Spectre: Review of the title song
“Who is he?” asked the young girl, as she looked at the Spectre poster featuring a stony-faced Daniel Craig in a white tuxedo, clutching a gun, with a skeletal figure looming in the background. In the crowded theater lobby, she and her friend, both about fifteen years old, were standing along a wall lined with movie posters.
“An action guy, I guess,” the other girl shrugged. “It’s like he’s dorky in that white tuxedo.”
The first girl laughed. “He’s old for action movies. Maybe it’s a scary movie with skeletons.”
The other girl pointed at the poster for Burnt. “Look. Bradley Cooper. He’s awesome.”
I was reading the credits on the Spectre poster when I heard their voices from behind. It’s been ten years or so since Craig and the rebooted franchise were thrust into the limelight, floating on billions of marketing dollars to sell it all as the renaissance for the series, and it struck me that a new generation of filmgoers were now confronting the Bond films. Obviously, these girls were not the definitive representatives of their generation; but it was disturbing nonetheless to see two youngsters, in a major metropolitan area, unexcited by the forthcoming Spectre and unaware of who the “dorky” chap was in the white tuxedo, especially when said dorky chap had been anointed by the studio brass, for the last decade, as something of a demigod through overzealous marketing campaigns. But we are where we are with this franchise: it still struggles, it seems, for relevance in an industry that has given up on adults.
Not surprisingly, to woo this MP3-nurtured generation, the Bond producers ushered in the title song well ahead of the film’s release. Hence, on September 25, 2015, just as Pope Francis took center stage in New York (part of his 6-day visit to the U.S.), the film’s anthem, “Writing’s On the Wall,” was released. Some one in the confines of Eon Productions was asleep on this one, not realizing that the Pope would dominate the media. Then again, it may have been the marketing tactic because the song, in its profound blandness, is hardly worth showcasing. It even reminds us of disturbing aspects in the current state of the series.
Still, why the powers-that-be settled on a strange remake of the Cheap Trick rock tune (from the 1979 album Dream Police), with a slightly altered title, is a curiosity in itself, considering the great challenge to convince guitarist Rick Nielsen to avoid his trademark effort of strapping on and playing multiple guitars for a single song…wait, what’s that? Oh, the Bond film doesn't use the Cheap Trick song? My mistake.
It’s Sam Smith, in collaboration with Jimmy Napes, who took the reigns of crafting “Writing’s on the Wall.” The title itself has raised its own share of controversy. Linguists have already begun the deconstruction of its difference from the Cheap Trick song, noting that the title (in a post-modern technique) uses an apostrophe for a contraction of the word is, whereas the Cheap Trick version, “Writing On The Wall,” is a bit primitive in its lack of an apostrophe and its dependence on capitalization for every word. Unfortunately, the Bond song’s minimal use of capital letters has confused the fans of Hungarian author Miklós Bánffy, for they all thought that his Transylvanian trilogy, The Writing on the Wall, was finally adapted for musical theatre. This inconsistent usage of capital letters for such a cliché phrase will no doubt be the subject in the week-long linguistic symposium, held annually in Frankfurt, known as “The Syntactic Complexity Within Textual Diachrony Of Bland Phrases, as Analyzed by Useless Scholars.”
Fortunately, Sam Smith is not a useless scholar but a speedy songwriter who proclaimed that “It's the quickest I've ever written a song — it took 20 minutes” (Lange). At least we can be thankful for the truth in a celebrity’s self-promotion: the song has the essence of something cobbled together in a matter of minutes. The wretched chordal movement, based heavily on a minor key progression (essentially in F Minor add 9), is tiring in its solemn and funereal mood. The only contrast comes from a wan orchestral backdrop that hardly registers a “cinematic” flair. The song simply lacks a solid catchy melody to be memorable. The sparse arrangement—traces of a piano, a subtle orchestra, and brief rumbles from a timpani to heighten the build up to the chorus—thrusts the vocals to the front, so to speak, and the only way to pull off this approach is to have extraordinary vocals—and lyrics, for that matter—to drive the melody. It’s bad enough that there is no melody; but Smith’s voice is too thin for such an approach, and his delivery (including histrionics in his falsetto) is overly dramatic. It’s not the gravitas of a bluesy sorrow but the whimper of somebody weak, teary-eyed in his wimpy ache for something, though it’s unclear in the muddled lyrics why the hell he’s in pain. As Spencer Kornhaber states, “Smith sounds so fragile [in the chorus] 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.” Ah, where have they gone, those songwriters who understood the Bond persona? Where have they gone, those male singers of yore who expressed the essence of a virile hero? When Tom Jones and Paul McCartney sang their respective Bond songs, it was clear they were singing about a brazen heterosexual who has self-command, regardless of whatever inner pain he may have.
Subversion of the franchise, as Kornhaber asserts, takes us to the center of what’s plaguing the series of late. Consider the film’s poster, where an effete Craig-Bond avoids the classic Bondian pose of holding the gun in a blatant upright phallic position; instead, the gun is leveled horizontally, parallel with his crossed arms. The image reflects the wimpy expressions in Smith’s song, as well as to the overall twisted approach of the filmmakers to present Craig’s Bond as an emasculated man, grounded in political correctness. In Skyfall, they even dropped the bombshell moment when the character admits, when pressed by the villain, that he’s delved into gay affairs. For Spectre, actress Léa Seydoux emphasizes this subversion of the established Bond character at the press event on December 4, 2014: “Madeleine [her character] is strong, like Bond in a way but she’s also very sensitive. She’s fragile and I think, Bond is the same. Madeleine becomes more masculine and Bond is maybe more feminine now [emphasis mine] so it’s nice to have this mix” (The Bond Bulletin). In Smith’s song, the lyrics in the second part of the chorus certainly evoke a weak, vulnerable individual—quite the delicate flower, unable to act with self-command and longs for guidance:
How do I live? How do I breathe?
When you're not here I'm suffocating
I want to feel love, run through my blood
Tell me is this where I give it all up?
For you I have to risk it all
Cause the writing's on the wall
Is the writing on the wall metaphorical for something inevitable, something that the speaker—presumably the Craig-Bond—can’t avoid? Or is he taking advice from something written on the wall, which will lead him to “risk it all”? Or are the final two lines simply inserted in this stanza because the word “all” rhymes with “wall”? I personally have never seen any existential messages on walls—usually, they’re nothing but scrambled graffiti in questionable neighborhoods. Please, Mr. Craig-Bond, somebody has got to take the pot away from you. There is no one writing secret messages on walls for you. You’re on your own, old boy. Smith, on the other hand, is hell bent on subverting the character: “I wanted a touch of vulnerability from Bond, where you see into his heart a little bit,” he explains in an interview for NPR (Kornhaber).
What a sentimental pile of total bollocks! For a start, if we’re truly harking back to the Fleming character (as the producers so often insist they’ve done), then this crying flower of a persona has got to go. The literary Bond is a dark, quiet man, not very verbose, especially with his feelings. In his world of spies and treachery, he tends to shut out that other realm of warm humanity. At the end of CASINO ROYALE, he shields himself from the betrayal and death of Vesper Lynd, pushing away the love he felt, and hardens his heart. By the time we meet him in MOONRAKER, where he doesn’t win the girl at the end of the mission, he realizes he needs to walk away and “take his cold heart elsewhere” to play his only role: “The tough man of the world. The Secret Agent. The man who was only a silhouette” (232).
What Smith has accomplished in his song reinforces the efforts of the filmmakers, who have been subverting the traditional Bondian image of dashing masculinity and virile sexuality since the reboot of the series with the vacuous adaptation of Casino Royale. From this standpoint, the lyrics force us to wonder, Who is the person the Craig-Bond pines for? Could it be Raoul Silva, the pansexual villain in Skyfall? Or is it M, who dies at the end of that film—and now the Craig-Bond is aimless, without any guidance from mommy M? One thing is certain: the lyrics evoke a disturbing image, which is the consistent characterization of Craig’s Bond in Skyfall: an agent on a mission, wearing earplugs, waiting for commands from his boss at every step of the way, never once taking leadership of the situation. It’s a portrayal that negates what the character has done in the past under the guise of the previous actors—that is, taking matters into his own hands, consequences be damned. That is Bond, not some teary-eyed wimp crying for someone to “Tell me is this where I give it all up?” Ironically, it’s a question that implies suicide, death—an apt scenario, considering how the filmmakers have created a profound wimp dying in his own wussified life. Smith’s song, with its dirge-like essence, underscores this death. Hey, even a wimp deserves a requiem. In this sense, Smith’s hasty 20-minute effort is not a completely useless song. For that alone, he and the Bond producers must be congratulated, even though they’ve offered us a file-and-forget-it Bond song that the world has already forgotten. Nevertheless, the hype for Spectre moves onwards, and the media elites, together with the filmmakers, will exalt this politically correct reboot of Bond, sharing one sonorous cheer in their audacity of kitsch.