SoundTreks | Fifty Shades of Grey
To offer a little too much information about myself: I’m not into heavy bondage. I don’t own a dungeon, I don’t possess miles of binding ropes, I have no ball gags, no leather masks, no cat-o-nine-tails, no sounding equipment, no electrified nipple clamps, no weights to hang from my erogenous zones. Compared to the zealous pain-twinged sexual consumption of Christian Grey, the male protagonist of a particularly popular piece of pornography, I am positively vanilla.
I still, however, seem to know more about bondage and rough sex – through acquaintances and through a mere casual interest I assure you – than the makers of Fifty Shades of Grey, the hit film from earlier this year. Fifty Shades of Grey, an R-rated puffball romance, feints in the direction of exploring one’s budding sexuality through ever-intensifying S&M, but ultimately treats its own rough sex like a pathology, landing on the side of its innocent ingenue who wished to tame the wild kinkster rather than join him.
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But since the E.L. James book on which it is based was such an enormous phenomenon, the film was a big hit in theaters, earning, as of this writing, $166 million domestically. The film’s success was likely what parlayed the success of its soundtrack record, which is the second most downloaded album of the year (behind Adele), and one of the biggest selling soundtracks of the year.
This is a flimsy enough excuse for SoundTreks. We will use this timely opportunity to look at the soundtrack record for Fifty Shades of Grey, and surmise how it plays as a full album. Get out your floggers, and lets get to spanking.
Track 1. “I Put a Spell on You” – Annie Lennox
“I Put a Spell on You,” originally by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, has always been a scary song. It’s ostensibly a love song, but it’s a dark obsessive love song, sung by someone longing to possess their would-be lover from afar. It feel’s like a stalker’s anthem. A song less about love, and more about lording power over someone. Which, of course, makes it perfect for a film about a sub/dom relationship. This was an excellent choice to include in the movie, and a near-perfect place to start the record.
The original version would have worked fine, but it would have felt perhaps too obvious. Annie Lennox’ version is more modern, more spidery, and just as vicious. It’s a great cover of an appropriate song.
Track 2. “Undiscovered” – Laura Welsh
Although not all the songs on this soundtrack are explicitly about sex or sexuality, it’s hard not to assign some sort of sexual overtone to each one of them. So although the title and the chorus might lead one to believe that Laura Welsh’s “Undiscovered” is about “discovering” someone in a sexual fashion, it’s actually about unrequited love. It’s a pop trip-hop anthem that may more closely describe the movie’s heroine, Anastasia Steele, a virgin who sees herself as a clumsy wallflower. It’s a good anthem for her, I suppose, although I would have picked something older and more innocent.
Track 3. “Earned It” – The Weeknd
The Weeknd (pronounced “weekend”) is actually just one man, a fellow named Abel Makkonen Tesfaye. The song, with its pounding orchestral grind, also plays pretty sexy, and the below video is pretty sexy in itself. Well, it has a bunch of half-naked women with Xs inscribed on their bottoms, and features The Weeknd singing directly into a woman’s breasts. The vocals, however, undo a lot of the sexiness for me. I don’t think Tesfaye’s high-pitched boy-band crooning is particularly arousing. It’s a song that sounds sexy on the surface, but is actually pretty sterile when compared to, well, “I Put a Spell on You.”
Track 4. “Meet Me in the Middle” – Jessie Ware
The sexuality on the Fifty Shades of Grey record seems to be vacillating. It evokes sex without saying anything explicit. Like the movie itself, the soundtrack’s approach to sex is titillating without being realistic or serious. Luckily, there are a few songs on it that you could actually fuck to. Jessie Ware’s “Meet Me in the Middle” has a sexy bass groove, and the vocals are whispery and seductive. It sounds like it was specifically designed to play in the background of a teenager’s bedroom while she engages in heavy petting for the first time.
Track 5. “Love Me Like You Do” – Ellie Goulding
And, just like that, we lose the sensual vibe. Sure, “Love Me Like You Do” talks about touching and skin and being on fire, but these are vaguely sexual at best. It’s a pop ballad that sounds like it could easily play on Radio Disney in between Five Seconds of Summer and, I dunno, Dawin or something. Having a tiny voice like Ellie Goulding on this soundtrack feels like a child wandered into the grown-up’s movie. I apologize to Goulding’s fans, but this is not a genre I can easily tolerate.
Track 6. “Haunted (Michael Diamond Remix)” – Beyoncé
This is another slow trip-hop groove that seems well-suited to the foyers of 1990s strip clubs. It, yes, has a vaguely sexual groove. I just wish more songs on this soundtrack were more explicitly about doin’ it. A sexy mood is appreciated, but one can only stay in the mood for so long before they’re going to want to actually start getting to business. Is this a sexual slow burn, or just a tease?
Track 7. “Salted Wound” – Sia
“Salted Wound” was the big hit of the Fifty Shades soundtrack, although you would never guess that by listening to it. It’s another oddly downbeat ballad, this time with no real sexual undertones, that grows without transforming. I love Sia’s vocals (she was a ’90s acid jazz musician who backed for Jamiroquai before going solo), but there is so little distinct modulation in “Salted Wound” that she may as well be muttering. Love ballads like this have an aching tone, and I suppose I can appreciate the feeling of longing, but I need more than what “Salted Wound” gives me to have a legitimate emotional connection.
Track 8. “Beast of Burden” – The Rolling Stones
Any number of Rolling Stones songs are romantic, and any number are about raw sexuality. The phrase “Beast of Burden” is evocative of bondage, I suppose, although the song is more romance than sex. The Rolling Stones are, well, The Rolling Stones, so their music is already kind of known by all humans, making their inclusion on any and all soundtrack records a form of comfort food (also included, a few denotations of attitude). This is the “classic” jam on a record otherwise mostly full of new songs. I appreciate the texture.
Track 9. “I’m on Fire” – AWOLNATION
Bruce Springsteen, but quiet and trippy. AWOLNATION’s cover of The Boss doesn’t have the same impact as Annie Lennox’ “I Put a Spell on You,” but I assume the intention was the same.
Track 10. “Crazy in Love” – Beyoncé
It’s rare that an artist will re-record one of their own hits in a completely new genre. The original is a pounding party ballad that infected radios everywhere for a summer. This version of “Crazy in Love” is, in keeping with the overall attitude of the record, a dreamy ballad about longing and intensity. I think that it actually works better this way. Being crazy in love, like actually crazy, like actually mentally ill crazy, is not going to be something to party about. This is a song, in this rendition, about being so in love that you’re losing your mind. That’s in keeping with a film about dominance and submission. Even if this one isn’t all that sexified.
Track 11. “Witchcraft” – Frank Sinatra
Hooray for variety!
Track 12. “One Last Night” – Vaults
“One Last Night” is a breakup song, and it occurs when our hero and heroine are separated. The usual pop electro-drone is firmly in place (it’s a sound that is hugely emotionally overwhelming, and a sound I can’t wait to fall out of fashion), and the lyrics are about almost falling back in love again.
I understand that the filmmakers of Fifty Shades of Grey were trying to turn a sex story into a love story, but the relationship never struck me as an undying romance for the ages. This was a story that famously began its life as Twilight fan fiction, so the impossibly perfect, broody intensity if that movie seems to be the dominant creative ethos behind this soundtrack rather than anything in Fifty Shades itself. I appreciate a few intense love ballads, and I certainly love me a good love story, but Fifty Shades needs to emerge as its own animal. Including a very good, but largely indistict songs by Vaults is not the way to do that.
Track 13. “Where You Belong” – The Weeknd
This guy again. I have to be honest, I can’t tell the difference between this The Weeknd song and the previous one, other than to say that the sexuality is absent here. Am I mad, or wouldn’t a movie about S&M be better served with more Lou Reed, or sultry ’40s ballads? These trippy electro-romances are more like background mood than information.
Track 14. “I Know You” – Skylar Grey
Sigh. Sadly, see above.
Which is Better? The Soundtrack or the Movie?
Dare I say, the film. However critically panned it was (and I panned it myself when it came out), the movie is actually weirdly entertaining for its oddball dialogue and well-researched but oddly naive view of S&M. While I like a few tracks on this record, I think it sort of vanishes up its own no-very-romantic dreaminess. The movie has all the sex and emotions.
The movie and the soundtrack suffer from the same problem: They need more explicit depictions of human lust. The movie backs way from any notions that S&M may be a viable and desirable life choice (as it is for its actual practitioners). The soundtrack backs off from any song that would refer to the actual sex act, covering it up in trip-hop longing and vague declarations of love. This is a soundtrack that aches for a stripper ballad or two, some slutty saxophones, some bump ‘n’ grind. If it were up to me, I would want to make a soundtrack that was interested in getting into your pants. Instead, the OST for Fifty Shades of Grey goes for the heart, and misses at that. There’s some promise here and there, but ultimately, the record is happy to stay at arm’s length.
Photos: Universal Pictures
Witney Seibold is a contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. He also contributes to Legion of Leia, The Robot’s Voice, and Blumhouse. You can follow him on “Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.