How to soundtrack the most anticipated cinema event of the year… Well, what’s worked for the Barbie powers-that-be is to create a practical checklist of the brightest pop stars the music industry has at its disposal, enlist them, shove them into a Barbie world, and tell them to make something. In its own right, what’s come out is a glorious concept album and an effervescent, emotional ride through the pop canon.
Lizzo leads the record with ‘Pink’, an opening number that humbly accepts the torch from Legally Blonde’s ‘Perfect Day’ for best opening-credits song. With her silky vocal performance and fluttering instrumental, Lizzo feels like a welcoming hug as we cross the threshold into Barbieland, coaxing us in with a smile – “come on, we got important things to do!”
The other thing that’s immediately made evident for us in ‘Pink’ is that all the artists on this soundtrack have gone all-in. Lizzo is playful, earnest, and as silly as can be as she gives us the mantra: “P – pretty! I – intelligent! N – never sad! K – cool!” As we will be for the rest of the album, we’re absolutely immersed, albeit with the odd moment of ‘huh?’
The album’s opening run is formidable. We move swiftly into Dua Lipa’s ‘Dance the Night’, an existential, decadent disco banger, Nicki Minaj and Ice Spice’s Aqua-featuring ‘Barbie World’, which updates the original for the bad bitches of ‘23, then Charli XCX springs into action with ‘Speed Drive’, a dizzying joyride of rapid-fire electropop. It’s not only a really fun 15 minutes of music but also a pretty definitive collection of it-girls, thoughtfully gathered from across the pop genre spectrum.
The last artist to be announced, and the author of one of the most addictive tracks on the album, punctuate the run with some heat. Sam Smith’s ‘Man I Am’ absolutely towers, their verses sultry and distorted as “this Ken” seems to turn to dark Ken. Between the hypermodern, synth-gritty club sound of the verses and the soaring, retro power of the chorus, in which they declare, “That’s just the man I am!”, this is easily the song it’s most exciting to imagine in situ in the film.
Conversely, the other Ken song on offer, from none other than Ryan Gosling himself, is just a little too pantomime compared to the excellence of the rest of the soundtrack and fades into forgettability. It would have been more entertaining by a long way to have not known this one was coming and be caught off-guard by it in the film – but we’ll reserve judgement. A much better ballad comes from superstar Billie Eilish, who provides one of the album’s only downbeat songs for a dazzling, devastating moment of reflection.
Now the album has established its reigning queens. It’s time to introduce the population. We see Gayle, Ava Max, PinkPantheress, Fifty Fifty, and Dominic Fike inaugurated into the hall of pop fame, and again, each one of them brings their own characteristic tinge to it. ‘Angel’, PinkPantheress’ contribution, is one of her best; her intimate production, distinctive vocals, and subtle knack for creating emotional whirlpools look good in pink.
Don’t relax, though, because it’s straight into a storm from Gayle, who dishes out the punkiest track on the album with the emo-leaning ‘Butterflies’. Her breathless vocals come on fast, alongside a gloomy bassline and keening guitar. It’s panicked and melancholic and makes absolute narrative sense when Ava Max’s inspiring, montage-scene-ready ‘Choose Your Fighter’ follows up.
Gayle’s sound-tracking a moment when our heroine is hopeless and trapped (“People feel better when they put you in a box / But the plastic’s gonna melt if you’re the one to make it hot”), and Ava Max comes through with an anthemic call-to-arms.
‘Choose Your Fighter’ is one of the most fun nods to Barbie lore on the album as well, alluding to the original purpose of the doll: to show young girls that they can be “whatever you desire”, a message delivered gorgeously in Max’s rich voice and dynamic, dance-ready instrumental. Following that power, we get ‘Barbie Dreams’, which sees K-Pop girl group FIFTY FIFTY team up with rapper Kaliii for the perfect end-credits song. It’s poptimism, it’s infectious, and it absolutely glows.
The Barbie album is a checklist for pop talent, but it’s very timely. The cultural moment encapsulated in it feels so distinctly current, with breakthrough stars like Ice Spice, PinkPantheress, Gayle and The Kid Laroi at peak potential, and household names like Lizzo, Sam Smith, Billie Eilish, Dua, Charli, etc., all omnipresent. This means it could soon feel dated, but that’s far from a bad thing. Instead, the Barbie album has provided a ready-made slice of – to coin a Dua Lipa phrase – future nostalgia for those returning to the film and the album in years to come.