June 12, 2024

There aren’t a lot of precedents in pop music for the pairing of Billie Eilish and Finneas, when it comes to brother-and-sister performing or songwriting duos. But in the world of music for films, it might not be too soon to start considering a comparison with a very famous married duo: Alan and Marilyn Bergman, the long-reigning king and queen of movie theme songs. The Bergmans weren’t a fully self-contained songwriting unit; they primarily worked as lyricists, joining up with outside composers like Michel Legrand or Marvin Hamlisch on Oscar-winning material like “The Windmills of Your Mind,” “The Way We Were” and the song score of “Yentl.” But it’s their names that are synonymous with film songs like few others’. Could it be that the O’Connells are following in their footsteps?

It’s much too soon to tell, with only a handful of movie songs to cite in their still-nascent careers (including lesser-noted contributions to “Roma” and Pixar’s boy-band comedy “Turning Red”). But they sure got off to a blowout start in someday claiming a legacy like that by winning an Oscar for “No Time to Die,” the best Bond theme of the modern era. (A pretty heady accomplishment, given that Eilish was 4 when Daniel Craig assumed the franchise’s lead role.) That seemed like it might be a precocious one-off until the duo came back with a “Barbie” theme that easily outstrips even their Bond song, accomplished as that was. No one quite wants them to give up their day jobs to work full-time in Hollywood, but film music… well, it kind of feels like what they were made for.

“What Was I Made For?” might actually be the film closer since Aimee Mann’s “Save Me” stuck the landing for “Magnolia” at the end of the ‘90s, at least if we’re talking about dramatic climaxes that wouldn’t register so vividly on the emotional Richter scale without such a touching musical punchline. But there’s another late ‘90s film song this one recalls, in terms of its potential awards-circuit impact. Eilish’s and Finneas’ song stands a shot at being the first number since “My Heart Will Go On,” from 1997’s “Titanic,” to win both the best song Oscar and the record of the year Grammy, a dual honor that’s overdue.

Believe it or not, only three film songs have ever won both those awards. The feat was accomplished by back-to-back Henry Mancini hits, “Moon River” and “Days of Wine and Roses,” dating back to 1961-62. But it took another 35 years for it to happen again, with the Celine Dion-sung ballad; there hasn’t been a reoccurrence in the quarter-century since. Trivia buffs may point out that, leaving aside the Grammys‘ record of the year honor, there have been a half-dozen other film themes that managed to win the Grammy for song of the year while also winning the Oscar: “Shadow of Your Smile” (from “The Sandpiper”), “The Way We Were,” “You Light Up My Life,” “Evergreen,” “A Whole New World” and “Streets of Philadelphia.” But even those all date back to the recesses of the pre-“Titanic” 20th century. The Grammy/Oscar twain couldn’t even be brought back together for a “Let It Go” or a “Shallow” to win dual top honors.

But flying in the face of the contention that soundtracks don’t mean what they used to is the preeminence of “Barbie’s” OST, which isn’t just a collection of random syncs but is rife with songs that speak to the narrative, at least to small degrees. Many of these were built for a laugh, not the ages, and that’s Ken-ough. But, lone among them, the Billie/Finneas tune isn’t afraid to skirt being a serious downer on its way to speaking to to the movie’s deeper and richer themes — something that’s been embraced as a feature, not a flaw, by the listeners who’ve propelled it to a count of 380 million streams on Spotify alone. That’s a lot of beyond-the-cinema consumption for a song whose primary duty is to tie up all the metaphors that Greta Gerwig’s brilliant comedy has leaned into for the preceding hour and 45 minutes.

With the barest possible number of words being parsed out, the song manages to be about expectations placed on women; poor dating prospects; the nature of God, creation and existence; free will and the pursuit of happiness; and, incidentally, on the most literal level, what it’s like to be made out of plastic. Taking the script’s melancholy elements to their furthest extreme (but still landing on a faint note of hope), “What Was I Made For?” might represent the most distilled essence of what it means to be a sad doll since, like, Henrik Ibsen.

Finneas recently did a breakdown of the song’s composition and production for a Variety video, showing there’s more going on than meets the ear in its deceptively simple arrangement. The melody is strong enough that scorers Mark Ronson and Andrew Wyatt took advantage of it for some premonitory interpolations a few times in the film: during Barbie’s encounter with an older woman on a bus bench; meeting the ghost of Ruth in her kitchen on Mattel’s 17th floor; in a flashback of Gloria’s girlhood memories. (Bringing in champion whistler Molly Lewis to execute a final instrumental version was a nice touch, because nothing says bittersweet better than whistling.)

The lyrical acuity of the song is its most powerful point of impact, though. “I used to float, now I just fall down” is a clever callback to the very first intimation of frail mortality Barbie experiences at the beginning of the film. “Looked so alive, turns out I’m not real / Just something you paid for” speaks to the Barbie character’s realization of what The Box means but, also, the eureka moment experienced by women in transactional relationships since time immemorial. “I’m sad again, don’t tell my boyfriend / It’s not what he’s made for” has to count as the song’s most spine-chilling moment, for anyone who ever realized their partner suffers from a lack of emotional intelligence or empathy so intrinsic, those failings might well have come straight from the manufacturer. And “I don’t know how to feel”: in the context of a song about a suddenly self-actualized inanimate object (but a song that doesn’t have to be about that), this might be one of the all-time great double-entendres.

And the song’s whole existential central conceit? The phrase and title “What Was I Made For?” is actually kind of Christian-rock-like… minus the Christianity. It echoes the movie’s own variation on a creation myth, with Rhea Perlman as the Barbies’ god, generating an open-hearted spiritual resonance rarely realized in modern hymns.

All these possibly eggheaded notions would have seemed to actually augur against Eilish’s song being the most popular song off such an otherwise frothy soundtrack. Take this tune out of the equation and surely the Oscars’ best song contest would still be loaded with “Barbie” songs, like Dua Lipa’s “Dance the Night” (which has its own easily-missed undercurrents of melancholy) or the film’s two great comedy numbers, Lizzo’s “Pink” (with or without the hilariously dark reprise) and Ryan Gosling’s “I’m Not Ken.” But it’s Eilish and Finneas who came up with the feel-ambivalent hit of the summer. In a year as crisis-filled and spirit-inuring as this one, they made learning to feel seem aspirational, and not just for Barbie.

The song isn’t without strong competition for either the Grammys or Oscars. Who doesn’t want to see “I’m Just Ken” as a Academy production number? And if you like weird, hesitant, highly personal pop songs, shouldn’t you be rooting for “Anti-Hero” at the Grammys, too? But if “What Was I Made For?” does claim both crowns, it’ll represent a reclamation of the idea that film songs can still matter in the wider culture. Not because they’ve been over-marketed, but because a narrative clearing the decks to make way for cathartic music can still hit us harder than just about anything, when done right.

And right now, to quote a different Bond song than Billie’s and Finneas’, nobody does it better.

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