James Bond is danger. James Bond is action. James Bond is suave. He stands with a gun in one hand, a supermodel in the other, and a smirk on his face. Despite a 24-film span, the Bond formula has remained largely the same: defeat the villain, get the girl, look damn good doing it. Textbook. Billie Eilish, the artist recently announced to be taking on the coveted James Bond theme song for his next outing, No Time to Die, just doesn’t fit that mold.
Bond themes have been huge honors to land since the mid-‘60s. Typically Bond singers fall into one of three categories: Legacy artists (Tina Turner, Madonna), the “next big thing” (Rita Coolidge, Sam Smith), or the current biggest thing (A-ha, Adele). Billie Eilish quite neatly fits into the latter category, having exponentially grown in popularity of the last couple of years (just watch her series of Vanity Fair interviews spanning 3 years of change). Yet the announcement she will be recording the next Bond theme song, while exciting and fresh, felt somewhat off.
Maybe it’s her age. There have been young Bond singers before: Sam Smith, Adele, and Tom Jones were 23, 24 and 25 respectively when they recorded their Bond tunes, and Sheena Easton comes the closest in age to Eilish at time of recording (she was 22 when she sang “For Your Eyes Only”). Never has a teenager taken on such a coveted task before however, and never one that has felt so remarkably next-generation. She’s not brash piano pop of Adele, refined dance music of Madonna, singalong pop-rock of Sheryl Crow, nor polished grunge of Chris Cornell. She’s blunt, funny, and most of all down to earth, something so decidedly un-Bond it sticks out. She is the Gen-Z ideal: referencing The Office, making strange faces in interviews, talking openly about her struggles with mental health; basically, acting her 18 years of age. The idea of anyone under 20 involved with a Bond film seems underlyingly askew.
Past Bond singers have made sense in some way. Sam Smith’s suave crooning highlights Daniel Craig’s more pained and pensive take as the spy, Duran Duran sings about girls, Sheena Easton was a bombshell of her time, and Adele, for all intents and purposes is the 21st century Shirley Bassey. Meanwhile, no song from Billie’s debut, WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP WHERE DO WE GO? remotely suggests she is the right fit for Bond. And that’s a good thing. The predominately silly nature of Eilish’s music and persona, from her off-kilter samples to delightfully humble disposition (her Album of the Year Grammy speech says it all), feels complexly inconsistent with the franchise. Eilish is in many ways a bedroom artist, collaborating solely with her brother FINNEAS, but has managed to set precedents all year, sweeping wins in all four Grammy general categories this year, self-directing videos, and now becoming the youngest artist to record for Bond.
While the Bond franchise consistently remains a cash cow and has certainly beat the odds by maintaining popularity through the 2000s, to many it is long stale. Critics of modern Bond argue that the films lack self-awareness, often oblivious and stone cold in the face of the high-camp scenarios of their stories. Casino Royale (2006) is about bankrupting a terrorist by beating him at poker; at base level it’s slightly absurd. And, while Craig has certainly managed to tone down the character’s sexist antics, the franchises’ uncomfortably backwards gender politics still shine too brightly at times. Classic Bond on the other hand, while at its sexist peak, knows how to have fun. It’s camp, it’s a romp; under no circumstance does it ever take itself all that seriously. Bond jumps out of airplanes over ski mountains, avoids shoe daggers and sharpened bowler hats, employs grappling hooks from a wristwatch, all with a smile.
Eilish combines the best of both Bond worlds. The inclusion of the now-iconic “duh” to signal the refrain of megahit “bad guy” instantly signals two things that are synonymous with old-school Bond: self-awareness and camp. She is constantly self-deprecating, always laughing and sticking her tongue out, and embraces the kind of silly that classic Bond films always achieved both intentionally and unintentionally. At the same time, she has a personality that’s mysterious and brooding, and embraces inner demons with a sense of polished darkness (just watch her chilling “In Memoriam” performance at this year’s Oscars). That introspection fits Daniel Craig-era Bond like a glove. She thrives on hyper self-awareness, as well as a persona that manages to be carefree and silly while at the same time heavy and ominous. Eilish can unite old Bond and new.
But even if she has enough in common with Bond under the surface to dissuade any naysayers, Eilish’s appearance in No Time to Die’s opening credits would likely still force changes for the better. Billie’s fashion aesthetic is instantly recognizable. Hip, young, oversized. She very intentionally does not go for sex-appeal (which should be a no brainer considering her age, but many others – Avril Lavigne comes to mind – have gone this route at even younger). She goes for glamour and dirt. She actually wears baggy clothing very intentionally to protect herself from body-shaming trolls, something so distinctly anti-Bond that it would feel completely out of place to have scantly-dressed models in the title sequence over her soft croons. Eilish’s audience is simply too familiar with her aesthetic to not notice the major incongruity of that nature.
It’s hard to speculate how, if at all, Billie Eilish and FINNEAS can move Bond significantly further before the song’s release, especially when other artists tapped for the theme have occasionally ventured off-genre: Sheryl Crow left behind her girly persona for a far more anthemic tune, Alicia Keys went full off-kilter rock with Jack White, and Garbage softened their grungy pop-rock and put Shirley Manson’s sultry voice to much more literal use. It’s possible Eilish could release a radio ready rock song à la Chris Cornell or go her often-traveled route of soft, barely audible ballad. But if she does go the Duran Duran/Adele/Madonna route and releases something quintessentially Billie, the film, and hopefully the franchise, will be forced to shift tone to match.
Perhaps it’s overzealous to speculate such dramatic change for one of the longest running film franchise in history based on a single artist and song, but the fact is, the clashing of the two worlds shows potential for a new age of Bond, one with a non-chauvinist sense of humor, with self-awareness, or even dare we dream, a feminist. Maybe it is also optimistic to think Bond will ever catch up to the modern age, when the inherent concept of a woman-eating heartbreaker with a slight messiah complex is very much of its original time. But if production is serious about changing up the formula (and they should be), then the music is the safest place to start, and would likely ruffle the least of the purist’s feathers. Lana Del Rey was the easy choice, but dark horse Billie won out, so production is clearly trying to shake it up.
The image of white film executive men in boardrooms brainstorming how to bring Bond, who by all modern-day accounts has a degree of fragile masculinity, to a Gen-Z audience would no doubt make anyone cringe. They succeeded with “the blonde bond” in the 2000s by softening out the edges, and with feminist powerhouses like Phoebe-Waller Bridge in the writer’s room and Billie Eilish behind the mic, they are set up to take a step in the right direction. Now for Bond 26 get Janelle Monáe.