Radio Tread: How the Walkman changed our world

Last weekend I stepped outside of my flat and played an entire album. Given how much music is available and my tendency to skip tracks, the only thing about this story that comes close to being remarkable is that I played the album in its entirety. Putting on my headphones and pressing play? That tiny miracle feels as natural as putting one foot in front of the other.

Sony Walkman TPS-L2

Sony Walkman TPS-L2

Forty years ago, a Japanese electronics manufacturer released a product that not only changed the way we listen to music, but how we experience the world. The Sony Walkman TPS-L2 was released on July 1, 1979 ­– a fourteen-ounce portable cassette player that enabled people to listen to music wherever they went. From work commutes to park jogs, we had a new companion to entertain, motivate, or simply drown out the rest of the world.

I have been drowning out the rest of the world for some time. Despite being born nine years after the first Walkman, I have been there for all its children. I remember the cassette player I ‘borrowed’ from my brother, how my discman chewed up CDs while walking, and the long hours I spent recording music onto the short-lived (but much-beloved) mini-discs. Now all my tunes come off my phone via wireless Bluetooth technology. We haven’t figured out how to plug music directly into our brains just yet, but who knows, maybe we will by tomorrow.

What is most significant about the Walkman is not necessarily its technological innovation but rather its impact on culture. Much like the television and radio, the Walkman changed the way humans experience their world, but unlike these earlier breakthroughs the portable music player could reach well beyond the home. The outside world could now be filled with whatever sounds we wanted. A walk through town could be a blistering drum solo, while a lone train journey could become a mournful ballad. If life could be described as a movie, we now had our own soundtrack. 

Listening to music in this way has done more than just make our daily lives less boring. Michael Bull has written of how the Walkman, and portable music players generally, have enabled people to recreate spaces in their own image, stating that ‘[m]ediated sound reproduction enables consumers to create intimate, manageable, and aestheticised spaces in which they are increasingly able to, and desire to, live.’ By playing music, I can project my desires onto an area, change how it looks, how it feels and, in my mind at least, its very meaning.

Most significantly, portable music also enables people to make public space private. This has both positive and negative implications, for while the user can get greater enjoyment out of a location, they can also alienate themselves from the area and its people. This separation not only isolates the individual in a world of their own making but can also reinforce differences, rather than dissolve them.

In Sofia Coppola’s cult film Lost in Translation, its odd couple Bill Murray and Scarlett Johannson take a taxi through Tokyo by night. In a now iconic scene, both stars stare out of the window, soundtracked by My Bloody Valentine’s ‘Sometimes’. The music, combined with its neon visuals, show the thoughtful melancholy of two foreigners who feel ‘lost’ in a strange land. Thinking of this scene, I remember playing similar music off my iPod in late-night taxis across Seoul. Back then, somewhat drunk and prone to melodrama, I thought it was meaningful. Now it seems positively colonial.

It is considerations like these that make me wonder what Charles Baudelaire would have thought of the Walkman. The French poet and critic is well-known for his writings on flâneur (lit. ‘stroller’ in French), a man who wanders amongst city crowds as a ‘passionate spectator… in the heart of the multitude’, who is ‘away from home and yet [feels] everywhere at home’. Listening to music on headphones can make a person feel like they belong anywhere – but it all depends on who that person is and what privileges they are afforded.

When the Walkman was first released it cost $400. Portable music is certainly cheaper now, but just because the technology is accessible that does not mean public space is. The ability to move freely in the city is still limited for people more likely to be policed than those to which our modern flâneur might belong (male, white, upper-class, etc.). Baudelaire not only describes the ‘stroller’ as having an ‘aristocratic reserve’ but also his (and it is always his) ability to ‘see the world, be at the centre of the world, and yet remain hidden from the world.’ Disappearing into a world of music, undetected and unscrutinised by people, police, and surveillance cameras? Not everyone can be so lucky.

Paris; Rainy Day by Gustave Caillebotte (1877)

Paris; Rainy Day by Gustave Caillebotte (1877)

Throughout this article I have used the word ‘we’. But who that ‘we’ is and how it is constituted is important to address if we’re ever going to create spaces where people – all people – can live and listen to music freely. A more just society, free from the violence of law, economy, and prejudice, would be one where everyone can be an audio flâneur, plug in some headphones and go for a stroll. As the Marxist geographer David Harvey put it, the right to the city is ‘a right to change and reinvent the city after our hearts’ desire.’ I think the great promise of the Walkman, and indeed all portable music players, is this very reinvention of space and self through music.  

I listen to music on my headphones any place, any time. I listen to music when I’m going to work, when I’m sat at my desk, when I’m reading a book, and when I’m doing nothing at all. I listen to music on my own, and in company, because that’s how anti-social I am. I listen to music when I’m happy, when I’m sad, when I’m drunk out of my mind. A long journey, a lazy afternoon, a loud café. The Walkman changed my world. I’m just waiting for the world to catch up.   

The Show Must Not Go On: Why the Oscars need a Rethink

The Oscars are a mess. From criticism of a lack of diversity to declining viewership, Hollywood’s biggest night has had a troubled few years. Judging by the events leading up to this year’s ceremony, the 91st Oscars are mired in controversy and the Academy does not seem to know what to do. Perhaps it is time to call the whole thing off, or cut it short, or something, anything, to keep the show relevant, interesting, and worthwhile.

Every year since 1927 the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have presented awards to filmmakers for their talent and expertise in the field, from directors, actors, writers, and production staff. The event is a highly publicised affair, with all the biggest stars showing up in nice dresses and tuxedoes to compliment and resent one another, while they applaud their contemporaries in the collection of gold statues.

A diverse selection of Oscar nominees, winners, and stars. Photo courtesy of Associated Press

A diverse selection of Oscar nominees, winners, and stars. Photo courtesy of Associated Press

Despite a primetime slot, massive media coverage, and more celebrities than a Trump attack ad, viewing figures for the Award show have been on the decline. The number of people watching has nearly halved in twenty years, falling from 46 million in 2000 to 26 million in 2018.

Some have blamed the low numbers on recent scandals over diversity and sexual misconduct, highlighted by online campaigns such as #OscarsSoWhite and #MeToo. Others point to the redundancy of the ceremony, as people can easily watch speeches on YouTube rather than sit through hours of inane red-carpet footage, bad jokes, and niche awards no-one really cares about. Whatever is at fault, few could argue that the response from the Academy has been less than assured.

Let’s go through the announcements, then the rather unceremonious retractions. Last Summer the Academy declared it would add an award for achievement by popular film. The decision was immediately met with criticism, with some arguing it devalued the other awards. Others queried over what constitutes a ‘popular film’ and, if such films were deemed award-worthy, why not nominate them in the usual category? Following the backlash, the award was dropped barely a month later.

Kevin Hart. Photo courtesy of AFP.

Kevin Hart. Photo courtesy of AFP.

Then there was the question over who should host. Given ongoing industry scandals, the Oscars have tried to play it safe in recent years and are particularly keen to avoid another Seth MacFarlane ‘We Saw Your Boobs’ routine. So, in December, they announced cuddly comic Kevin Hart. Family-friendly, bankable, and Black, Kevin was an ideal choice for an Award show desperate to avoid controversy. The only problem? Users of social media, the means by which all public figures must now live and die, revealed homophobic tweets on Kevin’s Twitter. After he refused to apologise, Kevin quit. With little time to spare, the Oscars have decided that the awards will have no host.

Guillermo Del Toro winning the Oscar for Best Director for Shape of Water (2018). Photo courtesy of Kevin Winter (Getty Images).

Guillermo Del Toro winning the Oscar for Best Director for Shape of Water (2018). Photo courtesy of Kevin Winter (Getty Images).

Finally, the Oscars have tried to retain audience numbers by cutting running time. In the past, organisers have played off winners when they feel their acceptance speeches go on for too long – an indignity that is often more awkward than necessary. In February, several weeks before the ceremony, the Academy announced it would cut presentations for four categories, including editing and cinematography. After complaints from industry figures such as Guillermo Del Toro, the decision was, again, hastily reversed.

All of this back-and-forth indicates an organisation that has no clue about what it is doing, nor about how to save its ailing brand. I am sceptical about the value of awards anyway, as I don’t believe art is or should be a competitive enterprise. Still, until the Socialist utopia is achieved, something ought to be done about a show that, for now at least, still conveys value, prestige, and opportunity. Here are three things the Academy could do:

Take it off the Television

The Oscars ceremony is expensive. With a continual slump in viewing figures, justifying the three-hour broadcast becomes more difficult. Significant costs could therefore be made by taking the ceremony off the television, and instead offering it as a live-stream on social media. Twitter is usually the best place to be during the awards anyway, with clips being uploaded directly and users responding in real-time, cracking jokes, creating memes, and usually complaining that so-and-so was snubbed.

Drop the Routines

Billy Crystal as er, Sammy Davis Jr. Photo courtesy of CBS.

Billy Crystal as er, Sammy Davis Jr. Photo courtesy of CBS.

The Oscars have had some truly awful routines over the years. Recent examples include the aforementioned Boob song, Ellen’s bafflingly pointless pizza order, James Franco’s dress, Billy Crystal’s weird blackface, and Jimmy Kimmel inviting in tourists for some reason. Save time, dignity, and interest by getting rid of the routines altogether.

Let the Artists Speak

People want to know who won, and what they said. Other than mishaps like the infamous Moonlight announcement, the speeches are what tend to make headlines – particularly if the artist uses their platform for political and social grandstanding, or the kind of heartfelt tribute that inspires tears in Hollywood and at home. While it is true that some spend a little too long on the podium thanking everyone and their cat, many others are brutally cut short. Without the limitations of television broadcast, you don’t need to play people off. Let artists go on for as long as they want.

Be more Inclusive

The Oscars have got into trouble again this year for a lack of representation. This time, the trending hashtag might be #OscarsSoMale as there are zero women nominated under the Best Film or Best Director categories. Beyond implementing inclusive practices (perish the thought), the Oscars should at least do their homework. If there are no women or people of colour on your list, then maybe it’s time to ask questions of yourself, the Academy, and the films you have watched. Great work is being created all the time, and you have no excuse not to pay attention.  

These are just a few ideas, but I think they would go quite a way to making the Oscars a more engaging night for people. The Academy should embrace new media, cut down on the unnecessary elements, and keep the controversy to the people onstage – rather than those running the show.

Tell Us Something Pretty: How Should Deadwood End?

Warning: SPOILERS

Photo courtesy of HBO.

Photo courtesy of HBO.

Deadwood ain’t dead. Despite being off air for thirteen years, the busy schedules of several of its main stars, and numerous reports to the contrary, the much-beloved and much-mourned Western drama is to finally get its conclusion as a standalone movie in 2019.

Talk of a series finale is not new. Ever since the show was cancelled in 2006 due to low audience figures and a prohibitively expensive budget of near $5 million per episode, there has been considerable back-and-forth about whether it would be coming back. Creator David Milch was originally offered a six-episode season to finish, but turned it down on the basis that ‘I didn’t want to limp home.’

Now Deadwood is to return, which is cause for both celebration and caution. The past few years have seen the revival of several acclaimed shows, but not always to assured success. The fourth season of Arrested Development, a show cancelled in 2006 and renewed on Netflix in 2013, divided fans and critics and its fifth season was undermined entirely by the on-going controversy surrounding Jeffrey Tambor.

Of course, one might ask whether a show can ever truly live up to its past success years after the fact. The actors may have long since moved on, and the fondness that fans feel may have become impossible to satisfy in the interim. Deadwood has been off the air for nearly twice as long as Arrested Development, a substantial amount of time for the production staff, cast members, and audience.

So how should Deadwood end? And what needs to be considered if such an ending is to be both a critical and commercial success?

What is to become of the Bella Union?

Powers Boothe as Cy Tolliver. Photo courtesy of HBO.

Powers Boothe as Cy Tolliver. Photo courtesy of HBO.

One of the most compelling conflicts in Deadwood was between two saloon keepers, the charismatic yet brutal Al Swearengen and the sly and psychotic Cy Tolliver. Cy was a fascinating if terrifying opportunist, brilliantly brought to life by the inimitable Powers Boothe, who sadly passed away last year from pancreatic cancer.

Finding another actor for the role would not be impossible but would not produce the same results. Ian McShane rightly scored plaudits for his role as Swearengen, but Mr Boothe was severely underrated in his performance as Cy, embodying a complex, vicious, and utterly broken maniac with sublime skill. Besides, where would you find someone to do the voice?

Cy Tolliver was wounded in Season Two and spent much of the final season confined to his bed. A logical solution would be for Cy Tolliver to die in the show, but again, this leaves the question – what will happen to the Bella Union without its silver-haired pimp at the helm?

What is to become of Mister Wu?

If Deadwood was made today, one might wonder if the show’s portrayal of Asians would be the same. A lot can happen in thirteen years, and mainstream audiences have become increasingly more sensitive to racial representation, as the current discussion around Apu demonstrates. Looking back on the character of Mister Wu, Deadwood almost seems like it could have been made in the 1950s.

Keone Young as Mister Wu. Photo courtesy of HBO.

Keone Young as Mister Wu. Photo courtesy of HBO.

Mister Wu, as played by Keone Young, encapsulates virtually every stereotype about the Chinese one could imagine. He is short, asexual, and traffics opium. He also serves as the comic relief of the series, partly for his often slapstick appearances, but also for his inability to speak English, particularly when he employs one of the preferred insults of the Deadwood Universe. Oh, and he also feeds human remains to pigs.

Much still needs to be done to improve Asian representation on screen, but in a year that saw the release of All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and Crazy Rich Asians, there is simply no excuse for this kind of characterisation. If Mister Wu does return, I hope he will be more than just a punchline.

What is to become of George Hearst?

Deadwood was not given a proper conclusion. The (unfortunate) final season is predicated on a large-scale showdown between the townspeople and the murderous capitalist George Hearst, a showdown which, incidentally, never comes.

Gerald McRaney as George Hearst. Photo courtesy of HBO.

Gerald McRaney as George Hearst. Photo courtesy of HBO.

If Deadwood shows the making of America, this ending is strangely appropriate. White men with money and power win, no matter the cost. Some may have seen George Hearst’s ruthless pursuit of profit to have been extreme, but it is worth remembering the means by which America became a world power, and how its economy continues to operate to this day.

Interesting? Yes. Entertaining? No. While a ‘happy’ ending would not make any sense in the context of a show as morally ambiguous as Deadwood, the fact that George Hearst can walk away entirely unscathed (and indeed, stronger than at the start) is deeply dissatisfying. Hopefully the finale will provide some closure on this element of the story, regardless of what that may entail for the ‘heroes’ of the series.

What is to become of the supporting cast?

Third season arrivals Jack Langrishe and his theatre troupe as well as the Earp brothers had all that much to do. Brian Cox’s performance as the flamboyant thespian Jack Langrishe was wonderful but did not serve the plot in any relevant way.

Similarly, the famed gunman Wyatt Earp and his troublesome brother caused a stir when they arrived in camp but did not serve any further purpose to the story beyond causing some problems for one of Hearst’s men.

Lastly, there is uncertainty around the reappearance of Jeffery Jones as the pompous newspaperman A.W. Merrick, who plead no contest to soliciting naked photos of a minor. The charges were brought against Jones during the filming of Deadwood, but one wonders if, given recent attempts to crack down on sexual abuse in the industry, the actor will be welcomed back.

What is to become of the town?

Deadwood circa 1976. Photo courtesy of US National Archives and Records Administration.

Deadwood circa 1976. Photo courtesy of US National Archives and Records Administration.

The real town of Deadwood burned down in 1879. The television series, which begins in 1876, subtly (and not-so subtly) implies this fate throughout its three seasons. Al Swearengen threatens to set fire to the camp when reprimanding both E.B. and Jimmy Irons, while Trixie and Dan Dorrity make a pact to do so if Swearengen dies passing gleets.

Perhaps the biggest hint comes in Season Two, after Charlie Utter is made fire marshal. Inspecting the stove-pipes of a local saloon, Utter orders the keeper, Tom Nuttall, to separate the piping and wood because the camp ‘being situated like it is’ makes it liable to go up in flames. As the town structures were made of pine, it is not hard to see why this might be the case.

 

So how should Deadwood end? A shoot-out? A ball of flames? Or something else entirely?

Gone West: Were the Wyoming Sessions a failure?

Photo courtesy of Twitter, 2018. The original post has been deleted.

Photo courtesy of Twitter, 2018. The original post has been deleted.

Kanye West is good at getting people talking. Earlier this year, the rapper, producer, and professional agitator announced not one but five new albums. These ‘Wyoming Sessions’ consisted of albums by G.O.O.D Music luminaries Pusha T and Teyana Taylor, top five contender Nas, a collaborative project between West and Kid Cudi and, of course, a solo album by Mr West himself. Most curious of all was the suggestion that these albums would not really be albums. Each album, Kanye announced, would be just seven tracks in length.

However, what was an interesting concept was quickly overshadowed by things that had nothing to do with music. As always these days, what Kanye West says tends to be a bigger story than what Kanye West does, and his support for Donald Trump and the now infamous remarks about slavery being a choice meant that these bold experiments in form and content were somewhat lost beneath the ego of a man who must always be the centre of attention, even if it’s to get pelted with rotten fruit.

So far so what. Enough time and energy have already been spent on this misinformed idiocy, and regardless of how many people try to tell him otherwise, the man already got he wanted – people talking. What he didn’t get however, was people talking about the albums. Kanye West’s antics, coupled with a messy rollout, ultimately cost the project and the sales prospects of one of its stars. Not that it matters of course, for as we enter a new season, the still unapologetic producer has found new ways to piss people off, such as working with actual paedophile Tekashi 6ix9ine.  

Still, let’s forget about Kanye West the person for a moment and concentrate instead on Kanye West as he would like to be known – an auteur. Some might say the Wyoming Sessions were doomed from the start by an erratic and unreliable producer more interested in clicks than credibility. But I think this is a far-too simplistic reading of what is, on balance, a worthwhile yet flawed attempt to challenge the tastes and listening habits of a generation more accustomed to Spotify streams than CD purchases. There’s also some genuinely great song-writing and composition that deserves recognition, too.  

Pusha T. Photo courtesy Bennett Raglin/BET/Getty.

Pusha T. Photo courtesy Bennett Raglin/BET/Getty.

Expectations were high, and initially, they were met. After the confusing and bloated mess that was the Life of Pablo, the promise of stripped-down, no-filler albums was enticing, particularly given the possibility that Kanye might actually be going back to his roots as a producer, putting aside his unwieldy visions to help other artists with theirs.

In this respect, Pusha T’s Daytona was the perfect introduction to the new project. A critical and commercial success, the album matched Pusha’s typically hard-nosed coke rap with a colourful and eclectic array of beats and served as a reminder (if anyone needed one) of Kanye’s credentials as one of hip-hop’s greatest producers. It also re-ignited a long-running beef with Drake, which was quickly silenced by one of the most impeccable smackdowns of recent history, The Story of Adidon, a track which, while it did not hurt his sales, would nonetheless expose Drake, and force the rapper to reveal that he was, in fact, to quote Pusha, hiding a child.  

Beyond the drama, the album was highly re-playable, and demonstrated that Kanye might be onto something with the shorter format. If streaming has made music more disposable, shorter albums could have more value to a listening public grown used to skipping through tracks to get to one song. The idea was also refreshing given the recent vogue for long-albums, arguably motivated by a cynical gaming of streams to guarantee platinum or gold certification.

Sadly, it was not to be. Taken together, the albums that followed reflected much of Kanye West’s current output – occasionally brilliant, often frustrating, but above all, inconsistent. The much-anticipated solo effort, Ye, was a mess of corny bars, half-baked concepts, and often barely coherent rambling that showed an artist struggling to articulate himself, perhaps due to his own issues, or perhaps because he just doesn’t have anything worthwhile to say anymore. This lack of focus and poorly conceived content made the shorter format utterly superfluous. After all, why bother limiting an album to seven tracks if those seven tracks sound unfinished?

Listening party in Wyoming for the album Ye (2018). Photo courtesy of WAV.

Listening party in Wyoming for the album Ye (2018). Photo courtesy of WAV.

Compare all that with the exceptional Kids See Ghosts, the collaborative effort between Kanye and Kid Cudi. The album perfectly paired the two artists, and somehow managed to successfully blend hip-hop, rock, psychedelia, and a Louis Prima sample in a collage of sounds that should not work but totally does – a truly unique project that was inventive, exciting, and concise. One of the strongest albums in the series, Kids See Ghosts may have been enough to justify the whole project, but then came what was probably the biggest (and surprising) let-down, the Nas album.

Despite promises to the contrary, the Nas album is definitely not done. Or if it is, Nasir certainly isn’t it. A long-running criticism of Nas’s post-2000s output has been his choice of beats, and that all he really needed to produce another classic comparable to Illmatic would be working with a superstar producer who could provide sounds that would fit his peerless ability at lyricism and storytelling.

How odd then, that on a collaboration between Nas and Kanye, Nas would be the one not to show up. There are definitely some misses production-wise – the brain-numbing Cops Shot the Kid or the needlessly long Everything – but overall this album found a master craftsman phoning it in with some of the most lacklustre and questionable bars of his career.

From the conspiracy theorising of Not For Radio, where Nas asserts (among other things) that J. Edgar Hoover was black, wondering whether girls masturbate before going on dates, to questioning the side effects of vaccinations, the lyrical content of the album was bizarre and below par, particularly for an elder statesman of rap. Add to that a botched release, helped in no small part by accusations of plagiarism, and what should have been a triumphant return became a missed opportunity.  

Teyana Taylor (2016). Photo courtesy of Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP.

Teyana Taylor (2016). Photo courtesy of Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP.

By this point, the Wyoming Sessions had been defined by ups and downs – greatness one moment, mehness the next – as well as increasingly poor management on behalf of its curator and mastermind, Kanye West.

The final work in the quintet, Teyana Taylor’s long-teased G.O.O.D. Music solo outing Keep That Same Energy (K.T.S.E.), was both well-produced and well-performed, but ultimately let down by yet another haphazard release. As mentioned above, this cost Teyana a full day and a half of streams and sales – crucial to a performer still trying to find a footing in the industry as a solo artist.

K.T.S.E. also showed Kanye’s lack of commitment to his own vision. Unlike the other albums, K.T.S.E. broke the seven-track formula with the addition of vogue-house Work This Pussy, which, while admittedly brilliant, was a jarring contrast to the laid-back R’n’B of the rest of the album.

Perhaps that’s the point. The Wyoming Sessions were never supposed to be a cohesive project led by one singular and disciplined visionary, but rather a collection of odd sketches, collaborations, and ideas. Hits and misses, so to speak. But it does appear a strange occurrence in the career of a producer who, up until the past few years, has been known for high-concept work that not only sounded good, but confidently delivered on the ambitions of its creator.

So, is it right to call the Wyoming Sessions a failure? Not entirely, but I suppose that depends on what the aim of the Sessions was. Despite presenting a compelling argument for a shorter format, the trend of stacked albums does not seem to be stopping anytime soon. Time will tell whether or not Kanye’s decision to release albums as short as these had any impact, but so far it’s difficult to see why any other mainstream artist would take the risk, particularly when there is money to be made from lengthy track lists.

In terms of content, the Sessions boasted some of this year’s best releases. Daytona and Kids See Ghosts can both be ranked as highlights in the catalogues of Pusha T and Kid Cudi, and while not as strong as either of these albums, K.T.S.E. was still a fine entry for Teyana Taylor. These albums demonstrated that, with discipline and focus, Kanye can still do wonders for other artists, and remains one of the most versatile and imaginative producers working right now.

Other work however, showed that his seven-track format was a superfluity or worse still, a gimmick. Ye sounded anything but complete, while Nasir was a mismatch, arguably hampered by a lack of effort on Nas’s part, but perhaps also a producer unable to inspire a good performance from his star collaborator.

Life goes on. New music keeps being churned out by an industry desperate to sate the demand of people used to having infinity at their disposal. Next year one wonders if anyone will remember Kanye’s experiment, for by then who knows what will be taking up the news cycle. Still, while his public persona continues to shock and offend, the Wyoming Sessions prove Kanye is an artist willing to take risks, willing to experiment, willing to invent. Kanye will always be good at getting people talking. Let’s hope next time it’s just for the music.  

Conscious Un-Bonding: What's missing from the James Bond discussion

Idris Elba (2018). Photo courtesy of Harald Krichel. 

Idris Elba (2018). Photo courtesy of Harald Krichel. 

James Bond is black. At this point, he may as well be. The court of public opinion seems to have decided that Idris Elba will be the first black Bond(TM), which is probably a little awkward, given how consistently Mr Elba has stated the exact opposite. But I think what's missing from this discussion is a look at how the Bond character has been (and continues to be) defined by context and popular attitudes. In other words, the question shouldn’t be whether our times are ready for a black Bond, but whether Bond is ready for our times.

The idea of black Bond, and of Mr Elba taking on the role, has been around since 2010. If it wasn’t for the typically yawnsome rebuttals from indignant ‘traditionalists’ (or, you know, racists), the discussion may have ended there. Instead, what started as a bit of fun speculation has morphed into a sort of absurdist anti-racist campaign. Much like with the fall-out over the Ghostbusters remake, this backlash has made progressives even more determined – seemingly against the actor’s own wishes. No, Mr Elba, I expect you to be Bond.

But the problem is not who plays the character, but rather what the character represents. James Bond was always a form of wish-fulfilment for Britain, particularly British men. Introduced in Ian Fleming’s 1953 novel Casino Royale, James Bond became a hit with a post-war generation who not only had a taste for espionage, but an acute awareness of the country’s crumbling relevancy on the world stage.

Original film poster for Dr No (1962).

Original film poster for Dr No (1962).

As more people gained access to consumer goods and even foreign travel, James Bond came to represent a form of Britishness that was at once backward-looking to Imperial supremacy, but also modern, worldly, and hedonistic. As Dominic Sandbrook notes in his book, Never Had It So Good: “James Bond was the emblem of modern affluence, living a life of conspicuous consumption, luxury and sexual licence, surrounded by first-class airline tickets, champagne bottles and Turkish cigarettes.” The idealised image of British masculinity – suave and powerful, dispatching foreign baddies with silly names and bedding exotic women with even sillier ones.

It’s not difficult to see why such a character would be, to employ a favoured adjective of our current moment, ‘problematic’. Beyond the obvious racial insensitivities that have long been a staple of the franchise, one wonders if a character so defined by womanising chauvinism can exist in the era of #MeToo. From sexist insults to actual rape, James Bond has never been a paragon for respectful relations with women. As the entertainment industry continues to fight the fires from wave on wave of assault allegations, it’s not surprising that filmmakers should be so keen to distance themselves from the misogyny of this character, least of all its leading star.

Despite recent protestations, the attempt to address sexism in Bond is not new. Perhaps indicative of the burgeoning political correctness of the 90s, the 1995 return of Bond in Goldeneye saw a woman (and not just any woman – Dame Judi Dench) take on the role of M who, in her first scene, admonishes 007 for being a ‘sexist, misogynist dinosaur – a relic of the Cold War.’

Not that it matters of course, as not long after this moment of redress, Bond is back to undress, namely the ‘Bond girl’ Natalya and the femme fatale Xenia Onatopp (hurr geddit?). It’s as if the filmmakers believed that, by acknowledging Bond’s sexism early on, they could avoid criticism of his continued, consequence-free escapades. This confused, half-arsed, and ultimately insincere approach has persisted to the present day – but is proving harder to sustain.

Director Danny Boyle (2008), who was due to direct the next instalment of the Bond franchise before leaving in August 2018 due to 'creative differences.' Photo courtesy of Gordon Correll. 

Director Danny Boyle (2008), who was due to direct the next instalment of the Bond franchise before leaving in August 2018 due to 'creative differences.' Photo courtesy of Gordon Correll. 

The James Bond we know does not belong in this era. He just won’t fit. Studios may attempt to ensure the biggest box office returns by trying to please both feminists and the Sun readership, but their attempts will only alienate both audiences. Put simply, it does not matter how much agency the female characters are given, or how often Bond is punished for his shortcomings. It does not even matter that he gets affirmative consent. The fundamental essence of the character is the same – white, male, chauvinist – and as long as that stays the same, any attempt to ‘clean-up the franchise’ will ultimately fail.

Before we can have a black Bond, a female Bond, or any other kind of Bond, we first need to rethink our relationship with the character – who he is, where he comes from, and what he represents. Filmmakers can keep trying (and failing) to reconcile the character with the modern era, but they are missing an incredible opportunity for reinvention at what is a crucial moment in our national, social, and cultural history.

James Bond reflects the ideals of the popular imagination. He is, in many ways, the man that men have longed to be. He is the result of post-war anxieties about nationality, consumerist appetites and a Western, male-dominated culture that saw women as commodities and foreigners as devious and degenerate. But what if he came to reflect something else?