If there is something worse than a Black James Bond, it might be Sam Smith’s new theme song for Spectre.
Spencer Kornhaber in The Atlantic:
[Sam] Smith’s quavering voice and fussy phrasing have already made him the rare modern pop star who’s controversial for purely musical reasons, and lo, the kneejerk reaction on Twitter to “ Writing’s on the Wall” has been to compare the song to the sound of cats mewling. But as people sit with the song and notice the way it drifts and simpers and contemplates putting down the revolver for romance, they may realize what actually makes the song a departure, and what it actually says about the era we live in. All the previous men to create 007 anthems performed over-the-top virility: In [Tom] Jones’s case, it was with lounge-singer swagger and adventure-narrator drama; in the cases of Paul McCartney, or Jack White, or Chris Cornell, it was with seething rock edge. Smith is doing something else entirely—going supremely emotional, vulnerable, weak (the closest Bond predecessor for this unapologetic wimpiness might be to A-ha’s Morten Harket, whose contribution most fans have tried to forget). He’s self-consciously pathetic and pining, entering a cartoonishly high register when at the lyrics’ most abject point:
How do I live? How do I breathe?
When you’re not here
I want to feel love, run through my blood
Tell me is this where I give it all up?
Smith sounds so fragile there that you could argue he’s subverting the franchise, or betraying it. The James Bond character is lizardlike and amoral, a sex machine who’s always made to regret the rare instances when he allows a woman to hold power over him. The Daniel Craig era has complicated this notion, but not to the extent that Smith now has. Handwringing about a supposed cultural assault on masculinity awaits, no doubt. Sam Smith has written plenty of songs like this, of course. But he says “Writing’s on the Wall” is supposed to be from Bond’s perspective—“I wanted a touch of vulnerability from Bond, where you see into his heart a little bit,” he told NPR. This, for the record, was not necessarily his assignment. Many previous entries have been about Bond, or about a villain, or about more nebulous concepts, often sung from the perspective of a smitten admirer. It’s radical enough for the openly gay Smith to choose to inhabit arguably the most aggressively heterosexual hero that Western society has; using that chance to imagine Bond ending his “lifetime running” for gushy committed love can quite plausibly be seen as heretical. Or perhaps it’s a spoiler for Spectre’s plot, in which case the conversation over the newly openhearted James Bond has barely yet begun.
There, of course, have been plenty of “gushy,” “love smitten” Bond ballads from the past. I’m reminded of “All Time High” from Octopussy. . . .
All I wanted was a sweet distraction
for an hour or two.
I had no intention to do
the things we’ve done. . .
. . . or the cooing “Where are you?” from Moonraker.
But all of these are sung from the perspective of the Bond Girl. Or more specifically, they are sung from the perspective of the good Bond Girl in the films’ forumla. These are not the femmes fatale—the dark sirens of death that Bond must defeat to complete his mission (think of Xenia Onatopp or Helga Brandt). The good Bond girls are the ones who are innocent and golden hearted, and trapped in a dangerous situation beyond their control. They genuinely fall in love with Bond. Their tragedy is that they are ultimately disposable. Bond uses them to get to the villain and save the world, and by the next film they’ve disappeared. In an occasional twist, Bond can, through his phallic power, turn bad girls good. Most famously, he takes the man-hating lesbian Pussy Galore for a “role in the hay” and convinces her to “change sides.”
In one of my favorite scenes from the Bond canon, the villainous Fiona Volpe, after making love with Bond, acknowledges his domination over females—and vows to resit him and stay evil!
James Bond: My dear girl, don’t flatter yourself. What I did this evening was for Queen and country. You don’t think it gave me any pleasure, do you?
Fiona Volpe: But of course, I forgot your ego, Mr. Bond. James Bond, the one where he has to make love to a woman, and she starts to hear heavenly choirs singing. She repents, and turns to the side of right and virtue … but not this one!
This is not to say that Bond doesn’t have a certain “vulnerability,” if that’s the right word. A key aspect of his mythos is that he secretly wants to give up the War of the World and the life of espionage. He wants to fall in love and be normal, and live out a quaint, bourgeoisie existence of making children. On multiple occasions, Bond resigns from the service, symbolically castrating himself by giving over his Walther and “license to kill.” But in the end, all of Bond’s love affairs are not to be; the Secret Service is a death trap; and he will die without making issue, alone. That is the tragedy of James Bond.
What takes place in Sam Smith’s new song is that James Bond has become the Bond Girl. We probably should have seen that coming. . .