Loved Bond, hated Billie

A good Bond song should include swooning strings, stabbing horns and a chorus the size of the moon, explains Sarah Ditum

On Pop

This article is taken from the October issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

Here is a broad overview of my first take when I found out that Billie Eilish would be doing the new Bond theme: ugh. There are two reasons for this, and both are embarrassing.

First, after a binge on Fleming a while ago, I appointed myself The World’s Official Only Correct Bond Lover-Slash-Hater. This means that not only do I think that almost everyone who likes James Bond is wrong, I also think that everyone who hates James Bond is wrong, and would dig myself passionately into the argument on either side.Think he’s a slick hero of diverting entertainments? You, sir (or possibly madam, but probably sir) have missed the fact that Bond is a figure of endless post-empire pathos and considerable psychosexual weirdness.

This attitude means I am tiresomely proprietorial about Bond as a thing, but not as tiresome as I am in my relentless dislike of People Who Are Younger an Me Doing Well

Think he’s a racist, sexist avatar of colonial violence, etc? Then you, whose gender I would not dare to presume, have missed the fact that Bond stories are ecstatically batshit and Fleming is a writer of arresting elegance (I dream of coming up with a phrase as perfect as “bungaloid world of the holiday lands”, which is how Bond sees south-east England in GoldFinger).

This attitude means I am tiresomely proprietorial about Bond as a thing, but not as tiresome as I am in my relentless dislike of People Who Are Younger an Me Doing Well. This is where my general anti-Eilish position comes in. Billie Eilish is 18 and gallingly successful, with a list of accolades (Grammys! Billboard number ones! Chanel endorsements!) that made me pettishly declare myself “not very interested in Billie Eilish actually”.

It’s not just envy and a feeling of my own small potential draining away into middle age driving this. It’s also that Eilish makes an initially unassuming kind of music. She sings in a low half-whisper to downtempo backing, in a style that’s close to the sound Julie London perfected in the 1950s on the album Julie Is Her Name.

The sweet, wry sadness and delicate instrumentation of London’s “Cry Me a River” or Eilish’s “Wish You Were Gay” (in which she wishes her male crush could be into boys, just to save herself the shame of unreciprocated feelings) don’t demand attention: they wait for you to give it. It’s only once you pause and notice these songs that you find you can’t turn away from them.

This is not a very Bond kind of music. “Subtle” is not a core Bond brand value. A good Bond song should include the following elements: swooning strings, stabbing horns, a chorus the size of the moon, and lyrics that are somehow morbid and horny at the same time, like rubbing yourself off with a loaded weapon (I know that image doesn’t make much sense but nor do most Bond lyrics, so it’s perfect). And, most importantly, it should be absolutely bloody belted out.

In other words, it should be camp. John Barry set the template, and his collaborations with Shirley Bassey, Tom Jones and Nancy Sinatra are the sound of what Bond ought to be (his work with Duran Duran on “A View to a Kill” is not half bad either, and Paul and Linda McCartney pulled off astrong pastiche with “Live and Let Die” if you ignore the janky reggae bits).

But not too camp! The irony hellscape of Madonna’s “Die Another Day” is a warning to all who would attempt a Bond theme: it is medically impossible to get past the moment where she growls “Sigmund Freud, analyse this” without exploding into laughter and turning it off.

Then at the other extreme, there’s the intolerable sombreness of Sam Smith’s theme for Spectre, “The Writing’s On the Wall”, which somehow manages to be the most straight Bond song ever made (guess Smith didn’t bring their whole gender-queer self to work that day in the studio) — a dreary plunge through the emotional terrain of “being a bit sad and taking it all very seriously”.

Being a bit sad and taking it all very seriously is, of course, the principal complaint against the Daniel Craig era of Bond movies. Musically, they started off quite well: Chris Cornell’s theme for Casino Royale is a Bassey-level banger, Jack White and Alicia Keys’s work for Quantum of Solace is a bit of a racket, and Adele is Adele which means “Skyfall” simply cannot be faulted.

But by the time of Spectre there was a nagging feeling: shouldn’t Bond be more fun than this? Well, yes it should, and recruiting Eilish didn’t seem like the turn towards joy I was hoping for. Was some-thing called “goth pop” really going to be Bond’s ticket out of miseryville?

After some extensive investigations (i.e. listening to Eilish’s “No Time to Die” twenty times on repeat), I can admit that I called this one wrong. It’s a deliriously vampy, swirling confection operating at the Bond-appropriate emotional pitch of too much. Am I therefore ready to give up my position as The World’s Official Only Correct Bond Lover-Slash-Hater? Not yet, not quite.

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