There’s something refreshing about something being about what it’s actually about.
This was the thought that came to mind as the Backstreet Boys — a band still riding on the afterburn of one massive hit — performed a five-way “socially distanced” version of “I Want It That Way” on Fox’s televised benefit to raise awareness of the coronavirus and funds for American food banks and for the children of first responders. This was a performance that had less than nothing to do with, as the contemporary parlance would have it, “this moment”: Not merely was the song studiously, Max Martin-ishly meaningless even when it came out, it was also done now with a series of statements that indicated the performers’ level of seriousness about the task at hand. Nick Carter, beaming in from his home deck, didn’t get off the chaise to do his vocals; AJ McLean performed the final verse with the camera focused on both him and a giant glass statuette behind him, panning up to another shelf of awards after he’d finished singing.
This was, in short, an opportunity for the Backstreet Boys, and one that they took with the gravity the setting implied — which is to say, very little. There was no pretense, in their performance, towards any uplift greater than a reminder that these five men were super-famous for singing this song at a time, and would be happy to keep singing it as long as your attention stays on them.
The general mood of the hourlong benefit special matched the Boys’ energy. This show filled a spot that was, pre-coronavirus, meant to be an industry-spotlight awards ceremony in an arena: Shifting the location to stars’ homes, it more or less stayed an awards ceremony, with occasional intrusions by real first responders who were, in their testimony, arguably the night’s star performers. (Their travails certainly ought to have haunted the proceedings more than they did.) Credited celebrities, unable to perform in any setting other than their living rooms, seemed to decide that showing off how they lived was inspiration enough: Billie Eilish and a Shawn Mendes-Camila Cabello duo could think of no song more apropos to a moment as colossal as this one than random singles of theirs. Eilish, who, more recently than it seems now, was tasked with singing “Yesterday” over the In Memoriam reel at the Oscars, chose for the greatest moment of dislocation in her life or the lives of people much older… “Bad Guy.” OK! And Cabello seemed, in mien and performance style, to genuinely view the broadcast as a potential promotional opportunity for sales of her album, so much so that the viewer came to feel like a scold for thinking that maybe it ought to be a little more about the good causes that go unmentioned for long stretches. The Cabello cause — assiduously promoted at all moments, so why not now? — was so foregrounded as to make coronavirus seem like an intrusion rather than the point.
Cabello is hardly alone, of course, in thinking that merely existing as a celebrity should provide enough inspiration to the masses to offset the world’s ills. The now-notorious “Imagine” video, a project spearheaded by “Wonder Woman” star Gal Gadot in which the well-known spoke-sang John Lennon lyrics to provide inspiration and issues awareness to the masses, felt like a striking benchmark, and an early one. With so little time elapsed in the era of social distancing, celebrities who presented as serene and confident under normal circumstances (Will Ferrell? Sarah Silverman? Natalie Portman? Really?) revealed themselves as Norma Desmonds in waiting, one brief pause in audience attention away from reclaiming the means of production to show us just how many ideas they’ve had brewing this whole time. That those ideas tend to stop short at “the world gets better somehow, and I stay famous” is somehow the conversation’s end, not its beginning.
The celebrity interface with the problems of the world was not always this way, and it’s not just because the problems of the world have gotten worse. To wit: Elton John, no newbie, actually used his job as emcee not just to entertain but to push forward the idea that social distancing should be the order of the day. And seasoned stars like Alicia Keys, Billy Joe Armstrong, and Dave Grohl picked up the slack from Cabello and Eilish by performing actually apropos songs with a tone of relative pensiveness (put on or not). Keys has had a long enough career to have performed at the post-September 11 “America: A Tribute to Heroes” concert, a show that was both not enough to meet its moment and a movingly genuine show of force by the entertainment industry. It was the best a group of frightened people could do in the face of what looked like an existential threat. Keys, then the newest star in the firmament, sang Donny Hathaway; Paul Simon showed up; Mariah Carey sang “Hero.” That Carey dropped in at the end of Fox’s coronavirus benefit to sing “Always Be My Baby” — a bit of fun for an audience stuck at home — proved that she gets it in a way her successors, and even some of her contemporaries, don’t.
After all, the threat looks different than it did in 2001 — it’d be impossible to book a studio for a group concert in the first place, and perhaps if we’re trying to encourage the young to stay home, bedroom bops are the order of the day. But this was not the best the industry could do. And something feels strangely lost in the fact that Eilish’s and Cabello’s generation of stars feel quite so incapable of the introspection that suggests that maybe they, this time, might have made a less careerist song choice, or that maybe this time, the Backstreet Boys could have sheathed their ambition a bit more. The desire to get back to the old cut-and-thrust of work — in which stars are competing to make and sustain hits — is certainly refreshing, as compared to the blandness and blankness of the stars of “Imagine” purporting to help through singing someone else’s song. But it might have been put away towards a greater goal, at least for an hour. Actual curiosity about what might be appropriate or tonally sensitive at a deeply tense moment in the life of the nation and the world would have gone a good way further. Imagine all the people on music’s A-list, looking out the windows of their living rooms and really living in today. It would have yielded a very different show.