The Gorgeous Meaninglessness of the Bond Song

Back in the day you knew the next Bond film's title from the end credits of the previous one: "James Bond will return in..." But once the movies ran out of Ian Fleming novels to not-really adapt, that text simply came to read: "James Bond will return," an almost religious-sounding promise that, as yet, Bond has always kept. But the definiteness of those earlier announcements is now gone - just how James Bond will return is tantalizingly up in the air.

Part of that ritual: a new Bond song, debuting usually a few months before the film's release. Nowadays we're not sure what that new song will sound like, but we know it'll take its title directly from the name of the film. Titles never mattered much in the Bond canon (which movie in the series could not be called A View to a Kill, whatever the hell that means?), but they do matter for the songs. Let's be honest: When we learned that the new James Bond-film would be called SPECTRE, some of us thought briefly of Ernst Stavro Blofeld, of the Fleming books and the Connery films. But at some point we all thought: geez, what poor bastard has to write a song called "SPECTRE"? Will it be sung in British spelling?

Over the decades, only a few artists have managed to receive dispensation: when it came to writing a song for 1983's Octopussy, the producers mercifully decided that the song would not be called that. And although there have been two movies called Casino Royale, neither features a song of that title.

For all the others, that title announcement is a life sentence: a song with this title will follow you around forever. No matter how much of a pro you are otherwise, you'll have an overwrought ballad about Martinis and shadows and guns on your "Best Of." It won't be your best work, neither you nor your lyricist will have a bloody clue what the song is about--but it may be the song you're best remembered for twenty years from now. Just imagine, never being able to disavow your involvement in "The Man With the Golden Gun." Yikes.

Pop songs often have inane lyrics, but audiences are mercifully unaware of how those lyrics came to be. If people like the song, they can make some excuses: maybe there's a level of meaning I'm missing, maybe there's an autobiographical dimension that makes the emotions more genuine. Not so with a Bond song. We know the title came first, and we know the lyrics were likely arrived at in the course of a gin-soaked afternoon, put together more with a shrug and a "here goes nothing" than a flash of inspiration.

"Writing a song around a title like that's not the easiest thing going," Paul McCartney said about writing "Live and Let Die"--and, as far as Bond titles go, that's one of the easy ones. Bond lore has it that when Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley were scratching their heads over what to do with a song called "Goldfinger," they ended up singing "Goldfinger, wider than a mile" to the tune of "Moon River." As you know if you've heard the song, the tune, unlike the lyrics, stuck.

Bond songs are far more nakedly patched together than regular pop songs. And they can't really hide the fact that this is because they are slaves to several masters. They can't pretend to have a unique vision that somehow burst forth in the phrase "You Only Live Twice," because we've all read the book and seen the movie trailer. The fascination of the Bond-song lyric is watching a professional working under extreme constraints.

At the same time: these songs aren't really extreme in being a patchwork of many hands working from competing scripts. They're just more open about it than pop songs usually get to be. Until the day Bon Iver secludes himself in his log cabin to write a song called some stupid permutation of "gold" and "dying," but bases it on a girl who broke up with him and his super-complicated feelings about that, these songs have to level with their audience.

Yes, they telegraph, some Brit thought I sounded cool as a book title in an age when pencil sharpeners were "technology," and then fifty years later some middle-aged wino came up with a bunch of lyrics that don't even make grammatical sense. Then they rewrote those lyrics because they didn't fit the music the twenty-something singing me had written. And here we are. Please don't pay any attention to what I'm saying.

But here's the thing: this is what makes the Bond song beautiful. No one defends these things, and that's their main asset. When a band writes a song that doesn't make any sense, their fans will seize every line and explain why, even though it sounds idiotic, it really is kind of deep. No one dares do that with a Bond song. Nor will fans argue that the meaningless is a way of rebelling against the system, man. Even the Bond-song's meaninglessness is only skin deep, a result of craven commercialism, not some newfound love of Beckett.

The Bond songs put us in touch with pop at its most unpretentious, and therefore at its most essential. Bond songs are a polished-pop voice draped across a throwback melody that seems too pure for words. You sing along and you realize you don't have a clue about the lyrics. And not because there's some big secret buried here; because on some very deep level the people putting it together stopped giving a shit about having it make sense.

No mystification, no pretense. As Paul McCartney sings in "Live and Let Die": "what does it matter to you, when you got a job to do, you got to do it well." In an age that somehow convinced itself that everyone who can carry a tune and have people respond to it is an "artist" and a "genius," the Bond-song tells us: like Bond, I've got a job to do. I show up, I do it. The end.

Well, not quite the end. Because there will always be another. James Bond will return, and someone's going to have to yodel out his title. In a year or two there will be another title announcement, and we can start guessing who might be hired to wrap their tongue around the most recent brainfart of the Fleming-soundalike trust. And three years from now we'll have another beautifully meaningless bauble.