On its surface, it’s a fairly simple, funny scene. Ryan Gosling’s Ken offers to “play guitar at” Margot Robbie’s Barbie in a cliché romantic gesture. Barbie is just playing along here, and all of the Barbies eventually do the same as part of their plan to distract the Kens and take back their power in Barbie Land.
So Barbie sits patiently, pretending to be in awe of Ken as he sings “Push” by Matchbox Twenty. Then we cut to all of the Kens sitting around campfires on the beach, singing the same song in unison at their Barbies.
What I’m describing here is one of the most pivotal moments in the Barbie movie. And it’s one that would carry an entirely different meaning if the Kens were singing any other song. “Push” is not only a funny choice; it’s also poignant and symbolic.
There are several layers to unpack when it comes to the use of this song in the film. At first, a listener could easily interpret the ’90s hit as controversial, with the lyrics “I want to push you around” and “I want to take you for granted.”
But as the lead singer of Matchbox Twenty stated in an interview in 1998, the song is about more than one point of view. “I was trying to make it a panoramic song. The chorus is just the overall way I was looking at relationships at the time,” Thomas stated.
Then in a recent interview with USA TODAY, Thomas reflected further on “Push” and the angst of the ’90s.
“I wrote that song about someone I had been with who I felt was manipulating me and taking advantage of me. The ‘90s was a time of manufactured angst, and nobody wanted to be a victim in a song. So in a weird twist of different times, there’s something very problematic about ‘Push,’ if it wasn’t for the innocence of how it was written,” Thomas explained. “But everything about it was about emotional manipulation. It was just about this idea that it’s so much easier to find someone you can take advantage of than it is to actually put work into a relationship.”
It’s that idea that makes the song such a perfect one for Ken to sing. The relationship we see between Barbie and Ken is certainly one where Ken has been taken advantage of by Barbie. It’s how we’re introduced to Ken in the first place. The narrator says that while every day is a good day for Barbie, Ken only has a good day if Barbie looks at him.
Barbie also assumes he’ll be there when she wants him to be, and that he’ll go away when she doesn’t want him around. It’s toxic behavior, and that behavior starts to go both ways.
Ken tags along to the “Real World” with Barbie even though she doesn’t want him to, and when he learns how much power men have in the real world, he becomes entirely focused on getting that power himself. He turns into someone he isn’t, which on top of illustrating larger themes regarding gender roles, proves how troubled their relationship, or lack thereof, really is.
It’s most definitely not a relationship that has any clear communication, and it’s not one either of them has put any real work into.
While the song’s real meaning is perfectly symbolic here, it’s also noteworthy that Ken sings the lyrics incorrectly. He’s missing one key word and perhaps doesn’t fully even understand the song he’s singing.
Ken sings, “Said I don’t know if I’ve ever been good enough.” Yet the actual lyric that begins “Push” is “She said I don’t know if I’ve ever been good enough.” If you listen to the original version casually, you might mistake it the same way. The way Rob Thomas sings it, “She said” runs together a bit. But leaving out the “she” changes the fundamental meaning of the song.
That’s a mistake Ken would easily make based on everything else we see of his character, and perhaps he’s never really listened to the words at all. He sings the song passionately, over and over, for four hours. The fact that he chooses a song that isn’t really a love song goes back to what he said before he started — that he would sing “at her” instead of “to her.”
So, he either chooses his favorite song regardless of the words, which makes sense for his character, or he chooses a song to express himself to Barbie in a really problematic way. The latter makes less sense for his character, but it does go along with his recent actions — taking over Barbie Land and embracing the patriarchy, even though patriarchy has nothing to do with horses after all.
The choice of ’90s band as a favorite for Ken is also one that works well for his character. Director Greta Gerwig explained when speaking with EW that this was an intentional choice. “I was like, well, if Barbies loved Indigo Girls’ ‘Closer to Fine,’ which is one of my favorite songs of all time, the Kens might really attach to Matchbox Twenty,” Gerwig said.
And speaking with USA TODAY, Gerwig discussed her own attachment to “Push” and Matchbox Twenty.
“Growing up, I loved that song,” Gerwig said. “I was like, ‘This is my rock ‘n’ roll, Dad. Enjoy The Who, but these are my guys.’ And it wasn’t until college that I actually thought, ‘What is that song about?’ Just thinking about 13-year-old me singing along and really meaning it, I was like, ‘That is so interesting.’ I looked it up and, in a way, (Thomas) was playing a character. It’s almost like a story song.”
Like Gerwig, I have been a fan of Matchbox Twenty since “Push.” But it’s also no secret that the band has frequently been the subject of ridicule. In fact, when Rob Thomas first got the call about Barbie, he actually expected that Barbie’s use of “Push” would be a joke at his expense.
“I want to preface this by saying that I thought it was hilarious. But in Bring It On, [Kirsten Dunst’s character] has this douchey boyfriend. And there’s a scene where he was in his dorm room with a Matchbox Twenty poster in the background. There was a whole period during the ‘90s where the more successful we got, the bigger target we were. We were an easy takedown,” Thomas stated when speaking with USA Today.
“When I got the call for Barbie, they told me, ‘Ken’s by the fireside, he’s playing the song and it’s his favorite band.’ So I did this thinking I’d be the butt of the joke, and I was fine with that. I’m pretty thick-skinned,” Thomas said.
That detail makes it an even more perfect song choice for the film. Considering how the Kens are portrayed throughout the film, it’s far more fitting for their favorite band to be Matchbox Twenty than for it to be one that has been more universally beloved.
Ryan Gosling’s performance of the song also exaggerates the original version in a perfectly comical way, which further illustrates this idea. (You can listen to the full version below, which is even funnier.)
Ultimately, while it is a joke that the Kens love a band like Matchbox Twenty and sing the song “Push” when serenading the Barbies, its use is much more complex than a throwaway funny moment. It’s thoughtful and layered, reflective of the characters, and illustrates one of the main themes of the film in a way that really couldn’t be done without music.
Greta Gerwig has spoken about many of the specific details of this film, and no choice made was coincidental. The use of “Push” is no exception. This scene is also a pivotal moment in the film, and it’s one that simply wouldn’t be the same if the Kens were singing any other song.
Listen to the full version of “Push,” as performed by Ryan Gosling:
Matchbox Twenty dedicates a performance of “Push” to Ryan Gosling:
@waywardautumn @Matchbox Twenty ♬ original sound – WaywardAutumn
Barbie is currently playing in theaters.