How ‘Barbie’ Skewered the Sensitive-Bro Silliness of Matchbox Twenty’s ‘Push’

One of the comedy’s best jokes isn’t so much at the expense of Rob Thomas but, rather, the dudes who try to co-opt his 1990s hit to prove they’re, like, deep and stuff
How ‘Barbie’ Skewered the Sensitive-Bro Silliness of Matchbox Twenty’s ‘Push’

When hip filmmakers include unhip music in their movies, the assumption is that they’re making fun of it. For instance, a key emotional moment in Lady Bird is underscored by Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) and her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) crying and singing along to Dave Matthews Band’s ultra-sensitive ballad “Crash Into Me.” The audience is primed to laugh, but Lady Bird writer-director Greta Gerwig always insisted it wasn’t a joke — and she told Dave Matthews as much when she wrote him a letter asking permission to use his song.

“I love your music,” she wrote Matthews, later adding, “The song ‘Crash Into Me’ was and is the most romantic song ever. It is sincere and loving and tender and epic.” In interviews, Gerwig comes across as pretty sincere herself, not to mention very enthusiastic. She doesn’t love things ironically — she just loves things.

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Even so, it will be hard for the throngs checking out Barbie, her new film, not to presume that one song that pops up is meant as a putdown. I want to be careful of spoilers in case you haven’t seen Barbie yet, but basically, the story’s cavalcade of different Ken dolls (led by Ryan Gosling) go from being beta-males to aggressively macho dudes — but to show how, like, sensitive and shit they are, they whip out an acoustic guitar to woo their ladies with a pained rendition of “Push.”

When I saw Barbie a couple weeks ago, I laughed as hard as anyone at that moment, without remembering what song it was or who had originally done it. I just knew “Push” was one of those kinds of songs — the kind by an anonymous late-1990s pop-rock band trying to demonstrate that they’ve got deep feelings and stuff. It’s the kind of song that clueless dudes learn on the guitar because they figure women will fall for it. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t place the exact song — everybody knows a song like that.

Later, I recalled that “Push” was by Matchbox Twenty, a name I haven’t thought of in forever — which is understandable, considering that their brand new album, Where the Light Goes, is their first studio record in 11 years. The Florida quartet don’t dominate the charts the way they used to, but they’re doing well out on tour right now. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, though, they were major, at least commercially. Critics never really took to Matchbox Twenty, dismissing them as lightweights and corny as hell. But Gerwig swears she’s not ripping on them in Barbie.

“(A)nything that (I) have in a movie, any reference — and we reference The Godfather, Matchbox Twenty, Dave Matthews Band — I love all of it,” she said recently. “I never put anything in a movie I don’t love, and that’s true. I don’t really have use for things that I don’t have affection for, within a movie.”

Even if you take Gerwig at her word, and I do, the “Push” joke is one of the film’s sharpest zingers. But who’s it really making fun of? Barbie takes aim at many totems of popular culture that bros just can’t get enough of — there’s an especially devastating line about indie-rock icon Stephen Malkmus — using them as examples of how (lame) men try to lord their favorite entertainment over their girlfriends. But the “Push” sequence cuts even deeper. By performing their own rendition of the smash ballad, complete with intense emoting, the Kens (like so many men before them) are attaching themselves to the song’s tormented romantic sentiments. They wish to demonstrate that, like Matchbox Twenty lead singer Rob Thomas, they are full of anguish, vulnerability and all that other crap women find so compelling in romantic partners. That “Push” has inspired debate — and more than a little anger — ever since its release only adds another twist to Barbie’s barb. “Push” is a song about heartbreak, but whose heart is the one that’s breaking?

Born in the former West Germany — his dad was in the Army — Rob Thomas grew up in South Carolina, falling in love with country music. “George Jones, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Conway Twitty, Tammy Wynette, Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash — big stars who lived these fucking hard lives,” he said in 2005. “That’s why I wanted to be (a) songwriter. Then I moved into Billy Joel and Elton John, which seemed logical. When I moved to Florida, I started to open up to Elvis Costello. There was one girl I used to date who turned me on to the Cure and Violent Femmes.”

Thomas understood living a hard life: His mother was an alcoholic who battled cancer, and his father was rarely around. “When I was 10 years old, I was at my grandmother’s house learning how to separate seeds and stems, so I could make dime bags so she could sell weed,” he recalled recently. Thomas got busted once for stealing a car. For a while, he lived on his own, crashing wherever he could find a spot. “It was a lifestyle,” Thomas said in a 1997 interview. “I had friends in the same situation. We’d wind up sleeping on a bench or with friends whose parents were away. We were into it, really.”

The band that would soon make Thomas a superstar got together in 1995 after a previous iteration of the group, named Tabitha’s Secret, failed to gain traction. Alongside lead guitarist Kyle Cook, drummer Paul Doucette, rhythm guitarist Adam Gaynor and bassist Brian Yale, Thomas formed Matchbox Twenty. (One quick side note: They actually went by Matchbox 20 at the time. On their second album, the group officially changed the name to Matchbox Twenty.) When the band were putting together tracks for their first record, 1996’s Yourself or Someone Like You, Thomas and album producer Matt Serletic found themselves with unexpected free time one evening. Out of that came “Push.”

“We were in New York to meet with the head of Lava Records, who eventually signed us, but that night he blew us off,” recalled Thomas. “So we were stuck in the hotel that night and started doing a writing exercise where he opened up a book and pointed to a word, and the word was ‘rusty.’ So I picked up the guitar and sung, ‘I’m a little bit rusty,’ and we kind of built the whole song around that line — we thought about, ‘What if you’re a little bit rusty in life?’ Then it became a song about emotional manipulation.”

Narratively, “Push” is structured in a fairly familiar way, presenting two sides of a couple’s argument. It starts with the girlfriend expressing her mindset:

She said, “I don’t know if I’ve ever been good enough 
I’m a little bit rusty
And I think my head is caving in 
And I don’t know if I’ve ever been really loved 
By a hand that’s touched me
And I feel like something’s gonna give 
And I’m a little bit angry”

But the guy doesn’t want to let her go. If anything, he wants to control her, making his feelings crystal-clear:

I wanna push you around
Well, I will
Well, I will 
I wanna push you down
Well, I will
Well, I will 
I wanna take you for granted
I wanna take you for granted 
Yeah, I will

In modern times, when there’s more public awareness of domestic violence, that chorus might have provoked widespread outcry. But even back then, Thomas caught hell. “I got a lot of, I mean, like angry, angry women (writing to me),” he said in 1997. Thomas explained that the lyrics had actually been inspired about an emotionally abusive relationship he’d endured — in fact, one former girlfriend, once “Push” became a hit, claimed that the song was about her and was entitled to residuals. “She was an ingredient in the song — but other people have scarred me,” Thomas said. “I mean, I’m not gonna pay my third-grade librarian, who gave me shit about not returning Green Eggs and Ham.” But for “Push,” Thomas decided to switch the roles of abuser and abused. “I was really writing about me,” he explained on the lyric site Genius about the song. “I was writing about someone who was manipulating me. But then instead of it being a victim song, I switched it around so that it was me manipulating someone, saying, ‘I want to push you around, and I want to take you for granted.’”

But the public’s reaction to “Push” was still way off in the future. Right there, in that hotel room, Thomas felt good about what he and Serletic had come up with. “That song just poured out, as some songs do,” Thomas said. “Even when we got to the bridge, we rolled right into it. … We walked out of that hotel room with a fully finished song and we kind of knew we were onto something.”

“Push” wasn’t Matchbox Twenty’s first single, though: That would be “Long Day,” an uptempo, self-loathing slab of melodic pop-rock. It didn’t do anything on the charts, however, and the band members were worried. “We released our record in ‘96,” Thomas said earlier this year, “and the day that it came out was the same day that Lava, our record label, folded, and a bunch of bands got dropped. We were possibly on the list because we put out a song called ‘Long Day’ and it didn’t react the way we wanted.”

Lava was owned by Atlantic, and apparently there were discussions about the label kicking Matchbox Twenty to the curb. But they lucked out: A program director at an Alabama radio station dug “Push” and decided to start playing it on his own. “(Y)ou could do that back then,” said Thomas. “And it just started to react in Birmingham — in a crazy way, it was, like, the No. 1 song immediately. So Atlantic was like, ‘Well, let’s give this one more chance.’ So then they put some money behind ‘Push’ and put it out to radio, and that was the saving grace for us.” 

“Push” never entered the Billboard Top 100 — the track wasn’t available for commercial sale, therefore making it ineligible — but it was all over Billboard’s other charts, doing especially well on Adult Pop and Adult Alternative. The track was officially released in the summer of 1997, a time when the adult-alternative format was starting to gain momentum. The grunge and alt-rock bands of the early-to-mid-1990s had faded, replaced by earnest, earthier rock artists who wanted to capitalize on those earlier groups’ mainstream success. Bands like Matchbox Twenty, Third Eye Blind and Train fit into this niche, taking the baton from groups such as the Wallflowers, Hootie & the Blowfish and Counting Crows that had offered heartfelt, middle-of-the-road rock that wasn’t as abrasive or challenging as what Nirvana or Pavement were doing. “Push” was a perfect single for that moment: big, anguished emotions paired with growly, wounded vocals and a singalong chorus. (Also, the plaintive guitars practically screamed out for listeners to pull out their lighters during a concert.) “Push” was comforting and cozy, despite the lyrical content. Years later, Thomas would express shock when people would come up to him to say that “Push” was their wedding song. “You guys are doomed,” he’d think to himself.

By the end of 1997, Yourself or Someone Like You, thanks to singles like “Push,” “3AM” and “Real World,” had already gone triple-platinum. (As of now, it’s 12-times platinum.)  Matchbox Twenty’s follow-up, 2000’s Mad Season, went quadruple-platinum, with “Bent” hitting No. 1 on the U.S. charts. Additionally, Thomas enjoyed a massive hit with “Smooth,” his 1999 single with Carlos Santana off the legendary guitarist’s comeback record Supernatural. (Thomas won Grammys for Record of the Year and Song of the Year for “Smooth.”) With his good looks, nice-boy-with-a-slight-edge demeanor and yearning vocals, Thomas was suddenly among the most popular musicians in the world, even if people didn’t always know who he was.

“(T)he best was watching Rock ‘n’ Roll Jeopardy on VH1,” he told Spin in a 1999 interview. “They showed a video — it was Third Eye Blind — and the question was, ‘Guess this band.’ The first guy beeps in and yells, ‘Matchbox 20!’ That sucked on its own. Then the host goes, ‘No. But close.’ And I’m like, ‘Oh, I’m gonna fucking rip your head off!’” Truth was, Thomas hated Third Eye Blind. “(Their frontman Stephan Jenkins) made fun of me — called me a fat guy,” he said. “Screw you! He has no soul whatsoever.” But Thomas could sense that his band was never going to be considered cool. Recalling attending that year’s MTV Video Music Awards, Thomas admitted, “It was funny trying to find our place there. We couldn’t hang out with Busta Rhymes. We couldn’t hang out with Marilyn Manson or Green Day. The only person we talked to was Puffy. And actors. … We’re popular, but we’re not quite the football players. Marilyn Manson and Billy Corgan are the football players. No, we’re like the class presidents! Really popular, but getting beat up by the football players.”

Matchbox Twenty continued to be popular (and not particularly cool) with their third record, 2002’s More Than You Think You Are, still delivering sturdy radio-ready singles that were rock-lite. Their music was reliably pleasant, unerringly tuneful — and also fairly disposable. They were one of those groups whose smash singles you’ve no doubt heard — you just don’t know they’re by Matchbox Twenty. (They’re very much a “Oh, I remember this song — wait, that’s them?” band.) But after More Than You Think You Are, Thomas went solo, putting out five records while Matchbox Twenty’s productivity slowed. The group got back together for 2012’s North, their first No. 1 album, although it didn’t sport the big hits as before, and then a decade later the band reunited, minus Gaynor, to release the new Where the Light Goes. “It doesn’t matter how often we do it,” Thomas said recently of the group’s latest reunion. “It just matters that we do it when we’re ready for it, so we can give it everything.”

Back when “Push” was a smash in 1997, Matchbox Twenty had to defend the lyrics, with Thomas saying explicitly at one point, “It’s not about beating women, that’s for sure.” Certainly, plenty of songs of that era (not to mention before and since) have trafficked in despicable attitudes toward women, but whatever “Push’s” faults, I think any reasonable person can read the lyrics and understand that Thomas isn’t talking about literally pushing around his girlfriend. (Even “I wanna push you down” seems easy to interpret as a psychological/emotional strategy, not a physical one.) 

That said, it was interesting that Thomas thought it would be better not to make “Push” “a victim song.” In 1997, he told a journalist, “It’s about how I was manipulated in a relationship. ... Some people get the wrong idea and think that it’s about physical violence, when it’s really about emotional violence.” But by making himself (or, if you prefer, the song’s narrator) the inflictor rather than the victim, he at last got to have the upper hand in that former relationship. Clearly, neither of the parties in “Push” comes across as an especially happy, well-adjusted person, and no doubt many people over the years who have sung along related to being in a couple where they were emotionally (or maybe even physically) abused, perhaps longing (just for a moment) to turn the tables on their partner. I imagine, for some, “Push” speaks to something terrible they’d experienced that they wished they hadn’t. 

But also interesting was one of the other band member’s reaction to the controversy. “We were kind of surprised when we heard all that stuff,” bassist Brian Yale said in 1998 about some listeners’ assumption that the song promoted domestic violence, later adding, “We’re not the manliest of men all the time. I’m a short guy. I don’t think I could kick anyone’s (butt).” The argument was that, obviously, nice boys like Matchbox Twenty couldn’t possibly be advocating pushing or hitting women — after all, they’re not even that macho. In other words, they’re not those kinds of men.

But that’s a common misconception that straight guys cling to, insisting that only super-aggro dudes hurt women — and that such harm is always physical. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen in the #MeToo era, plenty of wimpy or non-alpha males revealed themselves to be abusive in different ways. And then there’s all the non-famous abusers — just regular guys, many of them convinced that they’re not jerks — who perpetuate similar bad behavior. Just because we don’t hear about it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. And, unfortunately, emotional violence happens everywhere. 

The National Domestic Violence Hotline has a whole section on its website dedicated to the phenomenon, noting that “95 percent of (people who reached out to the Hotline) stated they were experiencing emotional abuse. Emotional abuse may not be what most people think about when they picture abuse, but that does not make it any less real or less serious. Because of its subtleties, emotional abuse can be quite difficult to detect when it is being experienced. Emotional abuse is also a foundation for other forms of abuse. Often, it is used (to) erode a person’s self-esteem and self-worth and create a psychological dependency on the abusive partner.” One of the most horrendous aspects of emotional abuse is that it happens in quiet, persistent ways — it doesn’t leave black eyes or broken bones, but it’s equally painful. And you don’t have to be macho to do it — you just have to be an asshole who wants control. Plus, according to the NDVH, “it is not uncommon for emotional abuse to escalate to physical violence. In some relationships this escalation to physical abuse is slow, and in others it can happen rapidly.”

Of course, men can suffer emotional abuse as well — Thomas had endured such a relationship when he wrote “Push” — but if you mindlessly have the song on in the background, the achingly earnest arrangement and bellowed vocals might suggest it’s just another sappy, sensitive love song. Understandably, Thomas couldn’t believe that people choose to get married to “Push,” but if you’re not paying attention, the lyrics do seem to be paying tribute to an undying devotion that, no matter how hard things get, will persevere. It’s the kind of bad love where you mistakenly think that the agony makes it meaningful. Similarly, it’s the kind of grunty anthem that mistakes manly displays of sentimentality for profound soulfulness and artistic depth.

And, ultimately, this is why “Push” is so darkly funny in Barbie. The Kens live in Barbie Land, a utopian feminist society in which the Barbies are in charge, but once the Kens discover patriarchy in the real world, they rise up and overthrow the Barbies, turning Barbie Land into a bro-tastic nightmare. After their coup, they serenade the Barbies with “Push,” which on an acoustic guitar sounds romantic, I suppose. But whether you view the song as a desire to assert control over your loved one or as a demonstration of clenched-jaw sensitivity, it’s totally the wrong vibe for courtship. Not unlike “Every Breath You Take” or “The One I Love,” it’s a song that chronicles an awful relationship in all its messy ugliness. At least all those guys strumming “Wonderwall” understand what that song is about: The Kens, like so many hopeless dudes, want to feign vulnerability, thinking that the strained sincerity of “Push” exonerates them from being bad boyfriends.

To this point, Matchbox Twenty haven’t publicly acknowledged the use of “Push” in Barbie, and the Ryan Gosling version isn’t on the official soundtrack album. But it’s going to be one of the jokes viewers most remember from the film — especially for audiences old enough to remember when “Push” was everywhere. To be clear, there’s nothing remotely evil about the song — or Matchbox Twenty. There’s also nothing malicious in Thomas’ intention — which to my ears feels like an unfiltered expression of a toxic relationship that messed him up. At worst, “Push” is just an overwrought slab of generic pop-rock, albeit one inspired by genuine trauma. 

But why the Barbie bit is so good is because it mocks the environment around “Push,” which makes the song so unintentionally comic. The target of the joke isn’t Rob Thomas’ heavy emoting, per se — it’s the dopey dudes with no self-awareness or ability to read lyrics who want to prove their nice-guy bona fides by singing a pretty, melancholy song about how love tears them apart, man. 

Spoiler Alert: The ploy doesn’t work for the Kens in Barbie. It shouldn’t work in the real world, either. 

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