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Why We Still Love Pop Soundtracks

Admit it, you can’t wait for the ‘50 Shades Darker’ soundtrack

It’s time to accept an uncomfortable truth: the 50 Shades Darker soundtrack is going to be great.

But you probably already know that. On top of the Taylor Swift and Zayn jam (and/or the greatest song in the world), “I Don’t Wanna Live Forever,” Halsey just released a song for the soundtrack. Add to this music by John Legend, Nicki Minaj, and Sia, and the result is inevitable: we’ve got ourselves a hit.

Which actually isn’t surprising considering the 50 Shades series’s soundtrack legacy — the original had the biggest chart debut for any soundtrack since 2005 — plus the fact that blockbuster movie soundtracks have a record of being excellent, whether or not you like the movies they’re attached to.

Let’s not forget that Twilight’s corresponding albums featured hits from Paramore, Metric, and Florence and the Machine, while the Suicide Squad soundtrack debuted at No. 1 this past summer. And all for good reason, TBH: Suicide Squad featured everyone from Skrillex (who is EMO, by the way) to Grimes, while also nodding to the oldies via songs by War and Creedence Clearwater Revival. Which is arguably what any good mix does. In the same way we used to throw all types of music onto our burned CDs, today’s blockbuster soundtracks focus less on genre and more on feel-good vibes. One second you’re jamming to Eminem’s “Without Me,” the next it’s a cover of “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Panic! at the Disco. Suicide Squad in itself is a testament to the multifaceted music tastes we all have.

This is a lesson that the film and music industries have learned, forgotten, and relearned over the years. While the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s gave us soundtracks that mattered as much as the movies that carried them (see: Saturday Night Fever, The Big Chill, or Forrest Gump), the advent of downloads and playlists made soundtracks less bankable as the 2000s progressed. By the later part of the decade, soundtracks were less likely to be Top 40 chart fodder than proof of indie credibility, with movies like Garden State and series like The O.C. spotlighting new and underground artists.

And that’s where Twilight comes in. Where the original 2008 movie was easily disregarded as cinematic fluff, its soundtrack offered something a bit harder, with songs by Muse and Paramore. The following year, New Moon went back to leaning on rising artists like Lykke Li and St. Vincent; but in 2010, the series’s producers busted out the big guns for Eclipse. (Shout-out to The Dead Weather, Sia, and Muse — again.) All of which meant that even if film snobs could wave away the story of Bella and Edward, pop fans had a harder time being dismissive. Because hey, if a major artist thinks a franchise is good enough to contribute to, who are we to say it’s not?

A similar principle is helping the 50 Shades series and Suicide Squad among audiences that might otherwise write them off entirely. Whether or not you spend hard-earned dollars to see these movies, you'll be thinking of them whenever you listen to or talk about their songs.

But what’s most interesting is our evolving relationship to soundtracks themselves. In the Year of Our Lord 2017, we understand how mixes work. We can make our own playlists, we download music for free, and we can all be DJs if we put our minds to it. And yet we continue to buy the shit out of soundtracks. What does that say about what we want in the streaming age?

First, it’s a testament to our beautiful laziness. Sure, we can make our own soundtracks, but when songs are collected and performed by the artists we love, our work is done for us — and done in a way we might not have envisioned. (I mean, would you put Halsey and Zayn on an album together? OK, fine, maybe — but would you have paired him with Taylor Swift on the same track?)

Beyond that, the continued success of blockbuster soundtracks is proof that film still needs pop music after all these years. When Beyoncé’s reworked “Crazy in Love” accompanied the original 50 Shades trailer, we suddenly cared: Not only was it a great cover, but our savior was involved in something that we might otherwise have assumed was not for us. And so were a lot of other artists — while packaged neatly in a 16-track album.

That combination of buzz and accessibility and decent songs performed by artists we’d follow into the cold, dark night can expand a movie’s reach in a big way. And if you’re making a big-bucks movie in 2017, you’d better think twice before skimping on the soundtrack.