6 min read

What was I made for?

Belle is the Reporter at the Centre for Cultural Witness, writing for Seen and Unseen. 

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.  

Popular articles

5 min read

The spiritual depths of the genius

Belle is the Reporter at the Centre for Cultural Witness, writing for Seen and Unseen. 

Moved by his songbook and his funeral, Belle TIndall considers the source, and sacrifice, of Shane MacGowan’s genius.
Upon his draped coffin, a picture of Shane MacGowan and a crucifix sit
Celebrating the life of Shane MacGowan at his funeral mass.

Have you ever seen a Catholic priest hold up a Buddha during a Mass? Or a crowd applaud and cheer after a reading from the book of Micah? Or Nick Cave miss his queue by half an hour?  


Then I suppose you’ve yet to see the footage of Shane MacGowan’s funeral.   

On a cold December afternoon - in a Tipperary church which was full to bursting – family, friends and fans gathered to (in the words of the presiding priest) "hold, help and handle the loss of the great Shane MacGowan… to celebrate his song, his story, his lyric, his living." I watched the footage because I had heard rumours of dancing in the aisles, renditions of The Pogues’ songs on the streets, bible readings by Bono and prayers led by Jonny Depp. And I can confirm, the rumours were all true.  

People really did climb out of their pews to dance around Shane’s coffin to ‘Fairytale of New York’, a song which has just lost its maestro. Fans really did line the streets of Dublin to greet Shane’s body with raised glasses of Guinness and renditions of his most-loved songs. What’s more, Bono really did read the bible and Jonny Depp really did pray for ‘a deeper spirit of compassion in our world’. In fact, far more interesting (but far less documented) than the presence of Jonny Depp, was the presence of Shane’s raw and gritty Christian faith, which was so obvious throughout. It wasn’t just cultural Christianity on display here, it was far deeper than that. But alas, I’m getting ahead of myself - I’ll get back to that in a moment.  

There was defiant joy, immense grief, loud laughter and silent sobs. There was lament and there was celebration, there was bitter and there was sweet, there was light and there was darkness. It was raw and messy and awkward and authentic and, in every way possible, profound. I suppose you could suggest that it was a lot like Shane in that way.  

Indeed, this was no ordinary funeral.  

Nick Cave performed a rendition of ‘Rainy Night in Soho’, which has only cemented my opinion that it is the most romantic song ever written (we can argue about it later). And then there was the eulogy, given by the person that I like to think inspired the song that Nick had just performed: Vicotria Mary Clarke, the woman who has loved, and been loved by, Shane MacGowan since she was twenty years old. And while it was the star-studded eccentricities that enticed me to watch the funeral, it is Victoria’s eulogy that has plagued me ever since. She delivered it with an eloquence befitting of a poet’s soulmate and the composure of someone who has been preparing to eulogise the man she loved her entire life.   

Victoria understood MacGowan completely, and through her words, she has helped us to understand him too. She told us how –  

"He wasn’t interested in living a normal life, he didn’t want a 9-5 or a mortgage or any of that stuff, he liked to explore all aspects of consciousness. He liked to explore where you could go with your mind…. He chose many, many, many mind-altering substances to help him on that journey of exploration. He really did live so close to edge that he seemed like he was going to fall off many times…"  

And I suppose therein lies the source, and sacrifice, of his genius. He was incredibly introspective, almost scarily so. It reminds me of another songwriter – a biblical one – King David, who once wrote:

‘Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts: And see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.’  

I’m wondering if Shane made similar requests of God, whether anyone would have the boldness to pray this line with as much literality as someone who was fascinated by ‘all aspects of consciousness’. Perhaps such introspective depths are reserved for the geniuses that are brave enough to ask God to take them there. And that got me thinking about other such geniuses - some of them present in that very church - who have plunged the depths of themselves and gifted us with the spoils through their art, those who follow their romantic longing’s lead, those who have an eye for the unseen. I can’t claim to fully understand it, but how interesting that those who live as ‘close to the edge’ as Shane did tend to either bump into oblivion (Kurt Cobain, Nick Drake, Ian Curtis) or God. Or, as in the case of Shane MacGowan, both.  

The reason I could never write a song like ‘Rainy Night in Soho’, is that Shane boldly went where I doubt I ever could - to the costly depths reserved for the brilliant. 

At one point, MacGowan was taking one hundred tabs of acid a day, and Victoria recounted (with a hint of a giggle – her adoration of him utterly tangible) how, in the early days of their relationship, Shane carried an encyclopaedia of pharmacology around with him. This was so that he could look up each drug he was being offered before accepting it. I suppose to an explorer of consciousness, this encyclopaedia is as close to a compass as it gets. And so yes, there was darkness there. But Victoria wanted us to know that –  

"He didn’t just like to go to the dark places and the weird places, he also liked to go to the blissful and transcendent and spiritual places… he was intensely religious."

She evidenced this with a story drawn from the last months of his life, all of which were spent in hospital, when a priest had to confiscate Holy Communion from Shane – who had obtained it ‘illegally’ and taken it daily. You see, in the Catholic Church, Holy Communion has to be administered by a priest under specific circumstances. And so, Shane became, perhaps, ‘the only man in the world who’s been busted for Holy Communion’. But nevertheless, whenever he came to the end of himself, Shane found God. And while he held the belief that no religion had a monopoly on God (hence the afore mentioned reference to the Priest displaying a Buddha), he was utterly devoted to Jesus.  

"I think what he was trying to get across was that there’s something in this stuff’ explained Victoria, ‘there’s something in Jesus that’s worth thinking about. It’s worth valuing. It’s worth exploring that Jesus is real."

I didn’t know this about Shane MacGowan; how actively he sought God, how deeply he enjoyed Jesus. But it makes complete sense. If one goes looking in the deepest places, they’re likely to find the deepest thing. Roam around the truest place, and eventually you’ll bump into the truest thing. 

 I, like Shane, believe that to be God. 

I suppose the difference, and the reason I could never write a song like ‘Rainy Night in Soho’, is that Shane boldly went where I doubt I ever could - to the costly depths reserved for the brilliant. Instead, I shall simply ponder how beautiful it is that God appears to wait for the brilliant to notice him, even in those depths.   

Popular articles