By John Howland, author of Hearing Luxe Pop: Glorification, Glamour, and the Middlebrow in American Popular Music
What do the soundtracks of the James Bond film franchise reveal about intersections between pop music and our mass-culture notions of glamour and class? Billie Eilish’s title song to No Time to Die, the latest Bond movie released September 2021, offers a perfect illustration.
The Grammy award-winning singer’s music has typically been characterized by the style of contemporary “bedroom pop,” which relies upon DIY, bare-bones production via a laptop-based home studio. With typically breathy phrasing and closely-miked, minimal-dynamic vocals, this music invokes pop notions of “authenticity” and “natural” intimacy. Through basic, affordable equipment, bedroom pop can involve either simplicity or intricate multitrack production, especially layered one-singer vocals with backgrounds. Across 2021, the whispered angst of teen bedroom pop has achieved pop dominance. Yet Eilish’s performance of “No Time” signals a new shift to her style through its embrace of both retro feminine glamour and Hollywood-deluxe soundtrack bombast, as delivered in the production work of her brother, Finneas, and the orchestration contributions of Hans Zimmer and Matt Dunkley.
The timeless allure of bestringed orchestral-pop production – what I call “luxe pop” – still thrives in 2021 as a vital currency for conveying glamour and “class” in popular music. Generations of luxe-pop history can be traced across the James Bond film song pantheon that has aurally defined the franchise. These songs are routinely built through referential markers that dually point to John Barry’s original sonic formulas for the Bond scores and each generation’s top-tier pop. The Bond sound emerged from 1950s and early 1960s “traditional pop,” a period I refer to as the “populuxe era” to capture how the typical big-band-plus-strings sound reflects the era’s luxury-leaning mass consumer goods. This pop history is central to my new book, Hearing Luxe Pop: Glorification, Glamour, and the Middlebrow in American Popular Music, which explores luxe pop’s historical production practices for invoking sophistication, glamour, and spectacle. The midcentury “spy” soundtrack idiom– is referenced in multiple contexts: from the 1959 pre-Bond Untouchables TV theme by Nelson Riddle; to the early 1960s Bond film-score model and easy listening orchestral-pop surf rock; to mid-2000s hip-hop sonic and image invocations of the Bond legacy. I connect much of this music to middlebrow-adjacent, class-aspirational popular culture – with “class” and “classy” understood as glamour-based stylistic adjectives not necessarily aspirational socio-economic high-culture status.
“No Time to Die” involves a late-entry slowburn dramatic orchestral build. This luxe scoring in the song is new to Eilish’s ouevre and it richly enhances Finneas’s original bedroom pop production via brass-plus-strings Bond bombast. The track climaxes at a high and belted “Bond note” (the two-bar, B4-to-A4 moment on the title lyrics at 3:21 ff.). This theatricality is uncharacteristic of earlier Eilish recordings. Despite its whispered opening, this sonic coming-out-of-the-bedroom is readily heard in her new two-octave vocal range.
The songwriting practices informing the Bond theme-song pantheon often seemingly follow a stylistic-pastiche model akin to the adage of combining “old, new, borrowed and blue.” Finneas and Eilish are no exception here, acting on pop-production impulses that Simon Reynolds terms “retromania.” With pop music of the 2000s, Reynolds sees “a recombinant approach to music-making” that invokes a “constellation of reference points and [historical] allusions.” This produces “music whose primary emotion is towards other music, earlier music.”
One of my book’s first examples is a live performance of Kanye West’s “Diamonds from Sierra Leone,” which borrows from the bombastic Shirley Bassey title song to the 1971 Bond film, Diamonds Are Forever. I remark upon Barry’s lush, high-register strings set above earthy, big-band brass and reeds, and on how this soundtrack formula regularly annexes contemporary musical topics in order to juxtapose them against the “timeless” and “classy” string, reed, and brass sections.
A similar recombinant aesthetic is heard in “No Time.” For example, the “new” and whispered, angsty “blue” soulfulness of Eilish’s vocals builds to Bassey-like vocal bombast. Further, the song is built on a variation of the “borrowed” iconic cyclical two-bar “spy” harmonic progression from the Bond theme. The latter involves a chromatic, arch-like motive that lies at the heart of its four-chord E-minor harmony sequence. Finneas lightly changed the latter two harmonies of this progression, and his piano introduction adds a complementary rising motive that outlines an E-minor chord. The guitar of Johnny Marr (famously of the Smiths) is also central to invoking the “old” Bond heritage, especially in his concluding iconic E-minor “spy chord” (with a major seventh and ninth).
Following a tympani strike, the orchestration enters in the song just after the first statement of the title line. There is an epic synth string-like texture on the rising motive and low sustained live brass. Then the live strings leap forward with downwards cascading runs. This synth-to-strings shift provides a shift from bedroom pop to luxe pop, and the following verse sustains the tensions between these contrasting idioms with shuffling beat-type production and pulsing live strings underneath. Marr’s tremolo-and-reverbed Fender guitar (a Bond musical topic) peeks through. Under the second chorus statement, the strings surge forward in melodramatic sighs and sustained plush pads. There are also cascading violin runs, swelling cymbals, an ominous bass-register undercurrent. The title words repeat as the orchestration grows in climactic waves to Eilish’s Bond-note belting before pulling back to the delicate opening texture with a haunting background violin line before the final guitar spy chord.
Despite its invocations of these Bond-song archetypes, Marr and Zimmer praise the song for reflecting Eilish’s core idiom. As Marr notes, if they had just piled “lots of [Bond] bombast on you would lose the thing that made it totally … distinctive.” Zimmer states his goal was “all about keeping the integrity” of this “elegant” sound and enhancing its “timeless” qualities. The Bond hybrid-orchestra sound is partly built on stylistic models that Barry adapted from Stan Kenton’s 1950s progressive jazz. Kenton characterized this hybrid sound as a sign of “musical maturity” in its combination of a modern-jazz big band with strings, woodwinds, French horns, harp, and a touch of atonal and chromatic “classical”-type scoring. There is something of a similar “maturity” signifier in this song’s luxe upgrade for Eilish where the orchestration invokes a recombinant balance between old and new to create a core emotion defined by a sonic history of other, earliermusic and luxe production practices. Finneas, Eilish, Zimmer and Marr characterize the result as “evocative,” “elegant,” and a matter of sustained low-high style tensions.
This is precisely how luxe pop traditionally works, and these sustained low-high tensions are likewise present in Eilish’s recent glamour-image transition. Eilish originally gained attention for oversized clothing that allowed both hiding her body and a rejection of pop’s traditional gendered imagery. These clothes skewed towards goth, skater, and postpunk references alongside dark or extremely loud fabrics and her green-plus-black, two-tone hair. Yet for events over the past year, she has merged this style sensibility with pop Hollywood glamour. At her February 2020 Brit awards performance, she wore a sparkling black, sequined, baggy designer pants-plus-top ensemble from Burberry and Tiffany & Co. At the September 2021 Met Gala, she appeared as a platinum blond in a peach-colored Oscar de la Renta ball-gown-plus-corset ensemble draped in Cartier jewelry, modeled after old Hollywood glamor icons Marilyn Monroe and Grace Kelly. In a Vogue-produced video on the Gala appearance, someone notes that Eilish is wearing “the most rings that Cartier has had anyone wear,” to which she mockingly sings in a Bassey imitation of “Diamonds are forever!”
This new street-plus-luxury aesthetic is also seen in the “No Time” video in which Eilish is depicted as an updated, sultry glamorous nightclub singer, replete with bedroom-eyed, swaying body choreography that complements her whispered vocals. The performance is enhanced by gauzy black-and-white cinematography, a velvet backing stage curtain, and a vintage silver Shure 55S microphone (nicknamed the “Elvis mic”). The effect is midcentury film noir. This luxe reinvention is a stylistic pastiche – both musical and visual – that involves a referential lineage dating back decades. Both image and music involve sustained tensions between signifiers of past, present, individual, and “timeless” elements.
In my book, I explore the intermedia connections between midcentury populuxe consumption and “the good life,” displays of luxury, and what Lauren Greenfield calls the “performance of wealth” as evoked by Hollywood, its celebrities, and Madison Avenue. As seen with L.A. born-and-bred Eilish – the daughter of two actors – these glamour and luxury patterns of performative influence can involve rich consumption connections to historical media, and these connections can involve both image construction and musical production.
In sum, like the James Bond film character, while it may occasionally be beat down and imperiled the long aesthetic influence of luxe pop production has never truly found a “time to die.”