In the summer of 1997, one song was ubiquitous all over the world, namely the Swedish band Aqua’s novelty pop single “Barbie Girl.” A lightly ironic account of the exploits of the titular creation — “I’m a Barbie girl, in a Barbie world/ Life in plastic, it’s fantastic” — it might have irritated Barbie’s manufacturer’s Mattel, who unsuccessfully took Aqua’s record label MCA to court, citing copyright violation, but for everyone else, it was a half-amusing, half-persistent earworm that seemed as disposable and popular as the doll herself.
It is therefore amusing that, just over a quarter-century later, Greta Gerwig’s phenomenally (even slightly inexplicably) successful Barbie film should have thrown up another zeitgeist-capturing song from its soundtrack — and all the more so that it’s not the Ice Spice and Nicki Minaj-featuring “Barbie World,” which samples the Aqua song.
Instead, it’s Ken actor Ryan Gosling’s song “I’m Just Ken,” which is featured around two-thirds of the way into the film, and allows the ever-sidelined male sidekick to lament “a life of blonde fragility.” A truly epic male-centered power ballad of frustration, anguish and unrequited love — but, y’know, funny — the song has transcended the film it’s featured in to become perhaps the most-discussed tune of the summer this year.
I speak as someone who is not, perhaps, the natural audience for Barbie, but I have been all but besieged by friends sending me WhatsApp messages asking whether I, too, am number two and whether I will be sleeping on my own tonight, despite having spent my entire life being so polite. These people are not those who I viewed as obvious consumers of a film based on a plastic doll. One is a freelance publishing editor; another is a senior partner at a major architectural firm. However, “I’m Just Ken” has found its niche far beyond its use in the film to acquire a greater-than-cult following, even finding a spot in the US and UK singles charts. To know Ken, it would appear, is to love him.
It is no coincidence that the song, for all of its apparent goofiness, has been put together by a crack team of songwriters, musicians and arrangers. I’d assumed that the sharply witty lyrics were written by Gerwig and her co-writer and husband Noah Baumbach, but no; they’re credited to Mark Ronson and Andrew Wyatt, who also composed the soundtrack to Barbie. Ronson and Wyatt were two of the writers behind one of the last epic ballads that transcended the film that it was featured in, the Lady Gaga breakout “Shallow”; that song won an Academy Award, and you would not bet against “I’m Just Ken” managing to do the same. And full credit must also go to the two guitarists, none other than Guns ’n’ Rose’s Slash and Eddie van Halen’s son Wolfgang, the Foo Fighters’ Josh Freese on drums and, naturally, Gosling’s suitably tormented, heartfelt vocals, that cunningly play it just straight enough for the uninitiated to be able to enjoy this song on its own terms as a great himbo ballad, rather than the jokey takedown that it’s clearly intended as.
Yes, it’s time for a confession: I have come to love “I’m Just Ken” quite unironically. The final minute or so, which brings in comically exaggerated orchestral backing as Ken makes his epic declaration of how he is “great at doing stuff” — alongside all of the other Kens, who he asks to “put that manly hand in mine” — may be silly, but it’s also thrillingly unfettered songwriting, showing that Ronson and Wyatt know exactly what they’re doing, and are doing it better than anyone else.
Ken may, as the hundreds of millions who have seen Barbie know, end up dissatisfied and alone — if wiser — but his theme song is a true film-stealing moment, and, not coincidentally, has acquired its own life outside it. It may be Barbie’s world, but this particular Ken is doing a great deal more than just living in it.