The Broken Pop of James Bond Songs

What can the endurance of the messy, campy canon of James Bond theme songs tell us about contemporary popular music?

Adrian Daub & Charles Kronengold | Longreads | October 2015 | 12 minutes (3049 words)

Our latest Exclusive is by Adrian Daub and Charles Kronengold, who recently co-authored The James Bond Songs: Pop Anthems of Late Capitalism (Oxford University Press), a cultural history of the Bond-song canon.

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James Bond fans will remember Madonna’s 2002 “Die Another Day” as the only Bond song to embrace the sound of techno. And they recall it with little fondness. For them, and most critics, the song was insufficiently “pop”: it sounded flat, too synthetic, repetitious, not hooky enough. And lovers of dance music felt it was too pop, too commercial, too voice-heavy. None of these parties thought Madonna was the right person for the job.

It was as if “Die Another Day” forced each and every listener to make choices in a zero-sum game. Not just “are you a Bond fan or a Madonna fan,” but other, more fundamental questions: Do you think pop songs should be traditional or modern? Is music about melody or about sound? Is pop music meant to be really listened to? Should an artist give us the song we expect or should she “shake up the system” (as Madonna sings)?

We don’t normally have to make these choices. To its credit, “Die Another Day” challenges its audience to take a stand while giving us reason to answer “yes” to all of the above. It doesn’t try to hide its fractured surfaces. It makes a feature of the dance-vs.-pop tensions that threaten to undo it. And it begins, cannily, with a chopped-up string arrangement that has nothing to do with dance music or pop but a lot to do with the Bond-song legacy; and it soon adds flamenco clacks that have nothing to do with any of this but a lot to do with the tortured figure of Bond we see in the movie’s credit sequence.

That something messy emerges from such a swirl of competing priorities is not actually surprising. It’s more surprising how fantastic the messiness can sound.

We’ve started calling songs like “Die Another Die” broken songs, and we’ve become interested in them because most James Bond songs qualify. And how could they not? They have different stakeholders and commitments tugging at them from every direction, and they dare not disappoint any of them. You can hear them being buffeted about by contradictory imperatives: the producers want the singer to constantly repeat the film’s title, the singer wants something that won’t disappoint his or her fans, the film composer wants the song to be of a piece with the score. That something messy emerges from such a swirl of competing priorities is not actually surprising. It’s more surprising how fantastic the messiness can sound.

And how tiring its absence can be. In listening to the Bond songs we’ve become incredibly annoyed by those titles that try to make it all work out, that have no patience for their own messiness. This has been the case most recently with Adele’s “Skyfall” and Sam Smith’s antiseptic “Skyfall”-redux, “Writing’s On the Wall.” The Bond canon hasn’t featured a fun, hot mess since the Alicia Keys/Jack White crossover “Another Way to Die,” back in 2008.

To be sure: the newer songs do their thing and they do it well. But it’s really just one thing. The Bond songs of old could sound sublime in one lyric and utterly daffy in the next; they could feature cool up-to-date instrumentation and textures one moment, and then just switch to some big-band blare or turgid string arrangement. We’ve loved those Bond songs that embrace their patchwork nature. Adele and Sam Smith give us songs that latch on to one aspect of this crazy swirl and make that the entire song. As Bond-song historians we were disappointed in it, and if the reaction to “Writing’s On the Wall” is any indication, more casual listeners have picked up on this too. That’s a bit paradoxical: why do we defend the messes and hate on the successes? Why do we think Sam Smith’s new song is too smooth by half?

Well, because compared to the single-minded entries that recent singers have turned in (Adele and now Smith), most Bond songs are gangly, glorious homunculi. You can sense them trying to do everything at once and falling a bit short on each count. They’re supposed to sound like “Goldfinger,” and they only sort of manage that. They’re supposed to update “Goldfinger,” but they get no closer than the pop music of three years before their release. They’re supposed to project menace and sex and they end up sounding mostly confusing.

Bond songs are not unusual in this. But they are unusual in how honest they have to be about it. They don’t get to hide behind idiosyncrasy or genius to dissimulate their lumpiness. We know why “The Man With the Golden Gun” is about a man with a golden gun — it was in a movie called that, and there’s no point pretending that it sounds the way it does for any other reason. But generally, this is the predicament of most rock and pop songs: they are the works of many hands, at the intersection of competing demands, and they lie at the mercy of audiences that expect a mix of old elements and novelty.

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We like to think that songs make sense. We expect that the people producing a song will all be on the same page — shouldn’t a pop song be like a Swiss watch, everything humming in perfect sync? But most popular songs don’t work like that. We can all think of songs that start one way and end another, songs that throw a singer into a sound world she can’t deal with, songs that creak under the weight of trying to do too much, songs that shock us when we finally figure out what their lyrics are saying.

We expect that the people producing a song will all be on the same page — shouldn’t a pop song be like a Swiss watch, everything humming in perfect sync?

Some pop songs flaunt the fact that they’re more Frankenstein’s monster than Swiss watch. Even, if not especially, some of the classics. Take the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life,” the final track on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Beatles fans know that Lennon wrote the verses, McCartney slotted in a retro-pop bridge he’d already written and didn’t have a home for, and their producer/arranger George Martin composed the two blisteringly dissonant orchestral passages that bring the song to a head.

Add Lennon’s use of phrases from the newspaper, the dreamy pot reference McCartney contributed to Lennon’s verse (“I’d like to turn you on”), the actual alarm clock that announces the shift to McCartney’s bridge, the weird guy softly counting off measure numbers during the orchestral freakout, and a final chord that takes forty seconds to finally die away, and you’ve got a song that seems remarkably unconcerned with “working” the way a pop recording should. Sure, at the time a cranky reviewer complained about Sgt. Pepper’s “surprising shoddiness in composition,” but “A Day in the Life” now counts as a masterpiece — perhaps because it manages to incorporate so much randomness while still addressing us as real people whose lives might mean something.

Or think of the Stranglers, one of the poppier outfits of the British punk boom of the late 1970s and early 1980s. From the beginning they had the driving guitars, the grinding power-chords, the DYI aesthetic that emerged in the wake of the Sex Pistols; but they also produced synth tracks so lush they would make Depeche Mode blush. In fact, their most enduring track — “Golden Brown,” from 1981 — is mostly synth: a tuneful (if slightly demented) waltz. If it was the only song you knew by them, you’d have been shocked to find out they were a punk band. But to say the Stranglers integrated the waltzing synth with guitar-driven punk would be overstating things. It’s more like the guitar player and the keyboard player are in different bands. The band’s sound is pure identity crisis.

Then as now, their identity crisis is ours. Who are we, the odd lot of us who wind up in a song’s path?

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Modern pop songs are assemblages of distinct musical and lyrical touches — small sonic objects that come from many different places and target different sorts of listeners. The rule is you’re allowed to add and drop them individually. Putting crazy reverb on the voice doesn’t mean you can’t have totally flat-sounding drums. Adding in a synth blast doesn’t commit you to then leave out electric guitars. You can labor over the perfect opening line for the verse but not care at all whether anyone can hear what you’re singing in the chorus.

It’s always easier to praise the people who can smooth out difference, create unity, leave no ragged ends. It takes a particular ear to listen for, and appreciate, the scar tissue in a piece.

There are two approaches you can take: you can place the musical material into a death grip, force it to conform and to make sense. Curate the thing until everything supports some singular vision. Or you can loosen up, let things sort of hang together where they will and accept that they will drift apart at other points.

This is a problem whenever people draw on disparate influences and try to make them meld, be this at CBGB or La Scala. And it’s always easier to praise the people who can smooth out difference, create unity, leave no ragged ends. It takes a particular ear to listen for, and appreciate, the scar tissue in a piece. For the critic Theodor Adorno this was the juxtaposition of Wagner and Mahler. Richard Wagner assimilated everything into his music and made it all come out in his language. A funeral march, a love duet, a church service, it all ends up sounding Wagner. Gustav Mahler instead has pieces of musical flotsam jostling through his baggy symphonies. Here’s a march, now it’s over and there’s a waltz, but look out — suddenly the march is back; what the hell is that about, and where did the klezmer band come from?

Why would Mahler turn his symphonies into these ungainly assemblages, where marches and waltzes and street music and fanfares clash rather than cohere? Well, for one, because his own world, the multinational crazy-quilt of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was just as ungainly, just as jagged, just as difficult to harmonize. Making it all work out and sound great together would have seemed disingenuous to him. Adorno loved Mahler precisely because his music “takes pity on the lost”: it preserves the sounds and experiences of the working class, of the local and minority cultures that modern capitalism was driving out of existence. American pop music, which has always melded European and African-American influences, similarly reflects the troubled history of race. You don’t force things to fit, because they won’t. You listen for the edges.

Mahler intended for this assemblage effect. Some American pop artists can be just as canny; others simply ride out the incongruities. Certain white American musicians knew how problematic it was that they were pilfering from black musical styles, and sought to repay their debts; others simply cashed the checks. And it’s hard to hear the difference between sincere culture-jamming and doing whatever comes easiest. In general we can’t always tell the difference between a deliberate mismatch and a musical four-car pileup, especially nowadays.

No force is more powerful in making brokenness interesting than sincere half-assedness.

Did Selena Gomez understand she was mashing together two contradictory songs, two contradictory writing styles, and two contradictory sets of lyrics in “Come and Get It?” Quite possibly: mashups are what tends to happen when you have producer-songwriters like the Norwegian duo Stargate generating the backing tracks and the African-American singer and “topline songwriter” Ester Dean coming up with melody and words on top of these tracks. The difference between Mahler and Gomez may be mostly about genre and context. Mahler was writing early-20th-century symphonies, a genre that demanded a level of reflection on authorship, modern life, and originality. Gomez, like Lennon and McCartney, is making pop songs; her twin muses are supposed to be wanting to make some cash and not giving too much of a shit.

And yet: that doesn’t make pop music’s brokenness any less interesting. In fact, no force is more powerful in making brokenness interesting than sincere half-assedness. In perhaps the finest James Bond song, Paul McCartney’s “Live and Let Die,” McCartney asks: “What does it matter to you? When you’ve got a job to do, you’ve got to do it well.” He’s talking about killing, ostensibly, but he’s also talking about the song he’s singing. He’s doing his job; he’s not being inspired. He knows what it entails, and he’ll do what he can to do it well. The mantra of the broken song is “Here’s what we got. Your move.”

McCartney’s song embraces that ethos. He is pretty forthright that he wrote the song in the course of an afternoon, and that the song’s structure stems from the fact that the title phrase (a) had to be in it and (b) was really hard to include in any lyrics that made any sense whatsoever. And that’s where McCartney’s artisanal work ethic comes in. He acknowledges he’s serving two masters by giving the song a completely schizophrenic structure: music-hall verses with schoolyard-taunt backing vocals, a hard-rock chorus that gives way to mad orchestral excess, a goofball reggae bridge, and a chorus that says nothing more than the moviesong title over and over again. Unlike the magisterial “A Day in the Life,” “Live and Let Die” is a seat-of-the-pants effort that isn’t ashamed to tell you it’s work for hire.

“Live and Let Die” starts with a verse that consists of two phrases:

“When you were young and your heart was an open book, you used to say ‘live and let live’. But when this ever-changing world in which we’re living makes you give in and cry, say ‘live and let die’.”

The instrumentation goes easy on McCartney — a piano on the first go-round, a cello on the second. The whole thing has a melodic vibe, not too far from the kind of music McCartney might have made as a Beatle. But with the title phrase the chorus kicks in, and takes a hammer to the verse. It’s a veritable onslaught of bongos and screeching strings. It’s a much harder, much less Beatles-esque sound, a renunciation of the live-and-let-live mantra of the verse. The song’s verse seems to live in fear of its chorus, while the chorus mercilessly bullies the verse.

The capital-A Artist would of course grab this eclectic mix of materials and shape it all by the force of his personality so it’d all sound “natural,” authentic, and whole. Broken songs carry with them an acknowledgment of craftsmanship: this didn’t all come from my own head, I had elements I was supposed to work with, and I stuck them together in the way that seemed most interesting to me. Let Pink Floyd pretend that they know why the hell they need three minutes of whale songs in “Echoes,” and let Doors fans explain the deep meaning behind Jim Morrison’s Baudelaire-on-mescaline bullshit — the Bond songs come from a style of songwriting that is both older and newer than the authenticity-mongers of post-1968 rock.

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Modern popular music has never been whole. It has never been pure. And it has seldom been able to do only one thing. Partly this is because it has always been hybrid: a syncretic mix of African, European, and other elements, shaped by the flows of people, instruments, and other musical technologies, as well as money, arms, and ideas.

Partly that’s because pop songs are the work of many hands: composers, lyricists, singers, instrumentalists, producers, engineers, and others, all vying to put their stamp on the thing. And they all get their shot. The different elements that combine to make pop records remain autonomous.

And partly, pop music is fractured because it’s produced for so many different people and so many different purposes. Caring about singers isn’t the same thing as paying attention to lyrics, or dancing, or showing off your new stereo, or creating a certain mood. And in the post–rock & roll world that the Bond songs step into — and that we still inhabit — songs are compelled to stand astride the fault lines between rock and pop, between black music and a supposedly “universal” popular style, between younger and older audiences, between those who think pop music is changing and those who think its values are stable, between casual listeners and fans.

Broken songs don’t mind us knowing that there is no mystical key to unlocking their secrets. They want us to care but they don’t tell us how.

One reason why this matters: broken songs are inimical to fandom, or at least to a particular kind of fandom. The kind that syncs up Dark Side of the Moon with The Wizard of Oz, that insists on figuring out which “poet from the thirteenth century” Dylan is talking about in “Tangled Up in Blue,” and that treats “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” as though it were (shudder!) “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” Think of the sort of creative process this presupposes — Dylan designing lyrics like Will Shortz designed crossword puzzles, Pink Floyd timing their jamming just to fit a movie to the second. It’s kind of insane to assume artists do that, and even if an artist were to do it, it would still be insane.

Broken songs don’t mind us knowing that there is no mystical key to unlocking their secrets. They want us to care but they don’t tell us how. They hope we’ll listen together but they accept that we’ll all hear things differently. We’ll get to the song late, a DJ might talk over it, we may realize we like it only when we arrive at the chorus. Even at their most juvenile, they are the songs that treat us like grownups: they expect us to live with messiness, with contrary tendencies, with the unstable and unfinished, with the contingencies of art and life as they really are. We need the broken pop songs as much as the perfect pop songs, because they give us the job of figuring out what matters to us.

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Adrian Daub and Charles Kronengold are scholars of German culture (Daub) and music history (Kronengold) at Stanford University. Their book on James Bond songs was published earlier this year by Oxford University Press.