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    Friday, March 01, 2024

    Mark Ronson, Andrew Wyatt find emotional truth (and lots of funny) in ‘I’m Just Ken’

    Mark Ronson has always been a mumbler, his soft, unobtrusive speaking voice a product of both his transatlantic upbringing and — notwithstanding the chart-topping pop songs he’s helped create — his general disinclination toward fame.

    But when the 48-year-old songwriter and producer cut a demo of a tune for the character of Ken to sing in Greta Gerwig’s big-budget “Barbie” movie, Ronson purposely went marble-mouthed to avoid bringing inordinate attention to a clever lyric he’d penned about Barbie’s maybe-boyfriend.

    “I just didn’t want them to think I was coming too hard with the funny,” he says of Gerwig and her partner, Noah Baumbach, with whom the director wrote the script for this year’s slyly subversive blockbuster. Ronson regards the couple, whose earlier films include her “Lady Bird” and his “Marriage Story,” as “comic geniuses in their own individual ways.” So overselling his wordplay in the rough version of the song he sent them? “I was afraid they’d be like, ‘We’ll do the funny, thank you,’” Ronson recalls.

    Instead, Gerwig told him she was “obsessed” with the song — especially the line where it sounded like he was singing about Ken’s “life of blond fragility.”

    Gerwig’s encouragement pushed Ronson, known for his Grammy-winning work with Bruno Mars (“Uptown Funk”) and Amy Winehouse (“Rehab”), to complete the song with his friend and collaborator Andrew Wyatt, who’s written and produced for Miley Cyrus and who fronts the sly electro-pop trio Miike Snow. The director later played the finished number for Ryan Gosling, who plays Ken, and reported back to Ronson.

    “She was like, ‘Ryan said it speaks to him deeply,’” Ronson recalls. “I said, ‘Was he being ironic?’ and she was like, ‘Um, I don’t think so.’”

    Indeed, Gosling leans all the way into “I’m Just Ken,” finding the emotional truth in the windblown 1980s-style power ballad about how even a dreamboat can struggle with insecurity in a place like Barbie Land. Now the tune is seen as a front-runner for an Oscar nomination for original song. A nod would follow Ronson and Wyatt’s win at the 2019 Academy Awards, where they took the song prize with “Shallow,” the lovers’ duet (and instant karaoke classic) they wrote with Lady Gaga and Anthony Rossomando for Bradley Cooper’s remake of “A Star Is Born.”

    “I’m Just Ken” is one of several tunes from the summer blockbuster thought to be in contention for nominations. Another is the haunting “What Was I Made For?” by another set of Oscar winners in the pop star Billie Eilish and her brother, Finneas O’Connell, who won in 2021 with their James Bond theme “No Time to Die”; there’s also Dua Lipa’s disco banger “Dance the Night,” which was co-written and co-produced by Ronson and Wyatt, who also composed the film’s score and oversaw its hit soundtrack album.

    Though Eilish and O’Connell generally work on their own, Ronson and Wyatt devised a winsome orchestral arrangement for “What Was I Made For?,” which makes Ronson laugh as he thinks about it at the beginning of awards season. “I remember we gave it to them and then we were kind of like, ‘Did we just (expletive) ourselves?’” he says over coffee during a recent visit to Los Angeles. “But listen, it’s all Team Barbie.”

    Ronson — who lives in New York with his wife, actress Grace Gummer, and their baby daughter — is quick to note that, for all its humor, “I’m Just Ken” is not a parody song. “It had to be earnest, and it had to vulnerable,” he says, as in a lyric where Ken wonders what it would take for Barbie to “see the man behind the tan.” It’s that sincerity, Wyatt adds via Zoom, that enabled the two to go “almost operatic” with the song’s production, which piles on squealing guitar by Guns N’ Roses’ Slash and pounding drums by Josh Freese of Foo Fighters; there’s even a knotty instrumental section that accompanies a surreal fight-slash-dance sequence in the movie.

    Asked whose music he had in mind when they were putting the song together, Wyatt mentions Freddie Mercury — “the ultimate showstopper,” he calls the late Queen frontman — and Jim Steinman, who wrote Meat Loaf’s happily over-the-top “Bat Out of Hell” LP. “He was great at writing a song that had different chapters in it,” he says of the latter. Adds Ronson, who was raised between London and New York in part by his stepfather, Mick Jones of the veteran rock band Foreigner: “How far could I get from some of these things? It’s like it’s in my DNA.” (Regarding “Barbie’s” score, Ronson identifies a perhaps surprising inspiration in Dave Grusin, whose music for “Goonies” he describes as “one of the best marriages of 1980s synthesizers and orchestra, which is something we were chasing.”)

    Might “I’m Just Ken” become a pop hit outside the “Barbie” movie the way “Shallow” did outside “A Star Is Born”? It’s certainly a more specific piece of material than “Shallow” — not to mention more so than Dua Lipa’s “Dance the Night,” which has been hanging around the upper reaches of Billboard’s Hot 100 for months. Yet Wyatt points out that the power ballad, which has more than 100 million streams on Spotify and YouTube, has become a favored text among TikTok’s dramatic interpreters.

    “I heard they were doing it in summer stock,” he says with a laugh.

    Ronson pulls out his phone to find a comment someone left on his Instagram about her 9-year-old son’s plan to sing “I’m Just Ken” at his school talent show.

    “But then she wrote that he chickened out at the last minute,” he says, “because he discovered that every other kid was gonna sing it too.”

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