It wasn't ever going to be anyone but Sam Smith, but until last week's announcement that he'd be singing the theme song for SPECTRE (entitled "Writing's On the Wall"), there was at least hope. By which I don't mean that Smith will do a bad job. I'm pretty sure he'll sound great. But he perpetuates an unfortunate recent trend, the whitifying of the James Bond songs.
Now, I imagine people will find that point a bit odd. Several black performers have done Bond songs in the last twenty years, but it's not like the Bond songs of yore were exactly a Benetton ad. Paul McCartney, Nancy Sinatra, Tom Jones -- the majority of the singers were white, there has in fact ever been only one black male singer at the mic for a Bond-song (Louis Armstrong with "We Have All the Time in the World"). Which is in its own way remarkable -- though, given the recent freak-out over the prospect of a black Bond, perhaps not entirely surprising.
But there's a new sensibility to the recent Bond-songs. They sound admirably like their distant forebears, do a capable imitation of "Goldfinger" -- but they do so by tamping down rather than acknowledging the impact black voices and black music more generally had on the Bond songs. Adele may have thought she could just do Shirley Bassey, could just do soul in a Bond-song and the racial politics of it wouldn't be at least a little weird -- if his output so far is any indication, Sam Smith probably will assume the same. They'd both be wrong.
Of course, pilfering from black musicians and making boatloads of cash off the results is a tradition as old as rock and roll (if not older). But even if we dismiss that sort of borrowing as just how popular music works, it's another matter when you're putting black music in the service of serenading a man who basically stands in as the number one defender of Empire, in other words the idea of white people taking non-white people's shit without permission.
The Bond-films had been utterly tone-deaf in that regard. Any time Bond interacted with people of color, the interaction seemed intended to confirm that, yes, at the end of the day it was a good thing that the white dude was in charge. To their eternal credit, the Bond-songs, even when sung by musicians as lily-white as Nancy Sinatra or Paul McCartney, never seemed so sure.
For one thing because in the long history of the Bond song white dudes were rarely unambiguously in charge. They were sitting at the consoles, of course, they produced the thing, they signed the paychecks and made the money -- but in that recording studio itself it was usually a woman, often enough a non-white woman. And if she wanted to run away with the thing, she sort of got to. That's where Shirley Bassey came in.
When white singers borrowed from black genres -- rock and roll, funk, disco -- for the Bond-songs, they usually acknowledged that there was appropriation going on. They knew that the very music the producers asked them to incorporate into their song, those same producers vilified in the film itself.
Take Live and Let Die for example. Every time black music is on screen, it's a sinister, threatening thing out to kill white folks. Bongo drums play over a voodoo ritual where a blonde sexpot writhes at the stake; a singer in a soul club sings for Bond as the villains prepare his murder; and even a New Orleans funeral combo turns out to be hit squad in disguise.
But the thing is, McCartney's song for the movie was expected to borrow from all of these genres: the Blaxploitation swagger is in the strings, the voodoo bongos thunder and the even the brass band is somewhere in the mix.
How does he deal with that tension? He acknowledges it. McCartney sounds as white as white can be in the song -- none of the faux Muddy Waters-thing that can make Mick Jagger so cringe-worthy. For pretty much half the song, McCartney sounds his Beatle best, as he sings about living and let live, as though this were still Sgt. Pepper. There's a piano, a cello, a catchy melodic line.
Then the rest of the band calls him on it. The sneer with which they taunt him -- "you know you did, you know you did, you know you did" -- leads into the title phrase and then pandemonium breaks loose. The melody, the text, McCartney's voice, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club, all of it gets assaulted, and eventually overwhelmed by the frenzy of drums, brass, kazoos. I don't get to sing over this, McCartney seems to be saying. My job is to cede some room to this sound, but still make it seems safe -- and I have no intention of doing that.
That's why, musical chops not withstanding, the recent trend towards unambiguously white music (whatever rock thing Chris Cornell is doing in "You Know My Name") or towards straightforward appropriation of black sound, black music, black voices (Adele and, if his catalogue is any indication, soon Sam Smith) is so troubling.
Bond has a messed up relationship to non-whites and to their music -- as a musician you don't get to call him out on it, you're hired to do a job. But you can at least acknowledge it -- and the ease with which Adele and Sam Smith seem to do an Iggy Azalea is inappropriate for the Bond song format. Don't get me wrong: the results sound great. This young crop of singers know their music history, they lovingly pore over the songs and pull out chords and motifs to put in their songs. But they remain deaf to the creepy racial history of the Bond song.