‘Barbie: The album’ deserved better
The soundtrack for the biggest film of the year is heavy on big names, but light on thrills
There are probably very few people as satisfied with themselves right now than the Barbie marketing team. Between the universally praised teasers, social media campaigns that caught on like pink wildfire, and the Barbenheimer phenomenon, the record-breaking box office success the film has already achieved was practically inevitable. Of course, the announcement of Barbie: The Album, a star-studded tie-in soundtrack curated by famed producer Mark Ronson (alongside the film’s director, Greta Gerwig) didn’t hurt the cause either. The album’s lineup boasted international sensations like Dua Lipa and Lizzo, as well as critical darlings such as Charli XCX and PinkPantheress.
Whilst some of the artists on the tracklist, especially those mentioned above, teased a suitably hyper-feminine poptimist direction for the album, a few of the names suggested otherwise. The Kid LAROI, Tame Impala and Dominic Fike didn’t exactly scream ‘Barbie’ as much as they screamed ‘Please stream this album, Gen Z’. It is crucial to remember that this album, much like the movie it’s attached to, is the result of a toy company trying to make more money. Still, the film had a self-aware yet ultimately uplifting take on the IP-to-film formula, which harkened back to similarly goofy and vibrant films from the early 2000s (e.g. Josie and the Pussycats). In a perfect world, its soundtrack would reflect the same ethos.
By the grace of God (or Gerwig), there is a decent amount of colourful pop bliss to be found here. Despite some off-kilter sampling, ‘Angel’ is as sweet as you’d expect a Barbie-inspired PinkPantheress track to be. The breakbeats and atmospheric keys that have characterised her work thus far are present here, but they’re now joined by summery guitars and, surprisingly, an Irish fiddle solo. In many ways, it’s the ideal song for this kind of soundtrack: It’s unique within the artist’s discography, it’s enjoyable both inside and outside the context of the film, and it sounds like it could have scored the ending of a Disney Channel romcom.
Dua Lipa’s ‘Dance the Night’ is another foreseeable highlight. Though its production is slightly flatter than some of the best disco-tinged cuts from Future Nostalgia, the track still manages to conjure a sense of cinematic grandeur through a dramatic string section. It’s FIFTY FIFTY and Kalii that end up stealing the show, however, with the frenetic Y2K energy they display on ‘Barbie Dreams’. The song milks its frankly inspired Janet Jackson interpolation for all it’s worth, dressing what was originally a pretty mellow hook in as much glittery ornamentation as it can find. Topped off with an irresistible house beat, the end result is a phenomenal closing statement for the album, making its omission from the film itself incredibly bewildering (This may have been indirectly caused by FIFTY FIFTY’s current legal dispute with their label, which once again proves that the justice system does not have our best interests at heart).
In these moments, we get a glimpse of what the entirety of Barbie: The Album could have been with a more targeted and, dare I say it, camp approach. Unfortunately, much like the movie’s protagonist after she leaves the utopic Barbieland, the listener must contend with a harsh reality. A considerable portion of this album’s runtime consists of middling soundtrack fodder, with many songs feeling totally inconsequential to the film they’re tied to. Out of tune guitars and washed out production plague The Kid LAROI’s ‘Forever and Again’, a dime-a-dozen cut that is completely unaware of its own melodrama. ‘Butterflies’ is just as cheap, despite GAYLE’s unexpected ability to wring out new melodic ideas from a sample of a sample, and Khalid’s ‘Silver Platter’ makes little use of its catchy chord progression before lazily coasting to the finish line. The emo rap, pop punk and post-2010 R&B stylings that these tracks respectively display not only contribute to a lack of cohesion throughout the tracklist, but they also sound completely incongruent with the tone and content of the film.
Beyond aesthetic inconsistencies, the most significant issue here is a general lack of effort or commitment. You really only need to look at the album’s individual track lengths to pick up on this, as not even a quarter of the songs reach the 3-minute mark. Of course, this isn’t exclusive to this album as much as it is emblematic of how a lot of these soundtracks turn out. At the end of the day, artists are unlikely to contribute their best material for an album that isn’t theirs. Charli XCX has certainly written more impactful hooks than the one she delivers on ‘Speed Drive’, and the high-octane Eurodance of Ava Max’s ‘Choose Your Fighter’ would be far more compelling if the song’s chorus wasn’t practically identical to the singer’s 2020 hit, ‘Kings and Queens’.
To the credit of Gerwig, Ronson and music supervisor George Drakoulis, the film manages to enhance just about every song it features through its sharp direction and pitch-perfect sense of humour. This is especially true of the overtly satirical tracks (‘Pink’, ‘Man I Am’ and ‘I’m Just Ken’) – none of them are particularly engaging on their own, but they’re used to hilarious effect in their respective scenes. A rare exception to this rule is Billie Eilish’s ‘What Was I Made For?’, as it miraculously serves as both a touching accompaniment to the film’s emotional climax, and a sincere, self-reflexive statement from the artist herself. It’s one of the few songs here that elevates the scene in the film it accompanies, rather than the other way around.
For all its shortcomings, Barbie: The Album is a mostly fun, mostly fitting companion to a wildly enjoyable film. But it’s hard to shake the feeling that, as talented and well connected as he is, Mark Ronson was not the right person to organise music for a movie as tireless and bubbly as this. Someone with a more shamelessly artificial aesthetic, like A.G. Cook or even Charli XCX, might have been a better pick. Perhaps Polly Pocket: The Album will be a bit more daring with its choice of curator.