Chicken Little

Thursday, November 8th, 2012 at 4:38 pm

When I was in high school, we were all addicted to AOL Instant Messenger, which allowed you to use small images as your account’s icon, sort of a 48-pixel precursor to today’s profile pictures on Facebook and elsewhere. Usually you’d just download something — fake “buttons” that contextually mimicked the visuals of the program were all the rage — but much to the amusement of my friends (or some of them, at least) I was handy with Microsoft Paint. Instead, I hacked together a rough self-portrait caricature by clicking on individual pixels at the 800% zoom setting, and then pulled a series of head swaps to create variations like the one you’re seeing here — bond.bmp. (The clear “crowd favorite,” as it were, certainly seemed to be turtle.bmp, but personally I was also quite fond of ninja.bmp, devil.bmp, and dead.bmp, as well as a special edition which I used during the week-long beach trip we took together right after graduation.)

Sorry about that clunky intro, but there’s no other way those images were ever going to see the light of day. Anyway, I’ve just written an enormous feature for Grantland, parsing through the catalog of the James Bond theme songs in anticipation of the release of the newest film Skyfall on Friday.

From the outset, the idea was to rate and subsequently rank the songs using more sophisticated logic than simply “which song is the best” — for example, in a wild break from most of the other music writing I’ve done, we consider and even award points for the complexity of the music theory underneath the pop surface.

But I’d been also closely reading New York Times political statistician Nate Silver’s articles for months, and as election night drew nearer, the extremism of his predictions for an Obama win (all since proven correct, as you are likely aware) created a firestorm of controversy in the mainstream news coverage. He was inescapable, and consequently more of his approach was absorbed into my own writing than I could have predicted. I soon found myself writing about music in a ludicrously academic and mathematical fashion.

Considered on its own, the strength of the song roughly corresponds with that first expectation of artistic unimpeachability, the idea that a secret agent of Bond’s formidable aptitude should not be introduced by anything less than the finest entry music. But the smoldering remains of the music industry do still like to chase after popular success, so we also need to consider the prominence, popularity, and reach of each song — for our purposes here, this is a rough amalgam of sales numbers, chart positions, eventual cover versions, and more generally the extent to which the song can stand on its own as an independent cultural allusion many years after its initial release. (This also acts as an automatic populist counterweight of sorts against what would otherwise be an isolated critical opinion for strength — please remember that as you’re composing your angry tweets about this article.)

Using two numbers allows us to measure intrinsic quality separate from widespread success, but those are already valid metrics for every song in existence, and we’ve not yet accounted for the fact that this is a Bond theme, and thus just the latest tiny piece of a high-profile long-running whole; let’s see what we can do about that. The cleverest of the Bond pop songs are undoubtedly those that seamlessly incorporate a very specific melody, known among Bond music enthusiasts as the “suspense motif” — this is the slinky chromatic line that kicks in during the main title music, after the horns stop. If you listen carefully, you can hear it in the background at the beginning of the verses in Shirley Bassey’s “Goldfinger,” for example. This is what everyone thinks of as “the James Bond theme.” Constructing your pop song around the mathematical constraints of the suspense motif is the most fascinating compositional approach, but there are also other ways to “sound like a Bond theme,” so we’ll simply assign a third score here for cohesion, which is the extent to which a given song cooperates with the rest of the series.

This now gives us three scores instead of one for each of the Bond pop songs — roughly speaking, we now have separate numbers for each of those words: “Bond” (Cohesion), “pop” (Reach), and “song” (Strength). From these we can calculate an overall average which we hope will better reflect the effectiveness of each theme song using more reasonably balanced criteria than a simple gut reaction.

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This continues apace for five thousand words. It’s easily one of the most demented things I’ve ever written, and I’m delighted that Grantland was willing to entertain it anyway.

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3 comments rss

Patrick

Hey Vijith – loved the piece, but I believe you severely underrated Adele’s Skyfall for not using the “suspense motif.” The motif, as I understand it, can clearly be heard at the end of the first chorus and it repeats for about 30 seconds. Have another listen:

http://youtu.be/7HKoqNJtMTQ?t=1m51s

This song, to me, is one of the all time great Bond themes. Adele has a big voice that melds perfectly with the signature themes of the series. Plus, she’s British, which should get her a couple of extra points.

Vijith Assar

Wow, thanks Patrick! Sorry my response is so disjointed, but here goes…

1) First: shit, goddamnit, you’re right! No idea how I missed that; just got lost juggling 20-some songs and 80-some scores, I guess. Egg on my face.

2) This article has been out for a few days and even though Adele certainly has her supporters, you’re the first one to point this out. Well done! I’m pretty surprised that nobody else noticed my mistake, though — I could launch into a rant here about how this indicates the need for improved arts education in public schools, but I think I’ll save that for another post.

3) With that said, saying it was “severely underscored” overstates the extent of the problem — Adele actually already scored quite high on cohesion anyway. I said in the introduction that there are many ways to “sound like a Bond theme,” and Adele has already won 8 out of 10 of those points based more on texture and mood. Which is to say — even considering your point, which is correct, there’s not much room to increase on this axis, because we’re already in agreement that her song is excellent in the cohesion arena.

4) Both Adele and Jack White actually already got half-credit for cohesion even as it applies to the suspense motif because of their use of a compatible chord sequence. Apologies if I’m diving in too deep into music theory dork mode for you here, but in composition there’s something called “voice leading,” which is the arrangement of specific notes within a chord. It can be hard for the human ear to pick out notes that are buried in the middle of a chord, but we usually hear the highest and lowest notes quite clearly as the “lead melody” and “bass” voices. Since those other notes are still flopping about in between, though, the presence of the chords often implies the presence of the specific melody, even if it’s harder to hear. Most of my chatter on this point in the article was about more obvious melodic applications because I think all this was a bit too much to delve into with the readers, but the points for this are already there, even if the article text doesn’t get into it too much.

5) It’s in a way that’s different from point #4 but has the same effect, I’d argue that Adele’s use of the suspense motif was likewise understated. It only appears once, at the specific point you mention, and it’s never in the foreground — she’s always singing on top of it. So in my defense, it’s kind of mind-boggling to me that they would under-utilize such an important element to such an extent that I could miss it completely. Compare this to Chris Cornell, who used the suspense motif repeatedly and prominently, and then also filled the song with similar chromatic motion that parallels and evokes the suspense motif even when it’s not actually being played. Check out the diminished fifth that appears under the last syllable of the lines “I’ve seen angels fall from blinding heights” and “I’ve seen this diamond cut through harder men” — that’s not actually the suspense motif, but the chord is dramatically outside the expectations outlined by tonal harmony, and once that grabs your attention, a flatted-fifth diminished chord is also just about the Bond-iest thing you can play in that sequence. I know I’m already coming across as a huge fanboy for his song, but for my money it’s the most compositionally clever of the bunch, sunk more due to dull and inappropriate production details more than anything else.

6) I’m still hesitant to bump Adele up to a perfect 10 on cohesion. Back when her song was first released, Daphne Carr of Capital New York wrote a much more attentive takedown than I’d care to, so I’ll just quote her:

To fit the definition of a “theme song,” a song must really engage with the thematic material in a way that is recognizable and memorable. Like Bond, it must be bold… [Adele has] fulfilled the definition of the term “theme song” without doing much about the spirit of it.

7) The article’s conclusions still hold because Adele could only numerically tie Bassey if she had a perfect 10 on both cohesion and reach, and no other song in the series scored a perfect 10 in multiple categories. You clearly like her song more than I do, but I suspect you’ll understand why I’m skeptical that she’d be the one to break this barrier. Even if Adele were to numerically tie with Shirley Bassey and Garbage for the #1 slot, we resolved numerical ties through human editorial decisions and wouldn’t have given her the edge over those other two. But in any case, Adele is currently unranked pending a reach score, so altering her points doesn’t have any effects. I’ll happily meet you back here in twenty years to continue this debate, though.

So: you are correct, but there are only two cohesion points in dispute here, and I’d be willing to concede one of them, but that doesn’t really change much else. Great sleuthing though, and I appreciate the close read.

Vijith Assar

OK, I just talked to the editors and they’re going to append a footnote about this. Obviously I wish I’d never overlooked it in the first place, but I’m actually delighted that non-musician readers were totally able to follow along and call me out on this rather esoteric point.

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