Matchbox Twenty thought they’d be ‘the butt of the joke’ with Ken’s ‘Push’ cover in ‘Barbie’

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Spoiler alert! The following contains major details about “Barbie” (now in theaters).

The “Barbie” soundtrack is a magnificent mélange of pop superstars, including Dua Lipa, Lizzo and Billie Eilish.

But the film’s most inspired musical moment belongs to “Push,” a 1996 alt-rock anthem by Matchbox Twenty. The song is earnestly performed by Ken (Ryan Gosling), who quite literally sings it at Barbie (Margot Robbie) for hours on end while strumming his guitar and sitting around a campfire.

The hilarious scene kickstarts the movie’s climax, as Barbie and her fellow dolls attempt to rescue Barbie Land, which Ken has transformed into a bro-dude brewtopia filled with horses, sports and “The Godfather." The song becomes the national anthem of the so-called Kendom, replacing Indigo Girls' "Closer to Fine."

‘Barbie’ ending: Greta Gerwig talks 'emotional' final line, creator Ruth Handler (Spoilers!)

“Push” was co-written by the band’s frontman, Rob Thomas, who sings about an emotionally abusive ex-girlfriend. In the context of “Barbie,” it’s an ingenious choice for the fragile Ken, who feels adrift in Barbie’s orbit and vengefully embraces toxic masculinity.

“Growing up, I loved that song,” director Greta Gerwig tells USA TODAY. “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.”

Thomas, 51, is touring the U.S. with Matchbox Twenty. He spoke to us last month about “Push,” problematic ‘90s music and his longtime crush on Gerwig (edited and condensed for clarity).

Question: So you get the call that Greta Gerwig wants "Push" for the "Barbie" movie. What was your reaction?

Answer: 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.

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. But Julie Greenwald (from Atlantic Records) came to the Hollywood Bowl a month or two ago. She had just seen the movie and was like, “You come out of it loving Ken and loving ‘Push.’” And I was like, “Aww. Alright, really good!”

Also, Greta Gerwig has been one of my crushes forever, to the point where I was on a plane one time and I called my wife, like, “Baby, Greta Gerwig just came on the plane, oh my god.” So just the fact that it didn’t diminish my crush of Greta, that’s even better.

Greta Gerwig, left, Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling behind the scenes of "Barbie."
Greta Gerwig, left, Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling behind the scenes of "Barbie."

If I’m correct, you wrote the song about an ex-girlfriend?

Yeah. What’s funny is, 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. 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.

But at the time I was in my early 20s. I didn’t even know what I was writing about. It takes being in my 50s now, and being married for 24 years, to look back and go, “Oh, man, I was going through some (stuff).” Therapy didn’t seem like an option in the ‘90s, so I was just journaling my feelings and sharing them with the world.

How long did it take to write?  

It was overnight. I went to New York with Matt Serletic, the producer. We were stuck in our hotel, we had no money to do anything, so we played a game where Matt opened up a book, I pointed at a word, and then we wrote a song based on whatever word I pointed at. The word was “rusty,” so I remember picking up my guitar and going “I’m a little bit rusty.” And then we started to build from there.

There was some controversy when it was released, from people who assumed the chorus was about physical abuse. Were you surprised by the backlash?

Honestly, our management put out to the press about the outrage. We came from the George Michael, David Bowie world of “let’s get somebody talking about something.” So there wasn’t that much outrage. We also lived in a different climate. A song like that without an asterisk next to it is more problematic now because we’re all much more aware of things. But at the time, ‘90s music was pretty problematic. And in a way, (the song) was very tame next to a bunch of other things. Also, look at me – I’m not going to push anybody around.

So are you planning to double feature “Barbie” along with “Oppenheimer?”

I’m probably going to stream it on my bus when it’s available to everyone else because apparently, I’m not famous enough to get a screener. I bet you John Mayer would get a screener! (Laughs.) No, listen, I'm excited to see two of the most beautiful people on the planet while I listen to my own song. That’s pretty amazing, in and of itself.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Matchbox 20 talks Ryan Gosling's 'Push' cover as Ken in 'Barbie' movie