How Billie Eilish and Finneas Tapped Into the Personal to Write Their ‘Barbie’ Ballad

TheWrap magazine: “The thing that we can relate to, that anyone can relate to, is having an identity crisis: not knowing who you are,” Finneas tells TheWrap

Billie Eilish Finneas Barbie premiere
Billie Eilish & Finneas at the "Barbie" premiere (Getty Images)

A version of this story originally appeared in the Race Begins issue of the TheWrap awards magazine.

Billie Eilish was ready to call it a day. It was late January of this year and she and Finneas, her brother and musical partner, had spent nine hours in the studio working on her upcoming third album. “We hit a wall that night,” Finneas said. “Billie was getting up to go and we were like, ‘Oh, maybe we’ll try to give this one a shot, see what happens.’”

“This one” was the song that director Greta Gerwig had asked the Oscar- and Grammy-winning duo to write for her film “Barbie,” a rough cut of which she’d recently screened for them. And what happened after Eilish sat back down was the creation of “What Was I Made For?” Once Finneas came up with the basic melody on the piano, the lyrics emerged easily.

“The first verse — ‘I used to float, now I just fall down / I used to know, but I’m not sure now / What I was made for / What was I made for?’ That we did in, like, 10 minutes, which was really cool,” Eilish said. “It’s a good example of when inspiration really, really works.”

Rhea Pearlman and Margot Robbie, Barbie
Rhea Pearlman and Margot Robbie in “Barbie” (Warner Bros.)

Introspective and delicate, the ballad adds a melancholy dimension to Barbie’s effervescent pop-heavy soundtrack. It plays during a pivotal scene toward the end of the movie, when (spoiler ahead) Margot Robbie’s titular doll decides she wants to become a human being and experience all the complicated emotions that come with personhood. The lyrics convey Barbie’s existential crisis (“Looked so alive, turns out I’m not real / Just something you paid for”) as well as the film’s wider theme about the ontological puzzle of modern womanhood. 

Of course, the lyrics also reflect the specific challenge of being a young female musician upon whom the world projects its own (often toxic) ideas. But the autobiographical nature of the song didn’t hit Eilish right away.

“It’s hard for me to write about exactly what I’m feeling,” she said. “And it’s vulnerable to write about how you’re feeling. We had this thing to write about, and I was like, Phew! I don’t have to worry about me, I’m just going to write about this thing.” It was only after they finished the track that she realized just how personal it was. “I was playing it for a friend the next day. She looked at me and she was like, ‘Uhhhh…’ And I was like, I know!” Eilish said, laughing. “I know. You’re right.”

For Finneas, the personal resonance was more obvious from the get-go, especially compared to their previous contributions to film soundtracks: the operatic Bond theme “No Time to Die,” which won them the Best Original Song Oscar in 2022, and the bouncy fictional boy band tunes they wrote for “Turning Red.”

“I think that whenever we’re writing a song that isn’t autobiographical, no matter how far-fetched, you’re looking for your angle, you’re looking for the thing you can relate to,” he said. “This is pretty far-fetched, right? This is about an inanimate object turning into a sentient being. The thing that we can relate to, that anyone can relate to, is having an identity crisis: not knowing who you are, other people’s perception of you, feeling like you’re letting other people down by not always being the perceived version of yourself. I’ve felt that way, Billie’s felt that way.” 

The pair felt much less stress writing “What Was I Made For?” than they had while composing “No Time to Die,” which had to fit harmoniously into the 60-year-old Bond musical canon. “The only real pressure component of this one, I would say, was just that, we saw the movie and the movie was great,” Finneas said. “And I think when you are trying to contribute to something you are really impressed by, that’s sort of innate pressure.

“The pressure certainly wasn’t coming from Greta, who couldn’t have been more effusive and nice to us,” he added. “Or [music producer and composer] Mark Ronson or [film producer] David Heyman. They were all just really generous with their time. The pressure was just: The movie was great. And if we were going to be a part of it, we wanted the thing we were making to live up to it.”

Seems they succeeded there. Their “Barbie” ballad has been nominated for three Grammys (including Song of the Year) and it is already a frontrunner for another Best Original Song Oscar nomination — which Eilish likened to a “weird fever dream.”

“It’s crazy. It’s crazy. It’s just ridiculous,” she said. “I feel so filled with gratitude and excitement and pride. I just feel really proud. I feel like whatever way it goes, I will feel proud.”

It has crossed their minds that they just might find themselves back on stage at the Dolby Theatre next year, performing “What Was I Made For?” live.

“I’m not trying to be cocky. I’m literally just trying to plan ahead and be realistic,” Eilish said. “I was like, What if I have to do this at the Oscars? This song, it’s so hard to sing. It is such a complicated vocal.” Plus, she added, “The Oscars was, like, the scariest place I’ve ever performed. It’s such a world that I’m not really part of — I’m not an actor. I’m a musician. And there’s a complete different energy in there. It’s movie stars who you’ve been watching for your whole life and they’re sitting there and it’s just crazy. It’s a very intense — in a cool way — vibe. I’ve performed there now twice, and each time it was incredibly terrifying.”

She smiled. “I’m excited to be terrified again, if given the chance.”

Read more from the Race Begins issue here.

Sandra Huller Race Begins 2023
Sandra Huller shot for TheWrap by Jeff Vespa

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