostalgia’ cutting room material. The biggest blow to the soundtrack goes to Ava Max’s ‘Choose Your Fighter’, which is a complete rip-off of Max’s own ‘Kings & Queens’: same a capella intro, same key and even the same chord progression. And what’s worse is ‘Kings & Queens’ was a rip-off of Bonnie Tyler!
Despite its underwhelming second half, ‘Barbie’ is packed with a surprising diversity of sounds paying homage to the Mattel muse. The soundtrack has some wonderful highs and some miserable lows – but then again, it’s not all rosy in Barbie Land…
- Release date: July 21, 2023
- Record label: Atlantic/Warner