Summer may be coming to a close, but Barbie is forever.
Warner Bros. struck gold with its megahit Barbie — directed by Greta Gerwig and starring Margot Robbie in the title role opposite Ryan Gosling as her tagalong boy toy, Ken — raking in over $1 billion at the box office. And it wasn’t just Robbie and Gosling’s onscreen chemistry and killer wardrobes that captivated audiences: Gosling’s catchy tune “I’m Just Ken” also stole the show.
In a stroke of marketing genius, the film studio teased audiences by releasing a snippet of the music video showcasing Gosling’s singing ahead of the movie’s July 21 premiere. Before long, Ken climbed his way onto the Billboard charts, leaving fans clamoring for more.
By the time Barbie hit theaters, the song was slowly becoming a cultural phenomenon — specifically around the idea of “Kenergy,” first uttered by Gosling in an interview with Entertainment Tonight in 2022 and later reclaimed by men online stating that the term represents healthier views around masculinity.
After releasing a behind-the-scenes music video in August, it was clear that Gosling fully committed to the role as the dancing, singing (and somewhat lovable) doll. But as one of the song’s co-writers explains, there’s more to Ken than meets the eye.
The making of Gosling as Ken
Written and produced by Mark Ronson and Miike Snow’s Andrew Wyatt (co-composers of Lady Gaga’s Oscar-winning hit, “Shallow”), “I’m Just Ken” was a vehicle to showcase Gosling’s musical chops. Still, nailing Ken’s shining moment wasn’t easy, Wyatt says.
“The amount of labor in the months preceding the final mix of the ‘locked’ edit of the film are, how should I say, buck wild?” he tells Yahoo Entertainment.
Ronson echoed those sentiments in an interview with Variety, during which he said Gosling had only three hours to record the vocals before the producer sent the track to Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash, who agreed to play guitar alongside guitarist Wolfgang Van Halen and Foo Fighters drummer Josh Freese.
Wyatt says Gosling was destined to sing and dance for the masses, having charted once before with “City of Stars” from 2016’s La La Land, opposite Emma Stone. The song spent two weeks at No. 1 on the Jazz Digital Song Sales chart, according to Billboard, while Gosling and Stone’s duet version topped at No. 8 on the Hot 100’s Bubbling Under ranking. It also won an Academy Award for Best Original Song.
Gosling has shown he’s unafraid of experimentation, as evidenced by his short-lived gothic band era, circa 2007, as the lead singer of Dead Man’s Bones alongside his pal screenwriter Zach Shields — and nearly a decade before, as a teen star on the Disney Channel’s Mickey Mouse Club, where Gosling performed with other future hitmakers like Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake.
A little help from Freddie Mercury
Gosling’s fearless attitude was a perfect vessel to create the world of Ken. As Wyatt explains, it also inspired the writers to channel influence from other fearless performers — such as the late Queen frontman Freddie Mercury.
“I think whenever you’re writing things that need to have obvious pomp and bravado, things that go full-tilt-to-the-hilt and then some, the ghost of Freddie Mercury is never far away,” he says.
Following in Mercury’s footsteps can certainly be “intimidating,” as the Bohemian Rhapsody cast told Yahoo Entertainment in 2018. As with Mercury, however, Gosling’s impact as Ken remains evident. After all, not every pop culture character starts a movement.
“I think ‘Kenergy’ is about claiming your basic space, meaning the right to feel reasonably good about you as you exist within the confines of your own body,” Wyatt says of Gosling’s Ken. “It’s a simple appreciation that being you is ‘Kenough.'”
The lasting impact of ‘Kenergy’
Since seeing the film, audiences have found catharsis in Ken’s journey, using terms like “Kenergy” and “Kenough” to help define what masculinity can look like.
Nicholas Balaisis, a psychotherapist in Toronto who wrote about the terms for Psychology Today after seeing Gosling’s performance, says “I’m Just Ken” strikes a chord on the “various crises of masculinity in the culture right now,” which is evident in lyrics like:
Wanna know what it’s like to love, to be the real thing
Is it a crime?
Am I not hot when I’m in my feelings
And is my moment finally here, or am I dreaming?
I’m no dreamer.
“Most men know that the older models of masculinity are no longer available or desirable,” Balaisis tells Yahoo Entertainment, “but there is not a new model ready-made to step into.”
That’s where Ken steps in, explains Sally Spencer-Thomas, a suicide-prevention advocate and co-founder of the campaign Man Therapy, who says the dance sequence featuring the various Kens in the film, choreographed by Jennifer White and Lisa Welham, offers a compelling exploration of societal norms.
“The choreography acts as a portal to an alternate realm, and the dance transcends mere physical movement; it escalates into an emotional catharsis,” she tells Yahoo Entertainment. “The very essence of the dance aims to liberate the Kens from the constricting boundaries of traditional masculinity. It’s a profound notion that these individuals, previously embroiled in emotional turmoil and frustrated by their own masculinity, find their emancipation through the language of dance.”
The song’s bigger theme, say Balaisis and Spencer-Thomas, is the freedom of expression, which is articulated through Gosling’s unapologetic performance as well as the song’s lyrics.
Indeed, Balaisis adds, being unafraid of “letting go” is a gift Wyatt, Ronson and Gosling may have unknowingly bestowed on younger generations of men.
“Men often experience really high levels of shame in relation to their personal appearances of feeling judged and scrutinized on their looks or for standing out,” he says. “The capacity to risk expression in fashion or clothing can be a sign of inner esteem, of being ‘Kenough,’ and thus able to withstand the judging glares we perceive from others.”