The just-released theme song for the new James Bond movie is leaving many fans more perplexed than thrilled.
“Writing’s on the Wall,” performed by the openly gay British singer Sam Smith, swaps Bond’s legendary virility for vulnerability, causing some to wonder if it heralds a new politically correct hero reflecting our cultural unease with traditional masculinity.
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Smith chose to depart radically from the bold, brassy Bond themes sung by bold, brassy 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”).
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.
Smith’s vocals are “self-consciously pathetic and pining” at a “cartoonishly high register,” the Atlantic’s Spencer Kornhaber wrote. The song is so “radically wimpy” it constitutes a heretical subversion of Bond’s masculinity.
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More disconcerting, the song lacks the propulsive currents of sex and danger that animate most Bond themes. Instead, it wallows in emotional desperation, which is how Smith wanted it. “I wanted a touch of vulnerability from Bond,” Smith told NPR, “where you see into his heart a little bit.”
The song lacks the propulsive currents of sex and danger that animate most Bond themes.
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 shoot to kill at will.
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 that 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.”
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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 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 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 without its cultural power. If Smith’s song portends a Bond more vulnerable than virile, then for the franchise as a whole, the writing is indeed on the wall.
The latest Bond movie, Spectre, opens Nov. 6. The theme song just made history by becoming the first Bond theme ever to hit No. 1 on the charts.
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