Courtesy of Darkroom / Interscope Records

Courtesy of Darkroom / Interscope Records

February 18, 2020

Billie Eilish and The Art of the Bond Theme

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On Feb. 13, Billie Eilish released “No Time to Die,” the theme music to the upcoming James Bond movie of the same name. It’s a great song in its own right, but every new Bond theme that gets released is sure to create an extensive debate as to where it belongs within the musical canon associated with the long running series. Is it as explosive as “Skyfall?” Is it as sexy as “For Your Eyes Only?” Will anything ever top “Goldfinger?” The answer for each one of these questions is no. But that’s because, with this release, Eilish has subverted the standard creation formula for a Bond theme, in the same way she subverted the conventions of popular music on When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? 

The most exceptional quality of “No Time to Die” is that it is quiet … throughout the whole song. The best Bond themes have always either come in at screeching intensity from the very start (“Thunderball,” “You Know My Name,” “Goldfinger) or built up from a subdued beginning to a tremendous climax (“Live and Let Die,” “Skyfall,” “Writing’s on the Wall”). After all, it is grandiosity and the maximalist ethos that characterizes the James Bond series as a whole, as well as the songs that come packaged with it. A lack of subtlety is probably the main charge levied by fun-hating critics against the franchise, and though they certainly aren’t wrong, it seems almost too obvious to be characterized as any grand insight. James Bond is an absurdly handsome, charismatic and invincible secret agent whose sexual history includes nearly exclusively women assigned to murder him. It makes for great entertainment when everything clicks, but there’s only so long you can milk the same cow. Anyone who has seen a Bond movie post Die Another Day, a mediocre movie with a horrible theme (sorry Madonna), can attest to the artistic revival of the series. Daniel Craig is a modern Bond for a series that has often felt antiquated in its treatment of sexuality and adherence to a simple good vs. bad dichotomy. Looking at the theme songs for Craig’s Bond movies, one may notice an interesting pattern. The best themes go with the best movies, and the worst go with the worst. But while every theme since Craig became Bond (except for “Another Way To Die”) has been pretty great, they haven’t changed with the changing tone of the series. That’s probably why the creative directors tried to bring in Radiohead for Spectre, and why they’ve now procured Eilish for their latest product.

So my thoughts about “No Time to Die” are clear by now: it’s great. Eilish is an incredible vocalist, but she doesn’t, to my knowledge, have the same raw belting power as someone like Adele or Dame Shirley Bassey. So she doesn’t go there. Instead, she stays in the lower, huskier portion of her register — matching the low tones of the orchestration behind her. Right when it seems that the tension of the song must bubble over, it is instead maintained in the final seconds, a breathy bridge accompanied only by a quiet piano and a final ominous guitar chord. The feeling of being on the edge is thus preserved throughout the entirety of the song, as there is never a point where everything gets kicked up to 11 and the orchestra goes nuts.

The lyrics are perhaps the most conventionally Bond aspect of this song: they are fairly cliched, the “fool me once / fool me twice” refrain especially so. But they still have substantial emotional intensity from Eilish’s delivery, which makes even the line “the blood you bleed is just the blood you owe” sound masterfully ominous and foreboding.

If the pattern holds up, No Time to Die will be a great movie, as it has the correct components of a great song and a great actor to prop it up. Maybe James Bond is getting more serious, changing for a modern society. And, if so, we’re certain to never hear the end of it from the culture warriors who view any modernization as surrender to the demands of overly sensitive youth. But I’ll still buy my ticket.

 

Richard Beezley is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at rbeezley@cornellsun.com.