License to think

I’ve often cited Stephen Johnson’s book, Everything Bad is Good for You, an ironic title, since the book talks about how smart pop culture has gotten. And there couldn’t be a better example of his thesis than the new James Bond movie, Casino Royale. I won’t pretend to know how its producers planned it, but I can imagine them thinking something like this: “The James Bond franchise is old and stupid. People feel affectionate toward it, but they know how silly the movies are. Times have changed; people now expect more. What can we do to bring James Bond alive again?”

They might have decided: “Let’s make Bond realistic. What would someone like that really be like? Someone, that is, who carries out impossible missions mostly on his own, and is officially empowered to act as a law unto himself [which is the larger meaning of the famous “license to  Their answer might have been: “He’d be a royal pain in the butt. Insubordinate, a loose cannon, almost impossible to control. His Oxbridge veneer would be just that, a veneer, covering deep insecurity. And he’d be lonely, with emotional armor six feet thick.”

So that’s what they show in the movie, which turns out to be thoughtful and touching, at least up to a point. I say “up to a point,” because I’m not going to make great claims for it.  In the end, however dark it gets, it’s largely an arousing entertainment.

But I will say this. I’ve been reading the new translation of Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers. And that book, classic as it is, doesn’t have half the thought or emotional depth of Casino Royale. Talk about entertainment — The Three Musketeers goes down as easily as popcorn, and makes very little sense. The characters have a lot of life, and maybe even a little depth, which is probably why the book survives.

But I suppose — because it was written 160 years ago, and, God help us, in French — we’re supposed to call it high culture.

Footnote: dark entertainment is a notably current trope. I’m reminded of one of my favorite pop groups, the Pet Shop Boys, who put serious thought into songs that sound like trashy pop glitz. Of course, they don’t only sound that way. Plainly, there’s depth. But in their heyday (the ’80s), serious rock fans would hear only the surface of their songs, and write them off as (in the words of a friend of mine from back then), “Disco trash.” When I quoted that to the two guys who make up the group, they said, “But we love disco trash!”

And that was the point. Their genuine love of pop ephemera led them to make records that both subvert current life, and exist entirely in the middle of it. The songs felt, in other words, the way living in the current world can feel. And that — again, without making great artistic claims — is a trope that Casino Royale also goes for (and of which classical music is just about entirely innocent).

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  1. David Cavlovic says

    …and what’s so bad about Disco? Yes quantity trumped quality, but time weeds out dreck.

    That said, I’ve heard the genre known as Bubblegum music, and groups with such names as the 1910 Fruitgum Company (actually, ALL the groups were just the same guys!) referred to as the Mannheim era of pop music.

    I love disco myself.

  2. richard says

    As an instrumentalist, when I played rock the purpose of lyrics kind of eluded me, and to some extent, still does. I think there is some sort of divide between those for whom lyrics are absolutely important to liking a tune and those who don’t. With regards to the classical world, I know that when I was in

    school a lot of folks who played instruments looked at singers with a bit of contempt. My bet is some of the old singer jokes are still being told at Julliard. Like the one: Q: “Is ‘such and such’ a musician?” A: “No, he/she is a singer.” Of course there is the famous joke about musicians, sopranos and Porsches, but it’s too crude to tell here. All silliness aside, this has got me thinking more about what people listen for in music and folks can hear things in completely different ways!

  3. says

    Speaking of interesting/serious/dark “disco trash,” if you’re not familiar with the great Slovenian industrial band Laibach you should check them out. They formed in 1980 as a sort of political musical/performance art group in which they essentially fight fascism with fascism. Their music combines industrial elements with classical elements like choirs and Wagnerian horns, and they claim that their style draws on disco beats because disco is the most facist of all musical genres.

    They’re especially good at doing really out-there covers of pop music, and their oevre includes a cover of the entire “Let It Be” album (except for the title track) and an album that consists of seven different covers of “Sympathy for the Devil.”

    I’I like Leibach a lot. Anyone who wants to know how far pop can go (and how not-popular it can be) should check them out. Or forget the ideological debate. Just let them shake you up.

  4. says

    What I found interesting about Casino Royale (besides it being a great escapist film) is that it was largely made by the same group (producers, director, screenwriters, composer) who have worked on several previous Bond films. Upon leaving the theatre I had assumed everyone who worked on any older films had been jettisoned since this new film was so different; it’s always nice to see that someone in Hollywood has more than one way to approach a concept.

    Now if we can only get some folks in the Classical Music idiom to follow suit…

  5. Yvonne says

    Are we supposed to call The Three Musketeers high culture? I’m not sure it was thought as such in its time – “industrial literature” was the phrase, I think. And it was a serialised romance (not that serialisation in itself is a strike against it, but it does indicate a popular market).

    It’s a classic, yes. And a personal favourite. I’d hate to spoil the fun by labelling it “high culture”.

    The notion of high culture wasn’t well established (maybe not established at all in literature) when The Three Musketeers cane out. But now I think it’s classified more as high culture than not, because it’s a capital C Classic. Along, of course, with other popular novels that were first published as serials in their time, by the likes of Dickens and Trollope.

    It just shows how slippery the concepts of high and low culture are. High culture, as we know it now, is a relatively recent notion, and has come to include artists like Rossini, who weren’t even remotely considered Art when they were alive. (The concepts of high and low culture did become established in music during Rossini’s lifetime. And he was on the “popular music” side of the fence, as opposed to “classical music,” which would have been Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and 19th century composers who wrote on their models.

  6. says


    A blog on music discussing Casino Royale would be remiss not to point out that the soundtrack to the original film is considered the holy grail of record collectors (in vinyl) and on the all time top 10 of “The Absolute Sounds” (TAS) superdisc list. For some classical music lovers the hobby is all about collecting the best recorded performances of various works, and for many, their interest slops over to other “best vinyl” too, so classical music and Casino Royale are inextricably intertwined in many minds. The “best lists” are shown below – don’t forget to consider audiophiles when you think about classical music.