Barbie, the fluorescent new blockbuster helmed by Greta Gerwig, is a sometimes-arch summertime romp about the perfect doll and its not-so-perfect reputation. But the film doesn’t need an introduction: You’ve already seen the brand activations, even fired off your own “Barbieheimer” tweets. At its core, Barbie is a piece of marketing that is being aggressively marketed, and it’s succeeding wildly while anticipating its own critique. The movie features a knowing scene in which a real-world tween lambasts Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie) for “the glorification of rampant consumerism” while, at the same time, it pumps demand for plastic dollhouses and direct-to-landfill Barbie garb. It casts Mattel’s doltish male executives as antagonists while funding those guys’ next vacation home in Sicily. But Barbie is for the girls, apparently, and the girls are powerless to a little treat.
So who better to oversee the film’s soundtrack than Mark Ronson—a wily nostalgist always trying to squeeze extra life out of the classics, so attuned to the emotional power of women he recruited a suite of them to vocalize the anguish of his own divorce? The 47-year-old industry veteran cultivates a chic, diverse roster—including artists whose identities weren’t fully represented by Mattel until around 2016, when in response to declining sales, the brand started thinking more actively beyond leggy white women with big tits. The soundtrack features mainstream pop stars like Dua Lipa and Lizzo, global phenoms like reggaeton singer Karol G and K-pop girl group Fifty Fifty—and why the hell not—Tame Impala. Mattel may have sued Aqua in 1997 for besmirching Barbie’s reputation, dirtying her into a sex object, but now Ice Spice is rapping over “Barbie Girl” about getting her man “bricked”—and she’s doing so alongside the original Black Barbie, on a ready-made hit that debuted in the Top 10.
What makes Barbie allegedly subversive is how it self-consciously ridicules the blinkered feminism of its eponymous icon and Mattel’s own girlboss marketing. And so you have songs like Lizzo’s “Pink,” which, even with congas, horns, and jubilant backing vocals, scans as a more insipid iteration of her usual you-go-girl jams: “What you wearing? Dress or suit? Either way that power looks so good on you,” she coos, ostensibly satirizing an affirmation culture that blindly validates women’s choices. It doesn’t matter that Barbie will simultaneously critique liberal politics while ending with dolls getting freed from patriarchal brainwashing upon hearing rousing proclamations about how “it’s literally impossible to be a woman.” The movie’s self-awareness is a great trick: The shallowness and frivolity of any generic selection can be justified as winkingly on-theme. Fifty Fifty’s “Barbie Dreams” is a pop jingle as cloyingly bright as Barbie and Ken’s Impala inline skates. Ava Max’s “Choose Your Fighter” is a light-up Eurodance banger that’s just her 2020 single “Kings and Queens” with different plastic accessories.
Barbie is just the beginning of Mattel’s efforts to repackage old I.P. into new media enterprises and dominate pop culture in the process; among the dozens of projects in the works is an “A24-type” Barney movie for dread-filled millennials and a live-action Polly Pocket vehicle directed by Lena Dunham. The film has ignited complaints about indie directors selling out—and finds its most natural collaborator in a pop auteur whose last album cycle wryly proclaimed the joys of selling out. On the relative highlight “Speed Drive,” Charli XCX threads the needle between film’s nostalgia industrial complex and music’s, not only cribbing the ping-ponging synths from “Cobrastyle” and the cheer-squad chants of “Hey Mickey” but recycling her typical themes—being cute, driving fast—and glib, signifier-heavy writing style. “I’m a classic, real deep, Voltaire,” she teases. It’s not her best song, but it’s more clever than the rest of Barbie’s selections; at the very least, Charli delivers on a good time.
Barbie is best when it pursues fun, dumb spectacle, chiefly in scenes with the himbo extraordinaire, Ken (Ryan Gosling). Sick of being an afterthought, he enters the real world and gets pilled on men’s rights, converting Barbie’s Dream Houses into beer-stocked “Casa Mojo Dojo Houses” and looking like dirtbag Macklemore in a fat fur coat. Upon this transformation, we hear Sam Smith’s “Man I Am,” a hammy disco anthem with growled verses from the perspective of a beefcake with slicked hair. “I’m the groove catcha, hottest thing, six pack and tight G-string,” a deep voice utters in the song, before clearing up any misconceptions: “No I’m not gay bro, but I’ve been on that lay low.” The farce escalates as the definitely-not-gay Ken launches into a power ballad about the anguish of being second place: “I’m just Ken/Anywhere else I’d be a 10,” he wails like a boy band member, before pivoting to rock opera bombast in which background singers intone, “Feels so real, my Kenergy.”
True to form, the other Kens on the soundtrack contribute nothing—doze through Dominic Fike’s noodly, acoustic “Hey Blondie,” which exists halfway between “Your Body Is a Wonderland,” and “Hey Soul Sister,” and the Kid Laroi’s howling emo-trap ballad “Forever & Again.” But the girls often can’t prove they’re worthy of main character status either, as in the case of Gayle’s scratchy power-pop tantrum “butterflies,” Billie Eilish’s lachrymose piano ballad “What Was I Made For,” and Karol G’s beachtime reggaeton joint “Watati.” There are a few cute selections, like PinkPantheress’ “Angel,” a 2000s rom-com track with cartoon dog barks and ribbons of Irish fiddle. And Dua Lipa’s “Dance the Night” is a serviceable Future Nostalgia retread that’s partially redeemed by its inclusion in an exuberant dance sequence, a suggestion that all of these songs would sound better under the magical thinking of Barbie Land. But this is the real world, and in the real world, these throwaway products should largely be left on the shelf.
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