Why Are Oscar Voters About To Award The Wrong Song From Barbie?


Like the presidential primaries, this year’s Best Original Song category at the Oscars was a two-candidate race from the beginning. With all due respect to American hero Diane Warren, it’s Barbie’s award to lose. But which of the two nominated Barbie songs will win? Prognosticators overwhelmingly favor “What Was I Made For?,” Billie Eilish’s gentle piano ballad, which has cleaned up in precursor contests—not to mention winning Best Song at the Grammys. It sounds like exactly the kind of song that wins Oscars, which is to say it sounds a lot like Eilish’s previous Oscar-winning song, the piano-ballad Bond theme “No Time to Die.”

Eilish’s top-20 performance on the charts notwithstanding, “What Was I Made For?” is not the song from Barbie that everyone remembers. Only one song from Barbie was a cultural sensation, a TikTok masterpiece, a showstopping earworm—and it’s the other nominated song, the one that’s probably going to lose on Oscar night: “I’m Just Ken.”

Just as Best Picture tends to ignore comedies in favor of serious dramas, so does the Best Song category ignore funny, upbeat bops in favor of weepy ballads or square inspirational anthems. You might trace this trend to 1980, when Dolly Parton’s spiky comic masterpiece “9 to 5” lost the Oscar to the motivational pap of “Fame.” With few exceptions—The Little Mermaid’s “Under the Sea” among them—the Best Song category has ignored fun ever since. Top Gun’s “Take My Breath Away” defeated Little Shop of Horrors’ toe-tapping “Mean Green Mother From Outer Space.” The ’90s Disney renaissance saw power ballad after power ballad defeat the actually great comic songs from those movies: “Beauty and the Beast” defeated “Be Our Guest,” just as the next year “A Whole New World” defeated “Friend Like Me,” just as two years later “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” defeated “Hakuna Matata.”

And so it goes. The injustices aren’t always as outrageous as all-time classics “Blame Canada” and “Everything Is Awesome” losing to, respectively, the terrible Phil Collins song from Tarzan and the dull Common–John Legend duet from Selma. Sometimes the schmaltzy ballad that defeats a comic number is actually really good, as when “The Weary Kind” from Crazy Heart defeated Randy Newman’s jazzy numbers from The Princess and the Frog, or when Once’s “Falling Slowly” defeated the musical-comedy soufflés of Enchanted. Nevertheless, year after year, the lively songs lose.

You may recall that the year that Eilish won her first Oscar, the movie-music song everyone was humming certainly wasn’t “No Time to Die.” (Imagine humming “No Time to Die”!) It was “We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” the catchy, joke-filled number from Encanto that Disney didn’t even submit for the Oscars, because they didn’t realize it was going to be a No. 1 hit. They submitted—guess what!—a weepy ballad, “Dos Oruguitas.”

Every once in a while, a nominated song, despite being fun, is such a sensation—often one that represents a kind of showy progressive step for the staid academy—that it breaks through. That’s the best explanation for the victories of “Naatu Naatu” from RRR last year, or Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” in 2002, or—perhaps the greatest Best Song surprise in Academy Awards history—Three 6 Mafia’s “It’s Hard Out There for a Pimp” in 2005. But most years, the academy persists in its bias for uplift over verve and wit and parody and all of the other things pop music can do.

The likely loss of “I’m Just Ken” is a particularly tough pill to swallow, because the song is the inarguable highlight of one of the year’s great movies, the best sequence in a Best Picture nominee. A delirious, hilarious fantasia of preening, flexing, and squinting, “I’m Just Ken” is part old-fashioned showstopper and part dream ballet, with Ryan Gosling and the other Kens finding the perfect line between sincerity and silliness. When Gosling sings, “Anywhere else I’d be a 10,” he delivers a laugh line that also digs at the themes of this plastic, fantastic inquiry into female empowerment and male fragility. In a way, “I’m Just Ken” is a parody of the kinds of songs that win Oscars. Songwriters Mark Ronson and Andrew Wyatt are masters of not only sentimental ballads (they previously won for A Star Is Born’s “Shallow”) but pastiche, beginning the song as a spoof of (what else?) a goopy piano ballad before taking left turns into “Fame”-style ’80s inspirationalism and such gloriously stupid rhymes as “I’m just Ken, and I’m enough/ And I’m great at doing stuff.” And I’ll long remember the collective shriek in my local theater when Gosling and Simu Liu were revealed on their striped soundstage, facing each other in a dance-off for the ages.

“What Was I Made For?” is a perfectly nice song, and it scores a lovely part of the film— Barbie’s encounter with creator Ruth Handler and her vision of “real life,” made up of carefully chosen home-movie footage of real women living, loving, and laughing. But I hope Oscar voters this year embrace fun over sentiment, comedy over melodrama, a big cheesy grin over a wistful single tear. The academy has a chance, just this once, to face all of Hollywood’s tinkly ballads and uplifting choruses, and tell them: Kenough.





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