Article
Culture
6 min read

What was I made for?

Caught up in the Barbie moment, Belle Tindall ponders the haunting depths of the anthem that Billie Eilish has penned for the influential movie.
Barbie stands on a balcony and waves while looking out over her city.
Barbie in Barbieland.
Warner Bros.

I urge you to take the Barbie movie completely seriously - the film itself, the press-tour, the reactions and reviews, the watch-parties, the soundtrack, the costumes. All of it.  

This is not a film to be shrugged at. Love it or hate it, Greta Gerwig’s re-imagining of the Barbie universe is a tool with which we can read this cultural moment. This film, fronted by Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling (to name just two of an astonishingly expansive A-list cast), is already something of a cultural artefact in that it binds together decades worth of individual memories and experiences with a toy whose impact is truly unfathomable. These micro-stories have fed into what is now a macro-narrative. In binding together such experiences, the Barbie movie will attempt to speak into what has been, what is, and what may be.  

You may think that I am being dramatic, but if you’re unaware of the term ‘Barbenheimer’, then I’m afraid that culture is already speaking a language that you’re unfamiliar with. While it's hard to know how this film will age, it's not hard to see how it is a real moment. One that should be given our full attention.  

As Lauren Windle has provided a masterful analysis of the movie itself, this article will turn its attention to Billie Eilish’s hauntingly good musical accompaniment. 

What is particularly interesting to explore, is who Billie is asking this question on behalf of, and who she’s asking it to. 

Anticipation has been building as certain songs have mysteriously been left off the movie soundtrack’s track list: what are these mystery songs? Who is giving them to us? Why are they being kept hidden?  

Rumours began to swirl, the most traction being given to the theory that Billie Eilish, the 21-year-old musical prodigy, had something particularly special up her sleeve. And the rumours were right. A week before Barbie’s release date, Eilish released What Was I Made For?, a song written just for this movie. And perhaps, just for this moment. The last time Billie turned her hand to writing a song for a film, she wrote an Oscar-winning anthem for James Bond, so this Barbie offering was always going to be special.  

This song, written with her older brother (Finneas) in their childhood home, has already been streamed around twenty-million times. We can therefore assume that it is already residing in Gen-Z’s public consciousness. Simplicity seems to have been the key choice when it came to the production of this ballad; aside from a soft piano accompaniment and a hint of harp in the middle, Billie’s vocals have nothing to hide behind. In fact, her clean and soft voice sounds as though it reaches out of the song, the echo and layered harmonies giving it a truly 3D feel. 

The result is ethereal.  

But this song is more than beautiful. It is more than its (wonderous) sound. The lyrics are, quite literally, haunting. The title of the song is also the question that ties it together, as repeatedly Billie asks the question: ‘what was I made for?’ This question, and its implications, is where this song becomes more than a song. As so many of the great ones do, it becomes a three-minute-long existential pondering. What is particularly interesting to explore, is who Billie is asking this question on behalf of, and who she’s asking it to.  

 Of course, this song was written for the purpose of featuring in a film, its primary job being to tell the same story as the film itself (or at least an aspect of it).  

Over a billion Barbie dolls have been sold since 1959. Over the years, Barbie has had over 250 professions, she has evolved through the decades to best personify the evolving beauty ideals of the age, she is, to quote herself, everything. But in being everything, is she also nothing? Time recently wrote that:  

‘Barbie has no inner life or purpose; children are supposed to project their hopes and dreams onto her blank canvas.’ 

Considering this, it’s obvious how lines such as -  

‘Takin' a drive, I was an ideal. Looked so alive, turns out I'm not real, just something you paid for. What was I made for?’   

–  hit the brief perfectly. If the song was intended to be a seeking out of Barbie’s more fragile side, it is a job tremendously well done.  

But there’s more to it.  

Billie Eilish has been under culture’s magnifying glass since she was fifteen years old. Many of her most formative years have been spent in our gaze as she’s become an adult in front of our very eyes. Whether it’s been the ever-changing colour of her hair, the romanticism of her homegrown talent, the fact that her sense of style so satisfyingly defies all the rules of the moment, or that her voice is so delicate it almost feels as though it needs protecting, she’s had us utterly captivated. And of course, such captivation has taken quite the toll. It always does.  

Taking a moment to imagine how the world looks from Billie’s viewpoint, it becomes obvious that a song which was written for a toy is also profoundly autobiographical. She too is an ideal, she is something we’ve paid for. Through writing this song, Billie offered us her profound vulnerability. And what’s fascinating is that she did so without even realising it. When speaking about the song, Billie recalls how,  

‘I was purely inspired by this movie and this character, and the way I thought she would feel, and I wrote about that. And then, over the next couple of days, I was listening… and I do this thing where I’m writing for myself, and I don’t even know it… this is exactly how I feel, and I didn’t even mean to be singing it.’ 

So, this song has two profound levels to it. And yet, I can’t help but feel as if it has even more to offer. The chances are that neither you nor I are a twenty-one-year-old mega-star, and we’re certainly not a sixty-four-year-old doll, but I wonder if this song was written about us too.  

It hints at a belief that she was made with some kind of purpose and intentionality weaved into her existence. 

This cultural moment is asking a pertinent question, it’s certainly not a new one, in fact, I would guess that it’s as old as time itself. But every now and again it is as if the volume gets turned up and this question rings out above all others: what does it mean to be human? Or, to borrow Billie’s phrasing: what were we made for?  

The interesting, albeit obvious, thing about Billie’s particular wording, is that it implies a kind of faith that is hidden in plain sight (for, as far as I know, Billie has no religious faith). It hints at a belief that she was made with some kind of purpose and intentionality weaved into her existence. This is one of the most faith-filled things one could think, and naturally, Christians would heartily agree. Of course, it’s perfectly possible that this is simply emotive wording that Billie has crafted, for the sole purpose of getting people to listen to her song. However, I would argue that this question is asked all day every day, by people who have an intuition that there is more to their presence in the here and now than mere chance. And I’m willing to bet that the Barbie movie is going to have a lot to say about it.  

Are we in a cultural moment where we’re wanting to re-find our humanity in its truest form? So much so, that we’re willing to shirk falsehoods, pretences, and presumptions? Are we disillusioned by anything less than our most authentic selves? It is interesting to ponder where such questions are prompting us to look for answers: inward? Outward? Upward, even?   

What Was I Made For? is a soundtrack for a movie, a particularly interesting movie at that. But I would suggest that it’s also the soundtrack of an existential yearning, a song of a human working out what it means to be such. And I suppose that makes it a song that tells our story, as well as Barbie and Billie’s.  

Review
Books
Culture
Identity
Sport
4 min read

What makes fans tick?

Fandom’s remarkable fusing.

Simon is Bishop of Tonbridge in the Diocese of Rochester. He writes regularly round social, cultural and political issues.

Scottish football fans wearing kilts march down a street singing and waving their arms alogt.
Scotland's Tartan Army of football fans.

"A fat, sarcastic Star Trek fan: you must be a devil with the ladies." 

This put down of Comic Book Guy in The Simpsons neatly sums up a prevailing attitude to fans.  To be a committed fan is to devote yourself to a niche pastime; to be weird and nerdy and, simply, not cool.  At its worst, the fan becomes a fanatic, from which the noun is derived; an obsessive who stalks the object of their passion online and, at its most dangerous, offline. 

Times are changing, though, and the internet is chiefly responsible.  Where once fans could feel isolated and able only to relate to fellow afficionados slowly via the postal system, now they can find people who share their love in a handful of clicks and build relationships in real time.  A lot of anguish is spent on how the internet allows people to find extremist chat rooms where abhorrent behaviour is normalised; less attention is given to the wonder of being able to find fellow lovers online of Massey Ferguson tractors, Australian mullets or Rubik’s Cubes.  Many fans feel less alone online, building a new sense of belonging and purpose – a realisation that others will take them seriously. 

Yet experienced from the inside, a remarkable bonding is taking place, where fans not only fuse with others, but with the team itself.   

In Fans: A Journey into the Psychology of Belonging (Picador, 2024), the academic Michael Bond gives a perceptive and generous insight into the world of fandom.  There are Beliebers, Directioners, Trekkers, Swifties, Janeites, Ricardians.  For the uninitiated, that’s lovers of Justin Bieber, One Direction, Star Trek, Taylor Swift, Jane Austen, Richard the Third; though strangely one of the biggest bases of all simply goes by the title Star Wars fans.  Bond spends some time looking at the phenomenon of Michael Jackson.  Professor Gayle Stever has researched the pop star’s fans and found them, like many other fans, to be ‘normal people carrying on normal lives with functioning relationships and jobs, who just had this passion for Michael Jackson’.  Despite the discomfort of idolising a celebrity who lived, and died, with serious child abuse allegations made against him, they saw Jackson as ‘the target of racist abuse and unwarranted criticism throughout his career’. 

Fans often identify very personally with their idols.  Cosplaying conventions allow fans to reinvent themselves and Houston University studies have shown that people can ‘feel less lonely and less anxious in the face of rejection simply by thinking of a favourite TV show’. 

But what of football fans?  Many find the aggressive tribalism involved hard to accept.  I have observed young male fans of London Premier League teams chanting loudly at train stations in a way that made young women nearby shrink away, making me wonder whether my opening line from The Simpsons ought to be re-purposed.  The ritualised conduct of football crowds – the fist pumping, jumping and embracing at a goal, the verbal and hand abuse of opposing players and referees, and the chants that defy pre-match announcements about tolerance at games – can look bizarre and scary.  Yet experienced from the inside, a remarkable bonding is taking place, where fans not only fuse with others, but with the team itself.   

‘... the best of sport is not the earthy moment of victory, but the privilege of watching athletes tilt at divinity.’ 

Emma John

The deeper the love for a club, the greater the joy and the pain at success and failure.  It is a high-risk investment that many stake because it makes them feel so alive.  The peerless interpreter of football fandom, Nick Hornby, says that football is a context where watching becomes doing’.  Anyone whose leg has involuntarily jerked as a player reaches for the ball will grasp that. 

I wonder if some football fans who identify as Christian struggle with the secret reality of uncontrollable mood swings every weekend?  Should a win on a football pitch matter that much, when so many things are so much more important?  They may aspire to the whimsy of Ecclesiastes (there is a time to win and a time to lose, the author nearly said) but feel the coursing testosterone of Samson instead. 

God made us playful, and football is a disarmingly simple game to watch and play.  There is also breathtaking beauty in the movements of its finest exponents, like the choreography of Michael Jackson himself.  If we are called to life in all its fulness, isn’t this also a part of that fulness (even if some games are a stretch)?  

In recent interviews, Nick Hornby has said he couldn’t write Fever Pitch again, his pained love letter to Arsenal FC; middle age has brought a new perspective.  Writing in Prospect magazine (May 2024), sports journalist Emma John says: ‘I have observed many of my sports-loving friends follow the same trajectory…the best of sport is not the earthy moment of victory, but the privilege of watching athletes tilt at divinity’. 

At least, until the final penalty shoot-out, when for the diehard fan it’s absolutely all about the earthly moment of victory.