“I’m Just Ken,” the showstopping number performed by Ryan Gosling in “Barbie,” took Mark Ronson and co-songwriting partner Andrew Wyatt just two days to write. “But we needed the entire year to make it what it was,” notes Ronson.
It’s been a contender to nab an Oscar original song nomination ever since it was first teased in the film’s trailer earlier this year. Part power ballad and part dance-off, “I’m Just Ken” showcases Ken at his neediest, with such lyrics as “Is it my destiny to live and die a life of blonde fragility?”
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Their writing process included at least four or five different versions of the catchy tune. “We had it pretty quick, but then Greta asked for the bridge bit,” says Ronson.
However, once they saw a rough cut of Greta Gerwig’s film, Ronson asked to score it, and recorded the song and subsequently the movie score with musicians including Wolfgang Van Halen, Slash and the Foo Fighters’ Josh Freese.
Ronson and Wyatt broke down their collaborative songwriting process and finding the right Kenergy for a tune that has inspired TikTok videos and an “SNL” parody.
How did you decide that this would be an old-school metal power ballad?
Ronson: That’s what the song called for. We wrote the song very simply, on a piano. When you write the chorus, “I’m just Ken,” your brain can’t help but go there.
Wyatt: When you see the way that Ryan had been playing the character, which is a bit of a madman, but also loveable and soft around the edges, we wanted to juice it with all that stuff and give it heart, but also some madness and over-sensitivity.
Ronson: Those songs were a time when masculine hetero music got to its most sensitive.
Wyatt: That era of the late ’70s was about we’re so cool. We can do anything, and that matches his headspace.
Ronson: There wasn’t anything that said this would be an ’80s power ballad. I sat at the piano and wanted to write something that moved me. Andrew wrote the verses. And my stepdad is in Foreigner, so what are you going to do?
How did the “Kenergy” fit in?
Ronson: We had written all of it. So where it goes, “I am no dreamer,” and before it goes back to the dance, it goes back to “I’m just Ken.” That’s how we wrote it. And Greta said, “I have one more thing I need you to write, it’s going to be this crazy dance off, and it’s this white space.” The song to us was already pretty maximalist. So, we asked, “Is this more?” and she said, “This is everything you’ve got?” At that point, we were wondering how do we go more? Do we take the tempo up? Andrew and I didn’t want to write a parody song. We wanted to write an earnest song with a few lines that maybe had some humor in it. I just remember having such a good time and the time that I really allowed myself a lot to laugh was when Andrew was in the booth singing, “Can you feel Kenergy?”
The lyrics are such fun. How does something like “Am I not hot when I’m in my feelings” come about?
Ronson: All Andrew and I do when we aren’t making music is our nerdy comedy routine between the two of us. So, it’s very rare that we get to blur the lines between work and recess. We were trying to say things that we thought we would find amusing, and what Greta and [co-screenwriter] Noah [Baumbach] would find amusing. They have a high comedy bar because they’re comedy geniuses. If we thought there was anything a little broad or that we were too embarrassed, we left it out. But that one felt funny.
Once Ryan was going to sing, did anything change lyrically?
Ronson: Nothing. Ryan put in a fucking shitload of emotion and phrasing. I watched him record the vocal, and he was backing away from the mic because he was using his entire body to sing the song. Whether he was envisioning what it was going to be like to perform in front of the camera in character and he was already entering that zone or it was a subconscious way that he was getting the entire Kendom-ness-land of it all, he brought his whole performance to the song.
As an entirely hypothetical situation, if “I’m Just Ken” were to be nominated for original song at the Oscars, what would be an ideal fantasy performance?
Ronson: All of it; Slash with the wind machine, Ryan, unicorns running across the stage, just a full Greta Gerwig-directed spectacle is what I’d love to see.
Wyatt: That sounds totally in line with my fantasy. The wind machine is what really got me.
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