Books

On the Artifice, Ostentatiousness and Camp in James Bond Songs

Every time a new song is premiered ahead of the film, well, plus ça change. Then again, perhaps that makes a Bond song the perfect metaphor for the music industry.


The James Bond Songs: Pop Anthems of Late Capitalism

Publisher: Oxford University Press
Length: 242 pages
Author: Adrian Daub, Charles Kronengold
Price: £20
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2015-10
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The James Bond Songs offers an analysis of every song to have been composed for a James Bond movie since the inception of the franchise with Dr. No in 1962, up to and including 2011’s Skyfall. Authors Adrian Daub and Charles Kronengold succeed in putting Bond songs on the pop music studies agenda, and there is much of interest here, but the sheer amorphousness of the subject, among other things, presents some problems.

The opening chapter, which, turning the book’s chronological structure on its head, is devoted to what at the time of publication was the most recent Bond song, Adele’s 'Skyfall' (2011), could stand as a microcosm of the book’s thesis. Even as Adele and co-writer Paul Epworth sought to deconstruct the typical Bond song in a move that foreshadows the film’s plot -- the Bond franchise’s floating present aside, Skyfall is an origin story at base, one that has Bond confront the demons of his past by returning to his childhood home -- their composition is both archetypal and iconoclastic. Its refusal to cleave to the pop trends of 2011 in favour of the lush strings and diva-esque vocal performance that became axiomatic of Bond songs from Shirley Bassey’s knockout performance of ‘Goldfinger’ (1964) onward firmly places it within that tradition. However, as the authors note, this is also a song that includes a gospel choir, a song that militates against the open-ended nature of the Bond franchise by having ‘This is the end’ as its first line. The chapter is impressive, plumbing the depths of a song that plumbs Bond’s own depths.

Some of the chapters that follow are similarly insightful, but not all of them, for the book frequently falls foul of its structure. The book’s subtitle proclaims it to be about ‘pop anthems of late capitalism’, more a statement of fact than an analytical agenda. There is reference to this facet of the thesis here and there; we are told that Bond films ‘celebrate capitalism’, not only in terms of content, but also form, as the Bond film is at base ‘a capitalist endeavor’ (p. 53). So far, so good; but this comment occurs during a discussion of Matt Monro’s ‘From Russia With Love’ (1963) -- a song that is a competent but ultimately forgettable piece of songwriting, the analysis of which could only be of interest to students of Schenker. Yet the authors’ eagerness to include commentary on every Bond song results in their spending seven pages on the topic. The futility of the exercise is further underlined after a page or two, when even this commentary wanders into a discussion of narrativity in the film. Elsewhere, however, the authors tease meaning out of dross such as Tom Jones’ ‘Thunderball’ (1966), which is examined from the perspective of the film’s opening titles, the first to present the now-familiar female silhouette as negative space.

Perhaps the most compelling analysis here is that of ‘Live And Let Die’, Paul McCartney’s cut for the 1973 installment of the same name. Noting McCartney’s ex-Beatle status by that time, Daub and Kronengold paint a persuasive picture of a musician unsure of his place in a brave (though perhaps not very new) pop world of the early '70s, and seeing in his quest for relevance a similar yearning on the part of James Bond, now played by Roger Moore in a portrayal more noted for its suavity than for the blunt physicality of Connery. The song was ‘the perfect vehicle for McCartney’s public skin-shedding’ (p. 102), and represented yet another stylistic shift after the excesses of its predecessor, Shirley Bassey’s ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ (1971), which the authors perceptively note has all the production hallmarks of a soul record while maintaining its Tin Pan Alley sensibilities.

At times the writers’ frequent resort to rhetoric becomes tiresome. The passage on page 51, for example, begins by telling the reader what a MacGuffin is -- information that is superfluous for any self-respecting film buff, but perhaps worth a one-line explanation nonetheless. However, the rest of the page is taken up by a long-winded explanation of the significance of the film reel Bond throws off the back of a Venetian gondola at the conclusion of From Russia With Love (1963) in relation to this idea. That the reel -- a sex tape filmed by Bond’s SPECTRE adversaries for the purpose of blackmailing him -- is a MacGuffin is fair enough. But we are subsequently told that, that by dint of its being missing, it enables the film; that ‘we go to the movies to watch attractive famous people prepare to have sex, and we go to the movies to not see them actually do so’; that the reel is ‘our’ MacGuffin; that the prospect of obtaining it is what draws us back to the cinema year after year; that (in a tacit nod to Matt Hills’ theory of the endlessly deferred narrative) its contents, the ‘always-deferred money shot’, is what ‘draws us in again and again’; and so forth. None of that can really be argued with; but isn’t most of it self-evident? Couldn’t its contents have been summarised in a six-line paragraph?

Elsewhere, on occasions where certain artists or individuals fall foul of the authors’ sensibilities, the book seems to suffer from a surfeit of journalistic brickbats that sits poorly with notions of academic objectivity. The authors’ seeming dislike for a-ha, the performers of 1987’s ‘The Living Daylights’, is a case in point: styling them as ‘huffy Norwegians’ for whom ‘imitating Duran Duran... may have been their strongest suit’, they go on to describe them as ‘a quintessentially eighties flash-in-the-pan’, and lead singer Morten Harket as having apparently enjoyed a period of ‘not-really fame’. No-one could argue the point about a-ha being an eighties band, but the remainder seem incorrigibly churlish descriptions for a band that has scored number one hits in eleven countries including the US and the UK, has one US and three UK platinum albums to its credit, and has sold 80 million records.

Then again, maybe that’s the point. ‘Loyalty and condescension have been our guides in navigating the Bond canon’, Daub and Kronengold state in the conclusion. The same willingness to at once praise and pummel their subject is evident in their back-handed lionising of John Barry, the quintessential Bond theme composer, whose works become earworms in spite of their best efforts at critiquing their lushness and often cloying lyricism. For the authors, it’s not so much a matter of loving to hate Bond songs as much as accepting that their peculiarities are integral to their being, and that since ‘Goldfinger’, it has always been that way. The essential artifice of a Bond song, its ostentatiousness, its camp, has been preserved in aspic; and every time a new song is premiered ahead of the film, well, plus ça change.

Then again, perhaps that makes a Bond song the perfect metaphor for the music industry. After all, doesn’t pop always eat itself?

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