We shift from our BBC Sound Of 2017 coverage to the pop charts, but we’re not any nicer…
Lauren Gilbert: This is Bad. For all that “Love Me Like You Do” felt like Lights Redux, it was a perfectly solid song outside of context. This features Zayn wailing (someone needs to tell him falsetto isn’t always a good idea) and Taylor utterly failing to save the track. It feels like someone told her to write something cinematic, and you can indeed picture the scenes from Fifty Shades Darker that this will soundtrack: Dakota Johnson looking sad in an art gallery, Dakota Johnson looking sad in a cab, flash of Jamie Dornan looking Imposing and Sexy, Dakota Johnson looking sad in a different art gallery. Movie soundtrack singles aren’t required to be this dreadful.
Katie Gill: Confession: I adore the Fifty Shades of Gray soundtrack. It’s the only place where awful Beyoncé remixes can sit side-by-side with various Top 40 artists trying to be “sexy” but in a watered-down, approved for Clear Channel radio type way. And speaking of Clear Channel-approved sexiness, there’s this song! It’s kind of awful! Zayn is desperately trying to do his best Prince with that falsetto and Taylor Swift is straight up phoning it in. It’s a half-assed mess and I LOVE IT. Every time the chorus starts up with “I DON’T WANNA LIVE… FOREVER,” I break out into giggles. Which granted, isn’t the intended effect of the song, but don’t make your song sound so silly and I won’t laugh at it.
Maxwell Cavaseno: There’s a way to take narcissistic angst and self-torment and make it work. Last year Kehlani turned the grotesquerie of the IG Meme Disease of Harley Quinn and Joker’s Bonnie & Clyde archetype into a perfectly tragi-dumb song like “Gangster” for Suicide Squad. The year before that Beyoncé made “Crazy in Love” go all overwrought and comically grave for Fifty Shades of Grey‘s soundtrack, and the Weeknd finally got to take his supplanting of a personality with kinks to the top 40 for that same project. This formula is not foreign in pop of the 21st century — that indulged feeling of inner darkness and putting on that King/Queen of Pain crown is pretty common. Heck, Swift even knows how to mock it. So who do I blame for taking such an obvious task and somehow screwing it up into an over-eager romp mistaking “darkness” for some sort of just plain ol’ romantic tension? Is it Antonoff, who thought he was trying to make sadomasochism “fun” (ha, double entendre)? Or is it Malik, who we’ve spent a good amount of time trying to draw fake depth from like water from rocks? It’s a simple enough scheme, and there’s a whole sea of edgelords who’d gobble it up with appreciation. Why couldn’t anyone realize that here?
Crystal Leww: I’m one of the handful of people who thought that Zayn’s debut album wasn’t a total trainwreck — while the album was 80 per cent filler, it also had its moments. Taylor Swift, despite her general media personality, is a phenomenal songwriter and a pretty good pop star. She’s proven that she can effectively pen songs for other people to make their own. So why does “I Don’t Wanna Live Forever” sound like the worst parts of Zayn have dragged Taylor Swift into the hole of boring anonymity. This is so slow, so long, and so unsexy. The lone bright spot is “I been looking sad in all the nicest places,” which like, fine, we get it, you’re Taylor Swift, but at least it’s declaring who they are as artists.
Claire Biddles: Like “Pillowtalk,” this is trying so hard to be sexy, but it’s so unconvincing, and like “Pillowtalk” it’s because of the deeply unsexy performances. Both Zayn and Taylor come across as pretty asexual to begin with, but the constant forced falsetto makes for a really unpleasant listen. I guess at least if you went back to someone’s flat and they put this on you’d know to make your excuses and leave before the boring sex began.
Olivia Rafferty: Because when I’m commissioning a big, sexy number for my big, sexy film, I obviously think of Taylor Swift and Zayn. The lyrics barely grasp at anything that resembles a sentiment, and the “oh-oh oh oh” refrain is an ironically vapid space-filler. The biggest crime is that at some points the song actually has a little charm: that breathless, “baby, baby/I feel crazy,” or Taylor Swift’s verse. And then for some reason it was decided that Zayn must screech falsetto on the chorus, and TaySwift must sing the most criminally Swiftian lyric I’ve ever heard: “I’ve been looking sad in all the nicest places.” A half-hearted attempt to follow the anthemic “Love Me Like You Do” and a half-decent soundtrack the first time 50 Shades rolled around.
Megan Harrington: Overwhelmingly, duets between men and women are in service to a romantic narrative. And on the surface, “I Don’t Wanna Live Forever” is no different, a supposedly lusty song tacked onto a supposedly lusty movie. But are there two performers any less sexual than Zayn and Taylor Swift? The two share a vocal chemistry similar to the rush neurotics feel when they stumble on a perfectly organized shelf of books — and that’s their only chemistry. The song, then, must be about something else, something other than desire and lost love. The refrain “I just wanna keep calling your name/until you come back home” suggests that we might have our first duet in service of finding a lost puppy?
Ramzi Awn: The right kind of anthemic also happens to be the kind that makes Taylor Swift sound good.
Alfred Soto: Although Taylor Swift’s name is in the songwriting credits, this soundtrack theme has the fingerprints of men who would destroy the world with a blank falsetto if only she’d stop the nonsense and Come Back Home. The Weeknd. Drake. Everywhere I look, this po-faced pair: immobile with anger, confusing churlishness with pheromones.
Jonathan Bradley: The Fifty Shades franchise offers pop royalty the chance to roleplay their unconventional fantasies, mixing sex and power, darkness and destruction. So goes the theory, anyway: the results (The Weeknd’s “Earned It,” for instance) have tended towards pouting and murk with neither titillation nor intrigue to compensate. Zayn has yet to evince the ability to project himself beyond the blank slate of his good looks — his falsetto “baby, baby/I feel crazy” on “I Don’t Wanna Live Forever” has none of the desire or desperation that even a novice R&B singer could unearth from those words and their attendant post-Timbaland, click-clack rhythm. Taylor Swift is a smarter vocalist; even if she’s had little experience with R&B cadences, she still knows how to suggest a lyric like “I’ve been looking sad in all the nicest places” conceals fathoms of feeling beneath its surface. But Swift the writer doesn’t play nice with the other kids; her perfectionism and her steely-eyed creativity doesn’t well accommodate an equal partner, to the extent that her most triumphant 2016 work was “Better Man,” where she was the most powerful voice on a song in which she did not appear. Swift might well have within her a tantalizing reflection on sex and mortality, but a shared promo single for sequel Hollywood erotica, released in her gap year, is not where we’ll hear it.
Andy Hutchins: One of the greatest stratagems of Taylor Swift’s genius-level career was befriending Lena Dunham. Despite Lena Dunham being Lena Dunham, that brought Swift into pop maestro Jack Antonoff’s orbit at almost the precise moment when she was transitioning from pop-country to pop-pop, and when he was just done being trained in frequent Kanye collaborator Jeff Bhasker’s style on fun.’s Some Nights. (I mean, it’s either that, or living with a woman who is now dating the First Daughter’s strenuously Democratic brother-in-law, or being born to millionaire parents. It’s hard to weigh artistic and social positioning and inherited privilege with Tay!) Since Red — which Bhasker worked on, naturally — Swift has worked in Antonoff’s milieu, even if her biggest singles have been Max Martin specials: Shadowed gloss-pop, with just enough darkness contrasting her natural brightness to make her “edgy” and “fun” without also being sloppy. (“I been lookin’ sad in all the nicest places” says plenty about Swift’s conflation of status and composure with happiness.) “Forever,” — “Come Back Home” in a less fatalistic world — showcases how well she fits there, her breathy anonymity as a singer well-shrouded by the misty production and Zayn, whose far stronger falsetto is the star of the song itself. But he’s been here in the twilight, and Swift is only still immersing.
Anthony Easton: I love how his voice slides up when he sings “baby” — like Michael just a little bit — and I love how that is the only attempt at overshadowing her. In fact, a sample of both of them singing “baby, baby” to each other is a fascinating competing example of pop history as pop performance. The rest of it is disappointingly anonymous.
Mo Kim: “Gimme something,” yelps Zayn in the first verse of this track, a pre-mortem for a slog that (save a few nice twinkles in the production) gives us nothing.
Katherine St Asaph: Every generation gets the “Once in a Lifetime” it deserves, and fails to get the “Who Wants to Live Forever” they so achingly want.
A.J. Cohn: Likely, this is meant to sound dark, achingly romantic, and sensual — notably not typical descriptions of Swift’s music. Unsurprisingly, her vocals are thin and uncomfortably breathy. Her chemistry with Malik is similarly unconvincing and not for his lack of effort. Using his exquisite falsetto to full effect, he seems to be trying his sexy best to make a slow jam out of a sub-1989 bonus track.
Will Adams: Ah, it’s easy when everyone contributes equally to the disaster. Jack Antonoff’s production is like a 1989 demo, with unfinished ideas (that false climax before the last chorus, like Zayn came too early, is the worst) and a sluggish arrangement. Zayn’s yelped falsetto hasn’t gotten any better, and Taylor Swift’s attempt to display versatility is just as laughable. As a Fifty Shades song it’s perfect, in that it’s trying so hard, but “I Don’t Wanna Live Forever” is so sexless, detached and inept that I can only imagine that Zayn and Taylor recorded their respective vocals with a mirror in the studio.
Joshua Copperman: There’s a specific kind of electro-pop song that goes for maximalism, where, to paraphrase Rick McCallum, every second has so many things going on. Jack Antonoff and Swift’s last single together, “Out of the Woods,” is one of those beautifully overwhelming songs. They reunite here, but for an R&B slow jam that plays to none of their strengths and seems to go out of its way to be “darker,” and not joyfully bombastic, which both singles from the previous movie were. Every time it sounds like it’s going to explode, it pulls back, like they want to try this whole minimalist thing out, but don’t know how to pull it off. The deliberate, yet misguided, attempt at minimalism would also explain the decision to not Auto-Tune Zayn’s falsetto. (Zayn and Taylor sound nearly identical anyway; if I’d heard that this was actually sung by the Ten Second Songs guy, I wouldn’t be entirely surprised.) The defining moment of this whole trying-too-hard-to-sound-effortless thing is the anti-climax at 2:58, inexplicable and inexcusable — everyone involved is capable of great pop music, but that moment was where I stopped trying to give them the benefit of the doubt. As long as Taylor doesn’t go down this route for her next album, this experiment can be forgiven, but experiments should not sound this formulaic.
Thomas Inskeep: My partner, upon first hearing this, suggested that he could barely hear the difference between Zayn and Swift, particularly on the chorus, and he’s not wrong. Neither of them should be centering their singing on their falsettos, both of which are incredibly unappealing, and additionally it sounds as if Swift stripped all of the personality from her voice before entering the studio. This song is all bombast, if the bombast were made from tissue paper. And since Jack Antonoff is involved, it of course has the predictable “boom-boom-boom-boom” drum track he’s been recycling since fun.’s “We Are Young.” Nothing, absolutely nothing about this is any good; fittingly, since it’s soundtracking a new Fifty Shades movie, this is the musical equivalent of an empty-calories Hollywood blockbuster.
Nellie Gayle: Did you ever see that one painfully awkward interview between 50 Shades costars Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson? Never have I seen two people less likely to generate brutal lust and desire in a believable way. That is, until I heard Zayn and Taylor were collaborating on a song for the same franchise. While Zayn’s favorite habit is snaking his way around R&B tunes in an overreaching falsetto, Taylor prefers to lend her reedy vocals in the spectrum of pop-country to Top 40 bops. One thing both Zayn and Taylor accomplish very well in their respected fields is relatable anguish. Taylor’s vocal thinness translates into despair, while Zayn’s insistence on turning every lyric into a gymnastics exercise for his vocal chords. The production involved is really what transforms this song, and it’s clear that this is a surface-level reflection on a franchise neither star has any interest in or connection to. The 50 Shades empire is about presenting dangerous ideals to bored and titillated white women around the world, and this song manages to tease any sweetness or tenderness out of that narrative and turn it into a sultry, almost danceable banger. It’s Taylor’s riskiest bet yet — if you listen hard, you can hear the wails of Republican mothers around the country in the chorus as they wait for their daughters to be corrupted by this song — but it still remains a tame anthem to romantic melancholy more than anything.