Album Review: Various Artists – Barbie The Album

[Atlantic; 2023]

Barbie The Album is an exercise in balancing acts and compromises: Between the vision for a Barbie album and the vision for a soundtrack for the Barbie movie; between production and collaborator choices that capture the essence of Barbie and ones that make Warner Records money; between Barbies and Kens. Mark Ronson seems like an appropriate choice for the task of curating this project, having made a career for himself bringing new energy out of familiar ideas and providing artists with production that fits them so naturally you forget Ronson was involved. Like the movie, the Barbie album had to be laboriously precise while seeming like easygoing fun.

The first piece of music written for the Barbie movie and one of its main musical motifs, Dua Lipa’s “Dance The Night”, is the album’s finest foray into the concept of “Barbiecore: The Sound”. Its strings evoke pure glitter, and while it doesn’t reach the heights of Ronson and Dua Lipa’s previous collaboration “Electricity”, the popstar’s deep yet distinctively feminine voice perfectly accomplishes the goal of bringing emotional gravitas to pure plastic. It’s not what the rest of the album sounds like, but it is a great microcosm of the feeling that surrounds the Barbie movie.

Splitting the difference between music for the album and music for the movie isn’t always so easy, however. “Pink” sees Lizzo singing over a less intense version of the disco sound she’s done before. Still, even a great hook doesn’t disguise the slight awkwardness of trying to convert a song that is in the movie as narration into a standalone record, as punctuated by the out-of-context closing line “Hey Midge! Nevermind”. On the other end of the spectrum though, bringing the movie into the record can elevate the magic of both if done right. “I’m Just Ken” is a surprising reminder that Ryan Gosling received the same popstar training as Justin Timberlake. The camp of 80s pastiche is not for one second toned down, and Gosling brings as much passion (and talent) to his singing as he does to his acting. All parties put in so much effort by the end of the song your appreciation of it will have lost all its irony.

While it holds true that ‘pink goes with everything’ in the music, much like in the movie the struggle here lies outside of Barbieland. Karol G’s “Watati” holds up against many of her better reggaeton ditties, but as the soundtrack to Barbie’s arrival in the real world it is distinctively un-Barbie, and thus a little lost in the album. On Ken’s side of the journey, Sam Smith’s “Man I Am” manages to be less subtle with its references to the movie than musical-narrative-intro “Pink”, largely because Sam Smith can’t perform with Lizzo’s relaxed ease. Ken is all around over the top in the movie though, and ‘vague unacknowledged gayness’ has always been a part of Ken’s image, so in the end it comes down to whether Smith’s theatrics work for you.

That said, it’s still not as much of a love or hate affair as what we get from the black Barbie of the real world. When discussing “Barbie World” Nicki Minaj said she rejected using the “Barbie Girl” sample many times because it never felt right until this now. Credit to producer RiotUSA, he does deliver one of the more tasteful pop sampling works in rap’s recent history, but he is Ice Spice’s producer and as such delivered an Ice Spice song. A more generous listener might say the match is even because Ice Spice is stepping up her game, but after so many years playing Barbie this still feels like a disappointment of Nicki’s end.

Although the Barbie mission for an art/commerce crossover is demanding, someone with more experience in the intentional plasticity field might succeed without even trying. Charli XCX’s “Speed Drive” is an undeniable highlight. Its pulsating energy almost forces the listener out of their seat with both the “Cobrastyle” synths and the “Mickey” sample incorporated so cleverly it momentarily lets one forget that lazy samples are the worst trend in current pop music. It’s fun, it’s different, it’s energetic, it has loads of replay value. All this to say it’s basically Charli XCX on autopilot. Still, if autopilot is good enough there’s nothing wrong with it.

Dominic Fike’s “Hey Blondie” hardly adjusts his sentimental guitar-based pop for the Ken aesthetic, but he wears his heart on his sleeve enough to meet the requirements just by showing up. Khalid’s “Silver Platter” is quite simple for its performer’s standards, but it perfectly suits the Ken moment the movie uses it for. In spite of that, it loses some shine when you remember real life Barbie Sabrina Carpenter’s “Nonsense” is the same song with some more punch. “Home” may be far into the pop end of HAIM’s discography but it still perfectly fits their brand of soft, emphatic drama. PinkPantheress’ “Angel”, the album’s final highlight, sees the curious production choice of blending pop and traditional Irish music, the final result being surprisingly good, surprisingly natural, and thanks to the singer’s perfectly suited performance, surprisingly Barbie.

On the flipside, some performers make sure to remind us there’s a difference between sounding like autopilot and sounding like a reject from a different project. The worst offender is undeniably Ava Max’s “Choose Your Fighter”, a loud dance pop tune about nothing that sounds so much like her previous single “Kings & Queens” it’s hard to believe it would even exist if that soundtrack didn’t only want original songs. “Forever & Again” and “butterflies” see the Kid Laroi and Gayle respectively do their standard sound so lazily it quickly becomes irritating (although they don’t even put effort into being that). Laroi delivers a dull nothing sandwich that drowns out his voice so much it almost seems embarrassed to have him there. Gayle samples “Butterfly” by Crazy Town and tries and fails to add some punch to the sound of the least rocking rock song ever made. If Gayle was inspired by anything in the movie, I can only suppose it was the high school girl at her most eye-rollingly self impressed.

Closing it all off is Fifty Fifty’s “Barbie Dreams”, the worst sampling decision I’ve witnessed in a long time. When sampling a dance song on a dance song you are inviting direct comparison, and “Barbie Dreams” seems to only exist to taunt you by constantly letting you know you’re choosing to listen to this instead of “Together Again” by Janet Jackson. Comparing anyone’s production work to that of Jam & Lewis is unfair, so that someone would invite that is baffling, especially when so little effort goes into matching the pristine, inventive and breezy perfection of the original.

It may be so that the whole of the album is a truly mixed bag, but for two brief moments we get to see what Barbie music can be in the hands of the right songwriter, or the right producer. The right songwriter comes in Billie Eilish, whose ballad “What Was I Made For” is another of the movie’s musical motifs. It doesn’t take knowing too much about Barbie or Billie Eilish to be impressed by how every line is perfectly about both. Eilish masterfully captures the emotional core of the movie that exists not past the glitter and pink but deep within it. If any song in this soundtrack will endure and be remembered in the discography of the people that made it, it will undoubtedly be this one.

The right producer, meanwhile, shows up for a brief 90 seconds in Tame Impala. His “Journey To The Real World” is a brief swirling fever dream of synths, reverb and whatever sound the artist felt like tossing in. It truly leaves you wondering what the Barbie soundtrack could have been if it had fully embraced the niche, chronically online music movements that were already embracing Barbie doll plasticness 10 years ago.

The Barbie movie is a new classic. A fun, big-budget spectacle with true art and sentiment at its core that has evolved into a cultural moment that will be fondly remembered by all who participated in any way. A big-budget soundtrack album like this had to happen. It’s a shame nothing about it screams new pop culture staple the way the movie does. There are fine moments, but the highs don’t rise enough to offset the lows. As an album, Barbie The Album is worth very little. If you take it as a grab bag of solid one-offs from artists you know and appreciate, however, you might get something out of fit. Whether it’ll become special and cherished by you or something you play a few times and then forget, who knows? And really, isn’t that quintessentially Barbie?