For the last few months, we’ve hardly been able to escape it. Whether it’s because it’s going head-to-head with bleak, black-and-white blockbuster Oppenheimer that there’s been a real need for a pushy marketing campaign, or that the world is simply all-too-ready for a bit of Barbie fever, a doll-ified buzz has been established.
In one clever bit of ‘brand awareness’ (I believe is what they call it), a billboard in a particular shade colour bears only the date, ‘21 July’, and nothing more. No name, no Hollywood A-lister, nothing. And yet we’d all know exactly what it’s referring to because of the distinctive magenta-pink.
Likewise, you might think you’d know what to expect from Barbie’s soundtrack. Produced by slick studio whizz Mark Ronson and featuring the likes of Lizzo, Dua Lipa and Sam Smith, it has all the trappings of a polished, plastic, bop-filled project – catchy, sure, but ultimately predictable. An expected reference point would be the soundtrack to Baz Luhrman’s Elvis. Even though Barbie is less known for her catalogue than, er, Elvis Presley, the formula remains the same: big film plus big artists equals even bigger soundtrack.
Yet there’s a lot more to unpack in this particular box – but more on that later. The soundtrack begins by dowsing us, unsurprisingly, in the flavour of ‘Pink’ from Lizzo, who embodies an attitude of self-empowerment and feelgood femininity that the film itself promotes.
Likewise, Dua Lipa’s disco-inflected ‘Dance the Night’ is like the Barbie doll itself: commercial, popular and right off the assembly line. Interestingly, Ronson has previously discussed how he saw parallels between the rise and fall of disco with the popularity of the Barbie doll, both occupying a sense of frivolous fun that perhaps only has a certain shelf life. There’s certainly an appetite for such caution to the wind at present: the track’s huge popularity prior to the film’s release (with some 114 million Spotify streams alone) indicates its mass-produced appeal.
Nicki Minaj and Ice Spice represent clear choices for inclusion. Minaj’s fans have long-been called ‘Barbz’, whilst Ice Spice is something of an it-girl of the TikTok-ified world we live in. The pair’s rap rendition of Aqua hit ‘Barbie Girl’ isn’t going to rewrite the rules of the rap game, and Ice Spice’s star is already beginning to wear thin in certain quarters, but ‘Barbie World’ is a decent attempt to rework the Barbie track most heavily ingrained in our psyche.
It’s with Charli XCX’s ‘Speed Drive’, however, where things start to shift gears; where tunes start to resemble what you might opt to listen to beyond merely hearing them in a film soundtrack, or via CapitalXtra in a public place. Charli XCX is arguably the perfect gate-way for such a cause, as one of the few artists to genuinely reclaim a sense of experimentation for the world of pop. The track’s interpolation of 1981 Toni Basil hit ‘Mickey’ makes for a nice tributary throwback to the genre’s forebears.
It’s tracks from sisterly rock trio HAIM and Billie Eilish, meanwhile, that represent the soundtrack’s artistic peak. HAIM lament for a sense of ‘Home’ over shimmering synths and propulsive drum loops, whilst Eilish questions her and, by extension Barbie’s, existence on the celestial ‘What Was I Made For?’. Here are indeed tracks that help flavour the film, but stand strong in a world of their own, and could have been released irrespective of Barbie.
Likewise, when your vocals are as smooth and sultry as Khalid’s, it’s hard not to glean some earworm enjoyment, no matter the subject matter. And PinkPantheress appears to have carved a unique sound that’s still fresh, aided on ‘Angel’ by some light fiddle work.
There are some boring tunes, mind – but ones that appear when the film’s storyline does the heavy lifting. Dominic Fike’s ‘Hey Blondie’ doesn’t amount to much more than a feeble ‘meh’, whilst Sam Smith’s ‘Man I Am’ feels like a B-side of their already less-interesting-than-they-thought-it-was album Gloria. It’s also a shame Tame Impala’s contribution is only the sci-fi-sounding, minute-and-a-half interlude music for Barbie’s ‘Journey To The Real World’.
Ava Max and K-Pop group Fifty Fifty’s offerings for the penultimate and final tracks, respectively, fall back into the same cycle of anodyne, mildly irksome pop. But at least they round-off the soundtrack with the same upbeat oomph with which it started.
After all, this is a soundtrack that has to abide within the framework of the film. (Director Greta Gerwig and Ronson were said to have shown each artist 20 minutes of Barbie, and described how they envisioned their particular soundtrack unfolding, before instructing them to come up with their constituent parts).
Ultimately, this isn’t an album you’d pick up and play from start to finish. But like Ryan Gosling on the ‘80s power ballad ‘I’m Just Ken’ – which has the musical firepower of rock royalty in Slash, Wolfgang Van Halen and newly-appointed Foo Fighters drummer Josh Freese – sometimes you’ve just got to let go of your pretensions. Sometimes, it’s better to simply embrace your inner Ken-ergy.