Stanford scholars spy history of capitalist culture in Bond film songs

A musicologist and a literary scholar find a unique window into the evolution of capitalism and changing attitudes toward work in 50 years of James Bond movie theme songs.

In the lead-up to Spectre, the latest film in the decades-long James Bond spy thriller franchise opening this week, much of the recent buzz has centered on another long-running 007 tradition – the title song.

Amidst all the speculation about who would sing the new Bond song, Stanford scholars Adrian Daub and Charles Kronengold wrote a breakdown of the potential crooners, correctly naming Sam Smith the “consensus candidate.”

James Bond pointing his gun with vinyl records surrounding him

Stanford scholars Adrian Daub and Charles Kronengold have made the theme songs of James Bond movies a subject for humanistic inquiry. (Image credit: Oxford University Press)

Daub and Kronengold had an edge over other predictors. They share a fascination with the 007 pop music canon that they’ve channeled into a new book, The James Bond Songs: Pop Anthems of Late Capitalism.

In the book, they tackle decades of “disposable pop music with a tradition,” as Daub calls the Bond songs.

Through an exhaustive analysis of the musical and production qualities of the compositions, Daub says they found “examples of music reflecting societal trends, especially in regards to material fulfillment.”

Kronengold notes that whether they were great or awful, the Bond songs “reflect and influenced feelings about such topics as masculinity, race, money and aging,” through references to iconic representations of greed, lust, luxurious lifestyles and, of course, shaken martinis.

An assistant professor of musicology, Kronengold says five decades of music makes the Bond canon “an interesting target for humanistic inquiry.” He says the odd allure of the Bond music is that it maintains an underlying sameness “in an age when everything is changing faster than you can imagine.”

Daub, an associate professor of German studies and author of several books on the place of music in society, says the paradox of change and consistency in the Bond songs makes them valuable tools for understanding the “changing conceptions of capital but also of labor” in capitalist society from roughly the end of World War II on to today.

The ’60s Bond songs portray work as a means of changing the self while the ’70s songs portray it as a job – you just show up and do it, Daub says. And by the ’80s, “it’s basically – you show up and do it and you hope nobody notices that you’re totally unqualified to do it.”

Labor-intensive music

To show how the Bond songs echo our changing relationship with work, the scholars looked closely at how artists and producers approached the task of making Bond songs.

In particular, Kronengold and Daub found that the creation and production of Bond songs offers a unique perspective on an aspect of the capitalist system called “affective labor.”

In everyday terms, think of the idea of “service with a smile.” Kronengold explains: “Affective labor is something that is bought and sold in the same way that other kinds of goods and services are bought and sold. So having to smile, to be charming, to kind of make people aware of your effort and appreciate it, is something that becomes equally important to the service that you’re actually paid to provide.”

Kronengold points to a story about Tom Jones singing the title song for the 1965 Thunderball film and “passing out in the studio at the end of the song because he held a high note for too long.”

“Whether or not it’s true,” the musicologist explains, the story reveals a form of value in which “the affective labor Tom Jones was hired to do goes beyond putting sounds on the record. It has to do with a performative action that cost him something – and we need to know that in order to value the song.”

For the 2002 title song “Die Another Day,” Madonna employed a different labor process, sampling, cutting and splicing that reflects “the way you make songs in the digital era,” Kronengold says.

She doesn’t rely on sampling techniques just because they make the song sound contemporary, he says, but because the resulting composition conveys “the breakings-down of the self, under something that is basically torture.”

“Die Another Day” gives us a first glimpse into the themes that emerge in later movies like Skyfall, which are “starting to posit work almost as a traumatic symptom,” he says.

Slow down and listen

Daub and Kronengold’s research also explores a paradoxical challenge of the theme songs: to give a nod to the long tradition of the Bond sound while also reflecting “its own moment in some ways.”

Bond songs, as the pair learned, have to appeal to the top-40 pop music market while also being audibly recognizable representations of the brand. In that regard, the Bond songs can’t mask the fact that they are trying to accomplish a job.

Over five decades of dealing with that challenge, there have been some hits – and some duds.

The two scholars agree that Paul McCartney’s “Live and Let Die” is one of the best, despite (or maybe because of) its “overwrought” and “embarrassingly prolific musical arrangement,” as Kronengold describes it.

The best ones, Daub said, are the ones that reflect on the fact that although it’s a creative effort, it’s also just a job. McCartney, he says, was able to accept those parameters and make the song work.

On the other end of the spectrum is “The Man with the Golden Gun,” a song so bad that Daub says they “had to power through it.” Like many of the songs they consider failures, however, the scholars find value in the flaws.

The Bond songs, Kronengold says, “want to have depth, want to be good, want to be interesting – but the fact that they fail makes them 10 times more interesting than if they actually succeeded at trying to be interesting.”

Through good music and bad, both scholars want to share the idea that it’s worthwhile to slow down and really listen, because “engaging with the stuff around you is a worthwhile venture,” Kronengold says.

Media Contacts

Corrie Goldman, director of humanities communication: (650) 724-8156, corrieg@stanford.edu