If you’ve spent even 10 minutes online in the past few months, then you’ve seen the excitement for Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, starring Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling as Barbie and Ken (in addition to a bunch more Barbies and Kens). While much of the anticipation stems from curiosity about Gerwig and co-writer Noah Baumbach’s handling of a doll with a long, controversial history, there has also been plenty of buzz around the movie’s star-studded soundtrack. Lizzo, Nicki Minaj, Ice Spice, Charli XCX, and Karol G are just a few of the high-profile artists featured on the album, which is executive produced by the superproducer Mark Ronson.
Ronson has spent the past couple of decades working with many of the biggest names in music, including Lady Gaga, Adele, Paul McCartney, Dua Lipa, Christina Aguilera, and Amy Winehouse. But his last year has been focused on all things pink and glittery. He tells TIME that his Barbie journey began when he got a text from George Drakoulias, a music supervisor who has worked with Baumbach in the past, telling him that Gerwig and Baumbach were working on a Barbie film. Ronson jumped at the opportunity and took a call with them as they were prepping for production in England.
“Those two make some of my favorite films,” he says. “I thought, ‘Even if I don’t get this gig, I know this is going to be my favorite movie next year.’” So he signed on to do the project, and he and Gerwig hit the ground running: “I became the Robin to her Batman,” he says.
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Finding just the right collaborators, from Nicki Minaj to Karol G
First they had to nail down the voices that would populate the project. Gerwig sent Ronson a playlist of music she loves, including songs from Xanadu and Andrea True Connection, as well as what he says could be described as “guilty pleasure music” or “Peloton pop.” The duo made a “dream list” of artists they wanted to be on the album, which included “obvious” choices like Nicki Minaj (who has consistently called herself a Barbie since her breakout mixtape hit, “Itty Bitty Piggy” and whose fans are known as the Barbz), and Charli XCX, known for her hyper-feminine, hyper-pop aesthetic.
The overall sound they settled on is a balance of tongue-in-cheek girl power and pop anthems, alongside heartfelt, wistful tunes like HAIM’s “Home” and Tame Impala’s “Journey to the Real World.” Ronson says that those vibes were juxtaposed organically: every artist saw the scene they were going to write for and approached the songs with their own distinct style of music.
Gerwig and Ronson showed artists about 20 minutes of the film to give them a sense of its tone and narrative and told each one where they envisioned their song falling in the story. As they started talking with the musicians, they also realized that each one had meaningful relationships with the doll herself. “Karol G was instantly telling us how much Barbie meant to her,” he says. The HAIM sisters, who called themselves “Barbie specialists,” told him about growing up in the ‘90s and being allowed only one VHS tape: a Barbie film with “cheesy songs.” “I thought everyone was here because Greta Gerwig is making this awesome movie, and there’s been all this buzz around it,” Ronson tells TIME. But he saw that in addition to the filmmaker’s reputation, Barbie herself was a significant draw. “This [film] was really important to a lot of people.
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Nailing the sound: from the rise and fall of disco to the depths of Ken’s soul
The first two songs made for the movie were Dua Lipa’s shimmering disco-pop number, “Dance the Night,” and Gosling’s ‘80s power ballad, “I’m Just Ken.” When conceiving the album, Ronson says he saw parallels between Barbie and the rise and fall of disco (along with its numerous resurrections). He watched the 2020 HBO documentary The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart, which featured a scene about Disco Demolition Night in 1979 in Chicago, which marked the end of the genre’s popularity. “You just see the Bee Gees so crestfallen and thinking, ‘Wait, why does everyone hate us so much?’ Which is such a strong parallel to Barbie,” Ronson says, referring to the backlash the doll has received around her unrealistic proportions, among other things. “In the film, she just wants to make everybody happy and can’t understand why she’s so problematic or why people hate her.”
This sense of a “naive wanting to bring pleasure to the world” became a touchstone for the album. That quality can also be seen in the story of Ken, who is distinctively a himbo—a sweet, well-meaning man who might not always be the brightest. Barbie is the subject of his desire, but the feeling isn’t always mutual. Ronson knew that Gosling was the perfect Ken, and the song for the character just sort of popped into his head. “I went into the studio one day, and I got the idea for the line, ‘I’m just Ken, anywhere else I’d be a 10,’ and I thought: ‘That’s his whole life.’”
Ronson recorded a demo of the song and sent it to Gerwig, who played it for Gosling. The actor responded that it spoke to him “deeply.” Ronson’s musical partner Andrew Wyatt wrote the rest of the verses, and Ronson flew out to London to record the vocals with Gosling. “I wasn’t sure how much to push him and what he’s quite capable of,” he tells TIME. (Fans of the actor will remember that he began his career in the Mickey Mouse Club, and memorably sang in Blue Valentine and, more recently, La La Land.) “Then, as we started going, he started to warm up. He was just nailing it because he’s such an amazing actor. I hadn’t also figured that, of course, he would sell this song better than anyone because he is Ken.”
The “fever dream” of Ice Spice, Nicki, and the musical stylings of Aqua
It was always a priority to find a way to incorporate one of the most famous musical references to the doll, Aqua’s 1997 hit “Barbie Girl.” The song had been no. 1 in 10 countries after it was released, but it had also became the subject of a lawsuit, when Mattel sued MCA Records claiming that the song’s suggestive lyrics diminished the doll’s reputation. (The judge ruled in favor of MCA, saying the song was a parody and protected under the First Amendment, writing in his opinion that “parties are advised to chill.”)
When thinking through how to include the song on the soundtrack, Ronson says they decided to give it to the “most exciting new thing in music”: Ice Spice. At this point in the process, it was shortly after her song “Munch (Feelin’ U)” had become a viral sensation. They asked Ice’s producer, RIOTUSA, to rework “Barbie Girl” into a drill and Jersey-house-infused track, but after the instrumental was ready, Ronson and Gerwig had trouble pinning the artist down to show her the movie due to her non-stop travel schedule.
On the evening when they were supposed to meet at his studio, at 9 p.m., Ronson waited until 11:30 and still hadn’t heard anything. “I always turn my phone off before I go to bed so I can sleep stress-free, but for some reason, I turned it back on,” he recalls. Ice’s manager texted him to say that they were en route to the studio, so Ronson changed out of his pajamas and biked over to meet with them. (The meeting, of course, went well.) Ronson struck out in trying to get to Minaj on his own. But because of Ice and Minaj’s blossoming relationship, the beat made its way to Minaj and she agreed to hop on the track. “That,” says Ronson, “is how we got this fever dream of an incredible song.”
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More surprises to come
The soundtrack features an array of songs that are as brief as they are catchy. Charli XCX’s “Speed Drive” is under two minutes, and the same goes for Ice Spice and Nicki Minaj’s track. Karol G’s “WATATI” is a little over two and a half minutes, while PinkPanthress keeps her song (like all of her music) hovering at around the two-minute mark. Ronson says the brevity isn’t necessarily intentional. “I think that’s just the way pop music is changing,” he says. “Pop is getting so short.”
The soundtrack announcement says that there are “more to Barbies and Kens to be announced,” and Ronson tells TIME that two songs have yet to be publicized. “One of the artists is obviously one of the f-cking greatest living artists around but also had a very personal, idiosyncratic tie to Barbie as well,” he says. When asked what it means that superstar Billie Eilish posted a neon pink Barbie sign on her Instagram account, he demurs and asks for our next question. (On July 6, Eilish confirmed in an Instagram post that she recorded a song, “What Was I Made For,” for the soundtrack.) With the movie set to hit theaters on July 21, we’ll have the rest of our answers soon enough.
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