Now that Greta Gerwig’s Barbie is an official phenomenon (it’s probably going to coast to a $1 billion worldwide box office total in less than a month since its release), think pieces have pulled the film apart like string cheese, finding feminist themes in the script and attributing its incredible success to a backlash to the backlash we’ve seen in the recent years like the Supreme Court’s recent decisions regarding Roe v. Wade, affirmative action, and anti-LGBTQ discrimination. Gerwig’s film has contributed to the decades-long narrative arc of pop culture reckoning with gender and masculinity and doing so with a bubblegum aesthetic.
Given the power-pop progressivism of the film – which wraps itself in an aggressive advertisement campaign – it’s no surprise that the accompanying soundtrack is a collection of pop-friendly acts who look to the hot pink Barbie tone but pass it through a post-modern, ironic filter. The soundtrack boasts a cast of A-List pop names, including Lizzo, Dua Lipa, Nicki Minaj, Charli XCX, Sam Smith, Tame Impala, Haim, Billie Eilish, and Khalid. Despite the slick, glossy sheen, indie heroes like Andrew Wyatt and Mark Ronson join mainstream pop and pop-rap luminaries to write and produce this collection of intelligent, fizzy pop tunes.
It isn’t the first time the legendary Mattel doll appeared on the pop charts. Europop band Aqua lampooned the plastic diva on its global hit “Barbie Girl” (Mattel famously took the band and their label to court, but the case was repeatedly dismissed). The legendarily tart and catchy tune is alluded to in the album’s second single, “Barbie World,” performed by Nicki Minaj alongside Ice Spice. As Aqua’s sampled vocals croon the memorable “Barbie Girl” chorus, the two rap divas spit verses on top of a rubbering, grinding bass. The two trade lyrics, and despite the camp gaudiness of the album and the film, the single is surprisingly low-key and restrained.
Barbie: The Album‘s first single, the sleek disco “Dance the Night” by Dua Lipa, is a canny subverting of expectations. Instead of complying with the eye-meltingly bright bubblegum-pop, the singer recalls roller-disco dance with her contribution. The neo-disco of the track is more of an homage to the classic disco of Chic, Ashford & Simpson, and Hal Davis. The groovy tune is adorned with strings and bass and sounds like the classic disco of artists like Donna Summer or Gloria Gaynor.
The other track that pays homage to the 1970s is Tame Impala’s space-age disco “Journey to the Real World”, which looks more to the synthy disco of Giorgio Moroder and Patrick Cowley. It’s a brief, dramatic track that recalls the Tame Impala’s contribution to the 1970s retro soundtrack album Minions: The Rise of Gru.
Synthpop of the 1980s is referenced heavily in the bulk of the songs. The first track, “Pink” by Lizzo, is a Lionel Richie-inspired dance funk that is an unabashed, affectionate tribute to Barbie. Because it’s Lizzo, there’s a lot of “you go, girl” empowerment on the record. The lyrics embrace the film’s themes of female solidarity and celebration of pink femininity, and it’s another modest triumph for the singer-songwriter.
Charlie XCX also contributes a highlight, her EDM electropop tune “Speed Drive”, which plays with Toni Basil’s earworm “Mickey” in the power-pop chorus. It’s a brief song, about two minutes, but it packs a mighty punch. Sam Smith also looks to the 1980s, finding inspiration from George Michael and Frankie Goes to Hollywood with their chugging dance song “Man I Am”. Haim’s “Home” is breezy, lilting synthpop.
Though the record is pop-heavy, there are enough exciting surprises that sort of track with the film’s out-of-leftfield moments, which gives the neon-pink sheen some gravitas and depth. We knew that any project attached to Greta Gerwig would have some doses of eccentricity. It would be inaccurate to suggest that these moments on Barbie: The Album are alternative or experimental, but the mainstream pop takes a bit of an unorthodox approach to Barbie-adjacent media.
For example, we get a lonely, mournful ballad, “What Was I Made For?” by Billie Eilish. Written and produced with Andrew Wyatt, Mark Ronson, and Eilish’s longtime collaborator Finneas O’Connell, the song is a marked departure from the record’s loud, bright, colorful pop tunes. Instead, Eilish’s lament is a sad poem about failing to live up to expectations and striving to succeed on other people’s terms. She takes the metaphor of being a doll, packaged and purchased, as a larger commentary on her own status as a pre-packaged pop star. The bruise lyrics take the listener on a journey to a woman’s internal monologue that displays a complex and complicated personality who is hoping to sort out her feelings. The line “When did it end? All the enjoyment / I’m sad again / Don’t tell my boyfriend / It’s not what he’s made for” is devastating.
The other unexpected moment is Barbie star Ryan Gosling’s Queen-pastiche “I’m Just Ken”. The song, by Ronson and Wyatt, sounds like a credible glam-rock homage to Freddie Mercury or Stephen Trasks’ music for Hedwig and the Angry Inch. The movie star (who has been garnering raves for his ingenious himbo impression as Ken) has a strong voice (all those years on The New Mickey Mouse Club paid off) and does a great job impersonating a rock star. He’s also joined by a very starry group of musicians, including Slash, Josh Freese, and Wolfgang Van Halen, who add a 1980s power-rock polish to the proceedings.
Not all of Barbie: the Album works, and it’s as irritatingly inconsistent as parts of the movie. Though Gayle is a bright and energetic presence, her “butterflies” is sunk by an unfortunate sample of Crazy Town’s lamentable “Butterfly”. “Barbie Dreams” by Fifty Fifty is also an instance of a song marred by a bad sample, this time Janet Jackson‘s classic “Together Again”. Unlike the other Barbie tunes, “Barbie Dreams” is a rote, by-the-numbers dance-pop tune that does nothing to engage with the absurd camp of the titular doll. “Choose Your Fighter” by Ava Max is a distressingly bland and faceless Eurodisco banger (so beholden to the genre’s tropes that it sounds like a parody).
One takeaway from listening to Barbie: The Album is that the cast list of the soundtrack is distractingly spotty and erratic. For a big-budget, kitschy-yet-smart project like Barbie, one would hope for an array of good-natured superstars that would match the film’s all-star cast. We get some huge heavy hitters who do very good-to-great work. But the record sinks into pink slush during the so-so-filler tracks. Although there are some fantastic high points and some tacky low points, Barbie: The Album still manages to pull through with a cheeky victory, even if it’s qualified.