“At the start,” stated Mark Ronson when discussing the most challenging endeavor of his music career, “I had planned for only two songs.”
Ronson, the well-known artist and producer recognized for collaborating with Amy Winehouse and creating hit songs like Uptown Funk and Nothing Breaks Like a Heart, was asked to provide two songs for Greta Gerwig’s Barbie movie. One song would be used for Barbie’s major dance scene, while the other would give insight into Ken’s not-so-wealthy inner thoughts.
These days, Dance the Night by Dua Lipa and the unexpected success I’m Just Ken, sung by Ryan Gosling, have become well-known worldwide. However, as support for the project grew, it became evident that Barbie could not be contained.
Ronson’s initial role in creating two songs for the Barbie soundtrack evolved into him taking on the task of managing the entire soundtrack and composing the score for the film alongside his longtime partner, Andrew Wyatt. The movie ended up being a massive success, becoming a cultural phenomenon and potentially receiving further recognition at the upcoming Oscars.
The movie not only set box-office records, but its soundtrack is also the most successful of this century. It achieved a rare feat by having three singles simultaneously in the Top 5 of the UK charts – Dance The Night (featuring Nicki Minaj’s Barbie World and Billie Eilish’s What Was I Made For?). The last time a soundtrack accomplished this was back in 1978 with Saturday Night Fever and Grease, although those songs only made it to the Top 10.
Speaking via video call from New York alongside Wyatt, Ronson is still in disbelief at the overwhelming success of the project. He expresses, “It’s incredibly strange. We always strive to create timeless pop hits, but our main focus at the time was to compose the perfect songs for the movie.”
After receiving instructions from Gerwig, Ronson’s initial action was to enlist Wyatt, the lead singer of Miike Snow whom Ronson collaborated with on A Star is Born, including the Oscar-winning track Shallow by Lady Gaga.
Their Barbie collaboration Dance The Night is similarly commanding: a shimmery slice of disco-pop, with the stylish orchestration and attention to detail that has made Ronson so in-demand as a producer.
According to him, the difficulty was not only creating a popular dance track, but also one that complemented the movie. An initial attempt was deemed too self-aware for the bright and cheerful beginning of the film, which comes before Barbie’s inner struggle.
Ronson says that Margot Robbie in gold sequins, thoroughly enjoying herself, did not quite match what was happening on the screen. Wyatt adds that the lyrics were more open to interpretation.
The pair returned to the planning stage, but they were under time constraints. The trailer required the song, and in England at Warner Brothers’ Leavesden studios, where most of Barbie was being made, the choreography had already begun.
According to Ronson, they rewrote it twice. Their initial version was punchy and clever, but the second attempt felt overly polished and edited. “Dance The Night” was completed last minute, with changes made to align with the choreography on screen.
Just before the trailer was set to be shipped, they realized that they had forgotten to switch out the temporary, artificial instruments with the 80-piece orchestra they had originally recorded. Ronson explains, “We had to record the strings the day before it was sent for mastering.”
The recurring theme in our interview is the last-minute saves, which reflect the fast-paced nature of the production and the lower ranking of the pair involved. According to Wyatt, the music was not something they could wait for.
They changed their focus from their usual work in the pop industry. Wyatt explains, “We typically work on our own music or with popular artists, and if they need more time, we give it to them. But for this project, it had to be completed on time.”
From March to June of this year, the two individuals primarily focused on the movie. According to Wyatt, for the last two months, “we had to be accessible at all hours.”
Ronson especially had the responsibility of managing the entire soundtrack, which included work from 20 different artists. This was a significant increase in his administrative duties. He remembers the long and exhausting biweekly Zoom meetings with Atlantic Records with a hint of discomfort. However, he couldn’t say no to the movie because it was such an enjoyable experience and he was willing to do whatever was needed of him.
Ronson credits the enthusiasm of the artists involved for contributing to the success of the project. From Eilish’s contemplative ballad to Sam Smith’s playful and empowering anthem, the diverse interpretations showcase the multifaceted nature of Barbie as a symbol, as well as Gerwig’s film. Ronson reveals, “As soon as everyone saw their scenes, they were overflowing with creative concepts.”
A few performers were already assigned specific moments in the film, such as Charli XCX for the chase scene and Eilish for the most emotional part. Their music was adjusted based on test screenings. According to Ronson, there’s nothing quite like watching a movie with an audience to realize that it may be too lengthy. However, the artists were allowed creative freedom to make a song that truly represented their style.
According to him, each person had their own unique contribution. Nicki Minaj has long referred to herself as Barbie and her fans as the Barbz, so it was expected that this would be mentioned. Charli immediately came up with the idea to use the “Hey Barbie” phrase in her song “Speed Drive”, mixed with Toni Basil’s “Mickey”.
“Despite everyone’s unique perspective, we all agreed that the project would be exciting and engaging.” When asked, Ronson admits that SZA was the only missing piece from his ideal soundtrack lineup. He also expresses concern about appearing ungrateful, given the impressive artists he was able to work with. Additionally, Ronson shares that Gerwig initially wanted to collaborate with Barry Gibb from the Bee Gees, but he politely declined.
According to Ronson, the Barbie soundtrack was not meant to be a unified piece due to the variety of featured artists. It was also not meant to be enjoyed separately from the film, as Greta wanted the songs to have relevance to the movie.
Gerwig suggested that Ken’s favorite song be Push by Matchbox Twenty, a popular alt-rock radio hit from the late 90s that has faced criticism for being misogynistic. Ronson shares that Gosling reached out to lead singer Rob Thomas to assure him that they were not mocking the song. “I believe Ryan just wanted to let Rob Thomas know that the song did not represent toxic masculinity, but it still worked effectively in the film.”
Similarly, the song “Man I Am,” which also touches on men’s liberation, was developed through discussions between Gerwig and Sam Smith. According to Ronson, “Sam and Greta engaged in a dialogue about Betty Friedan and her book The Feminine Mystique. I knew better than to interrupt.”
Unfortunately, Ken’s major musical performance was completely up to them. Ronson came up with the idea for the emotionally-charged chorus line, “I’m just Ken, in any other place I’d be a perfect 10”, while Wyatt wrote the verses from the viewpoint of a love-struck and neglected himbo.
Gerwig was very enthusiastic about it, according to Ronson. He recalls her response, stating that Ryan connected deeply with the song. Ronson was unsure if Ryan was being sarcastic due to the emotional and heartfelt nature of the sentiment. However, Gerwig confirmed that she believed he was sincere.
At the time, Gosling was not expected to sing in the movie, but Ronson and Wyatt’s efforts changed his mind. “Before we knew it, Greta said Ryan was willing to sing it and that we would revise the battle scene to include it.” Ronson is still proud: “These amazing comedy writers believe our song is worthy enough to be included in the script… From there, we continued to expand upon it.”
From two-and-a-half minutes, I’m Just Ken was expanded into a seven-minute, wonderfully over-the-top power-ballad. Guitarist Wolfgang Van Halen, Foo Fighters’ Josh Freese and Slash of Guns N’ Roses, who deemed the song “cool”, were roped in to play.
Ronson and Wyatt were inspired to volunteer to oversee the score and soundtrack for the musical theatre production.
Lizzo’s opening number, “Pink,” features her narrating Barbie’s on-screen actions. The song came together last minute during breaks from Lizzo’s world tour. Ronson praises Lizzo for writing to the music, as he was worried about not having anything to present to Gerwig. However, Lizzo ended up freestyling and they all had a good time, leading Ronson to feel confident in their collaboration.
Reworded: Despite being a perfectionist, Ronson approached the project in a spontaneous manner, admitting that they could have used more time. However, both he and his partner reminisce fondly about their pink-themed project. Ronson recalls the experience of arriving at the studio every day and turning on the TV, with each frame of the film resembling a work of art. He describes every day as a source of joy.
He has returned to writing his initial book, 93 ‘Til Infinity, which focuses on his experiences as a DJ in New York during the 1990s. He is also busy working on a solo album. Wyatt is currently working on various other projects as well. However, they still have a connection to Barbieland as the Barbies remain in their studio. Ronson states, “We haven’t removed the Barbies from the studio.”