Valentine’s Day traditionally celebrates the uncomfortable romance between capitalism and love — it's a day when couples drown in champagne hot tubs and strangle each other with silk lingerie while groups of single friends defensively stage fun nights out. This year, the freighted holiday feels even weirder than usual. Fifty Shades Darker, like its 2015 predecessor, is explicit Valentine’s Day escapism, with the emphasis on explicit. The movies, like the books, center around the relationship between naïf Anastasia Steele and powerful and sexually sadistic billionaire Christian Grey, as Steele is convinced to enter into a supposedly romantic but actually very creepy partnership.
When the book Fifty Shades of Grey came out in 2011, it spawned a lot of simplistic “powerful heterosexual women just wanna get tied up behind closed doors” think pieces. These takes traded in bad logic that women, no matter how powerful, always secretly want to be back on their knees. But it’s evolutionary psych bullshit to assume that powerful heterosexual men wouldn’t also want to be tied up and spanked. The idea that men are programmed to dominate at every moment is silly and false, and part of why Trump’s handshake bit, like his claim that he hasn’t cried since childhood, is so ridiculous. Can anyone really be a powerful, ultra-dominating alpha male all the time? Masculinity lives in the shadow of this archetype, punishing all who fail to emulate it, just as women are punished for failing to meet an imaginary ideal of always being maternally comforting and secondary to men. The solution? Everybody must get soft.
The Fifty Shades of Grey books are terribly written — repetitive and numbingly unsexy. There are both better romance novels and better smut. The success of the series came about because femmes as an audience are so deprived of products focused on their experience: While the books lack the “you’ve got to read this” quality of the best pink-pen trashy novels, like Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls or Jackie Collins’s Hollywood Wives, they nonetheless tap into a long tradition that Hollywood generally underserves — namely, art that's not centered around serving the gaze or interests of straight men. Like Valentine’s Day, the allure of the Fifty Shades film trilogy has to do with the fact that it doesn’t come around constantly. Sometimes you just need to rip open a heart-shaped box of candy and chug the whole thing without feeling at all bad about it. Nobody’s guilting men about enjoying John Wick: Chapter 2. Even if the sequel is reported to be worse than the first one, like sex, it’s just as much about the anticipation.
Rolling out the soundtrack in advance, then, is a form of foreplay — letting people luxuriate in excitement for the future event of seeing the movie. Pop film soundtracks, ostensibly popularized by The Graduate in 1967, are such an ambient part of today’s film landscape that it’s easy to forget they ever weren’t. The Fifty Shades Darker soundtrack expounds on the themes of the first film's soundtrack, whose lead single, The Weeknd’s leather-bound chamber-pop waltz “Earned It,” became a hit as well as The Weeknd’s breakout crossover moment. That song established “fucking on the cold marble floor of a mansion” as the series's signature musical vibe. The sequel's lead single, “I Don’t Wanna Live Forever,” produced by Jack Antonoff, pairs Taylor Swift with Zayn's chilly falsetto. “Baby, baby / I feel crazy,” she sings as her voice slips into a mad whisper.
The rest of the soundtrack is a mix of melancholy future-pop and sultry, crackling throwbacks. Halsey sings a ballad that she co-wrote with the singer from Magic! (of “Rude” fame) and “Earned It” co-producer Jason Quenneville. It sounds like a dollar-store version of Massive Attack’s “Teardrop,” which feels fine as a signpost of the ongoing R&B trip-hop revival for which The Weeknd’s Hooverphonic-sampling Lemonade duet, “6 Inch,” set a new high watermark. Halsey gets to show off her voice in a non-Chainsmokers context, which is exhilarating.
Elsewhere, Tove Lo contributes a slinky minor-key number called “Lies in the Dark” that ventures further into trip-hop with brief, Beth Orton–ish folktronica strings. Nick Jonas gets a feature from Nicki Minaj for “Bom Bidi Bom,” the soundtrack's mandatory somewhat-more-uptempo song. (Sadly, it does not sample nor interpolate Selena’s “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom.”) Assembled by a wrecking crew of pop writers co-responsible for behemoths like Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse,” Jason Derulo’s “Talk Dirty,” and Pitbull and Kesha’s “Timber,” it bounces along pleasantly enough — Nick Jonas always seems happy to exist. Nicki’s verse doesn’t riff specifically on the film franchise, but works fine on its own terms. The biggest laugh comes in the song’s outro, when she follows a riff on Johnny Osbourne’s Sleng Teng classic “Buddy Bye” with “he tryna bless me like his rabbi.”
The surprise highlight of the Fifty Shades Darker soundtrack is “Empty Pack of Cigarettes,” a heartfelt spotlight turn from Rihanna’s “Love on the Brain” co-writer Joseph Angel — it feels Prince-like in the best possible way. Other bright spots are the blues-psych “No Running from Me” by Toulouse and a predictably excellent burner from John Legend called “One Woman Man.” There’s also a throwaway song from The-Dream (“Code Blue”), a Kygo song (sure, why not), and the now requisite Sia ballad (“Helium”). To further round things out, there’s a Gershwin standard (José James doing “They Can’t Take That Away from Me”) and a Coldplay cover (Corrine Bailey Rae doing “The Scientist”), some generic electronic pop (“Pray” by JRY featuring Rooty, “I Need a Good One” by The Avener and Mark Asari), a song by a ginger would-be Adele named Frances, and a couple of tracks from Danny Elfman’s score.
The soundtrack works as double escapism, because Fifty Shades of Grey makes me think about 2015 in an idealized romantic light even if I was not actually having the best year at the time. Since my fantasies lately are more political than sexual, I find myself fantasizing that someday I’ll be able to think back on the nice moments of 2017, and that maybe the bad dystopian future can still be averted with corny, old-fashioned concepts like love and acceptance.