Barbie: The Album review – Billie Eilish leads a soundtrack that’s as erratic as the movie that inspired it

Margot Robbie’s Barbie surveys the track listing of her soundtrack album  (Atlantic Records)
Margot Robbie’s Barbie surveys the track listing of her soundtrack album (Atlantic Records)

Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, the inescapable Margot Robbie movie inspired by the Mattel doll, which arrives in cinemas this week, ties itself in knots as it goes along – parodying itself, critiquing itself, and eagerly attempting to justify its very existence just in case anyone asks. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a child’s toybox – there’s colour, joy and imagination, yet it’s a total mess. Its soundtrack – which features everyone from Sam Smith and Nicki Minaj to Ryan Gosling doing an impression of Freddie Mercury by way of one of the lesser *Nsyncs – appropriately follows suit.

Barbie: The Album has been a bit of an event in itself, the names of its A-list participants drip-fed over the course of several months. Speculation went into overdrive (Britney! Kylie! Absolutely anyone blonde and famous from the past 30 years of pop!) Disappointment was palpable once the final tracklist was confirmed (“What is ‘The Kid Laroi?’ the internet collectively asked). But hasn’t all of this been sort of wistful, too?

Star-packed soundtracks barely exist anymore, a result of the waning power of album sales and the declining significance of movies in the cultural conversation. But remember when a film’s soundtrack felt just as significant as the work that inspired it? When naturally you’d stroll the aisles of Virgin Megastore to pick up the CD for Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet right after seeing it?

Nostalgia also powers much of this album, which was curated by Mark Ronson from an artist wishlist he and Gerwig put together during production of the film. There is an abundance of plastic-y samples, Charli XCX doing one of her usual odes to vehicular homicide but this time over an interpolation of Toni Basil’s “Mickey”. Lizzo’s morning-routine anthem “Pink” – think Barbie’s version of Legally Blonde’s fluffy opening-credits classic “Perfect Day” by Hoku – seems to riff on Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long”. Fledgling pop star Gayle interpolates Crazy Town’s “Butterfly”, while Minaj’s limp collaboration with Ice Spice samples Aqua’s seminal “Barbie Girl”.

Unusually, the bigger names on Barbie: The Album are the most underwhelming. Dua Lipa’s disco number “Dance the Night” is a flat imitation of far better tracks on her Future Nostalgia record. Smith’s “Man I Am” can’t decide if it wants to be a stomping Eighties fantasia or an outrageously horny sex-dungeon shambles (“Super-sleazy, sexy and freaky Ken tonight,” they moan). Tame Impala’s Pet Shop Boys-esque synth bop “Journey to the Real World” would have been the album’s dazzling linchpin – had it not clocked in at a scant minute and a half.

Tracks by Haim and Billie Eilish are thematically in keeping with Gerwig’s movie – both dreamy mid-tempos about female self-actualisation and existential ennui. But they also feel slightly jarring when surrounded by hot-pink boppery, like a pair of Negative Nancys showing up to spoil your birthday party.

Like Barbie itself, Barbie: The Album is at its best when it embraces the purely weird. PinkPantheress, a newbie British star best known for dressing like a mid-Noughties receptionist, contributes “Angel”, a lovely bit of PC Music airiness that calls to mind the late Sophie at her most romantic – its fiddle-driven climax is breathtaking. Likewise, K-Pop queens Fifty Fifty and rapper Kaliii transform Janet Jackson’s “Together Again” into a Barbiefied racket called “Barbie Dreams” that helps to answer the eternal question: What would happen if the Rugrats theme song had a baby with a hungover Caroline Polachek? It’s absolutely the best thing here.

Ice Spice and Nicki Minaj collaborate on the limp, Aqua-sampling ‘Barbie World’ (Alex ‘Grizz' Loucas)
Ice Spice and Nicki Minaj collaborate on the limp, Aqua-sampling ‘Barbie World’ (Alex ‘Grizz' Loucas)

Finally, there is Gosling’s “I’m Just Ken”, a glam-rock pastiche performed towards the film’s climax, all about Barbie’s chronically vapid sort-of boyfriend (“I’m just Ken and I’m enough,” he pleads, “and I’m great at doing stuff”). It’s slightly brilliant, built upon dramatic strings and Van Halen-esque synthesisers, and suggests the straight-up musical Barbie could have (should have?) been all along. It also stands out on a soundtrack that is always fun, if undeniably erratic – Ronson can’t decide on a consistent tone or approach, instead ping-ponging between satire and celebration, sincerity and spoof. In fairness to him, he’s very much following the movie’s lead.