As James Bond fans everywhere are keenly aware, the latest installment of the half-century-old film franchise, Spectre, opens in the United States this November 6. And that means the debut of a new Bond theme song as well – always an eagerly anticipated event in itself. But Spectre’s just-released song “Writing’s on the Wall” is leaving many fans more perplexed than thrilled – it swaps Bond’s legendary virility for vulnerability, causing some to wonder if it is heralding a hero who is beginning to reflect our cultural unease with traditional masculinity.
Performed by Grammy-winning English singer Sam Smith, “Writing’s on the Wall” just made history by becoming the first Bond theme ever to hit number one on the charts, and yet it is receiving decidedly mixed reviews. Rolling Stone calls it “a grand accomplishment,” but one fan captured the opinion of many when he tweeted, “I hope #SPECTRE is far more exciting than that Sam Smith snorefest I just listened to.” The Atlantic had a more insightful gripe: it complained that the song is so “radically wimpy” it constitutes a heretical subversion of Bond’s masculinity.
Smith chose to depart radically from the bold, brassy, ballsy Bond themes sung by bold, brassy, ballsy vocalists such as Tom Jones (Thunderball), Tina Turner (Goldeneye), Shirley Manson of Garbage (The World is Not Enough), and of course, Shirley Bassey, the queen of Bond songs (Goldfinger, Moonraker, and Diamonds Are Forever).
By contrast, Smith falsettos his way through a yearning piano piece accompanied by swelling strings but almost devoid of the exciting horns, percussion, and Bond’s signature surf guitar riff. The Atlantic’s Spencer Kornhaber describes Smith’s vocals as “self-consciously pathetic and pining” at a “cartoonishly high register.” More disconcertingly, the song lacks the propulsive currents of sex and danger that animate most Bond themes. Instead, it wallows in emotional desperation.
“I wanted a touch of vulnerability from Bond,” Smith told NPR, “where you see into his heart a little bit.” That touch may have been too heavy-handed. When the lyric begs, “I want to feel love run through my blood,” it feels off-putting and needy from the agent who famously carries a license to spill someone else’s blood.
Presumably the Broccoli family, who owns the franchise, approved Smith’s more romantic take on Bond. If so, is the song indicative of the man we will see in the newest film? Is the fictional icon Kornhaber calls “arguably the most aggressively heterosexual hero that Western society has” going soft on us?
If so, perhaps it is because we have gone soft. We live in a time of cultural confusion over masculinity and gender roles. Last week, for example, the National Review decried the unmanliness of our “victim culture” in which people are encouraged to cultivate a sense of weakness and fragility. Also last week, the New York Times posted “27 Ways to Be a Modern Man,” a list that included such traditionally unmanly virtues as this: “The modern man cries. He cries often.” And this: “The modern man has no use for a gun. He doesn’t own one, and he never will.”
Where does that leave Bond? Is he becoming anachronistic as an icon of masculinity – a sexist dinosaur, as Judi Dench’s “M” once told him? Has the Bond we could always count on to risk it all for Queen and Country devolved into a man who, as Sam Smith sings, asks instead if he should risk it all for love?
If so, then Spectre will suffer for it. Audiences have always responded to James Bond’s unapologetic manliness, all the more so as traditional masculinity becomes an endangered species. Lose that, and the Bond films will be just another big-budget action franchise but lose their cultural power. If Sam Smith’s song portends a Bond more vulnerable than virile, then for the franchise as a whole, the writing is indeed on the wall.
Published in a different form here at Popzette, 10/6/15