Breaking news alert: Some time between the first prime-time coronavirus relief special three weeks ago (“Fox Presents the iHeart Living Room Concert for America”) and Saturday night’s “One World: Together at Home,” Elton John has gotten himself to a piano. Or a piano has gotten to him. The superstar on that earlier show that he’d been marooned without one when sheltering-in-place went into effect. It’d be nice to believe that, in the fine print of global lockdown orders, “getting a damn piano to Elton John” has belatedly been written in as an essential service.
John’s piano was the most spit-shined instrument you’ve ever seen, but not everything about his appearance was polished to a fault. As he sang “I’m Still Standing,” standing between him and a giant hedge was a large portable basketball hoop and a couple of balls. You might’ve hoped David Furnish and one of the boys were about to emerge and do some dribbling choreography to augment the upbeat tune, and that was not to be. But the odd detail of the hoop served as a sort of symbol of one reason why we’re so transfixed by all these music live-streams that are happening now, of which this show was the inevitable culmination. There’s a bit of an amateur element — or mandated mundanity — that’s suddenly making entertainment more fun as well as more real.
There were 19 separate music performances in the two hours of “Together at Home,” and each of the 19 had a different producer, essentially: the artists themselves. You never knew from one segment to the next how each musician would choose to present himself or herself. In the living room, or out in the grove? Vertical framing, or landscape mode? Folkie mode, or phantom orchestra? Trophy shelf in plain sight, or boxed up? Full makeup and styling or au naturel? (It was presenters Beyoncé and Michelle Obama, actually, representing a spectrum of possibilities there.) Pro cameras smuggled into the house and uploaded to a post-production FX house, or gutsy iPhone 5 grain? If leaving these act to their own devices isn’t the definition of “variety show,” nothing is.
What the show did need a relative consistency of wasn’t HD quality or numbers of candles-per-piano — it was tone. And “Together at Home,” by design or happenstance, settled on a pretty solid one. It was positive but not overeager to perk us up, and earnest without ladling on schmaltz. One outlier on the silly end was co-host Jimmy Fallon joining the Roots for a cover of Men Without Hats’ “Safety Dance,” made palatable by how nurses and other medical pros, the official honorees of the show, became the dancing stars of the video. At the other extreme was Taylor Swift’s “Soon You’ll Get Better,” a cancer-themed ballad of sheer despair that the show needed as an 11:00 number, and as a reality check after so many assurances that everything will be all right, when we know that so many people won’t.
Lady Gaga gets so much praise that you kind of hate to dump any more on her, but besides whatever involvement she had in curating the show, her bookending appearances here were something else she got right. She opened the show alone with Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile,” a song that can be played a little maudlin — but, yes, we all get the “though your heart is breaking” part, so she had fun with it as somebody swooped around her piano with a smartphone. (On her music stand, she had some kind of doodling instead of sheet music.) At the end of the tune, she put her finger to the corner of her mouth and flicked it, as if to send her smile out to the audience, as she hit a final high key on the piano. Was this any time to be cute? Apparently, and it worked just fine. As did the solemnity she inevitably struck on the other end of the two hours, joining up with Celine Dion and Andrea Bocelli on their famous duet of “The Prayer” and turning it into a four-parter with John Legend (or five, counting accompanist Lang Lang).
There are those of us who dread hearing certain inspirational chestnuts revived in these settings. But when Stevie Wonder is the one reviving Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me,” well, there’s nothing to dread. (He got his own licks in, merging the song into his enduringly troubled “Love’s in Need of Love Today,”) Lizzo being the one to bring the familiar “A Change is Gonna Come” to fruition? Not a problem. When it is the duo of Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello pulling up the inevitable “What a Wonderful World”… well, honestly, that could have either way, but they sounded great together, and paid off the suspense of which one is most likely to appear in a bolo tie. (Also, let’s not read too much into anything, but we’re starting to get a strong feeling these two are dating.)
The other song to sort of/kind of dread hearing was “Let It Be.” Because surely that was the song Sir Paul McCartney was going to pull out, right? Surprise: It was “Lady Madonna,” of all the songs you don’t usually get at benevolent charity events. He didn’t do it in the Fats Domino-influenced arrangement fans have been accustomed to for 52 years, but rather a moodier version. And if it wasn’t clear why “Lady Madonna” needs to have the boogie-woogie stripped out of it, it was fun just as something different for Beatlemaniacs who are always welcoming surprises this late in the day. McCartney was also the only one to have his contribution shot in vertical mode, as the Instagram generation does; whether he was given that instruction or not, it did allow the show’s editors to throw in stills of medical workers on either side of him… a sight that never failed to be moving in any context on the show. He finished his number by letting the stereo tremolo circuitry warble for a few seconds while he did a little bit of jazz hands in the air — Paul McCartney, our international cheerleader to the end.
Billie Eilish and Finneas might have had the best idea for an inspirational cover, at least in terms of putting a fresh spin on something that was a standard a few decades ago. That was Bobby Hebb’s breezy “Sunny,” one of the most covered songs of the 20th century but definitely not of the 21st. Which version did their parents play for them? Cher’s? Sinatra’s? Boney M’s? Wherever they picked it up, it was perfect for Eilish — and maybe it finally put the lie to the notion some oldsters have that she’s all about looking or sounding morose, when she picked a song that’s about as light as they come. Just one problem: whatever smart device was being used barely registered her voice, as her brother’s cool-sounding Wurlitzer electric piano dominated the “track.” (You could even say that there ain’t so “Sunny” when her voice is gone.) There must not have been time for the producers to recognize the audio problem and ask for a do-over, but it’d be nice if the siblings provided one in the form of a real studio recording.
Kacey Musgraves’ “Rainbow” was the right song for the right moment, for obvious reasons — the rainbow being a staple of support for medical workers especially in windows in Europe right now — and her single-camera self-shoot was as simple and ideal as the show got. Eddie Vedder got a bit darker at his keyboard with “River Cross”; you could joke about how he needed that baseball cap brim to shield his eyes from all the candlelight, but his gravitas made for an appropriate intermission amid all the sunlit treescapes. Maluma’s pastoral background seemed to be a green-screen effect; he looked like he was chilling on a hillside but sounded like he was holed up in his bathroom. This too, was fine. The guy who seemed least interested in setting a mood of any kind was Burna Boy, with his bare cinderblock wall, grey leisure suit and cords dangling in the corner of the frame, all the finer to focus you on the shots of distress in the world of “the African giant.”
There were moments where the special seemed just a little bit less more about show business, and these were more tickling than offensive. When John Legend and Sam Smith sang a remote duet, there was no escaping the sight of Legend’s collective EGOT, in the shiny flesh, perched immediately over his shoulder. Smith, in what may have been accidental but came off as a hilarious case of rejoinder, had an Academy Award visible on a distant mantelpiece in the mirror, as if the Oscar were doing a “who, me?” photobomb. In the end, did they sound splendid together? They did. When it came to subtle grandeur, though, no one was going to beat Jennifer Lopez, who wore a glitzy shirt with Barbra Streisand’s visage from her own clothing line as she sang “People” in a vast, nighttime expanse that looked like it could be the Huntington Gardens, backed by an orchestra you wished would come out from behind the trees. “I miss you,” she murmured to the camera, sweetly, at the end. (Divas who need diva-lovers: the luckiest people.)
One quality completely missing from the special was anger. With everything having been pre-recorded, there was absolutely zero possibility of a moment like the famous one on the post-Katrina special when Kanye West spontaneously declared that George Bush didn’t care about black people. The sponsoring Global Citizen is all about raising money for PPEs, not getting people pissed. So politics were a long way from entering into any of it — although we are now at a sad and bizarre point where the nonpartisan act of supporting the World Health Organization, one of this show’s primary purposes, has suddenly been made into a political purpose itself. There was fieriness and purpose, anyway, in Beyoncé making a non-performing appearance to note that “black Americans disproportionately belong to these parts of the work force that don’t have the luxury of working from home,” and that “this virus is killing black people at an alarmingly high rate in America.” (Alicia Keys made much the same just-the-facts-ma’am point about racial disparities that may fall ultimately into the realm of either science or social science, or both.)
Was there room for actual despondence in any of this? If you were going to tear up during any of “Together at Home,” it was probably going to be during one of the interstitial segments in which we heard from nurses saying they were voluntarily separating from their children to fully imbed in dangerous hospital settings, or were there to hold the hands of the dying when loved ones cannot — not so much the hopeful music. But the show was willing to turn that smile upside-down on at least a couple of occasions. One was when Billie Joe Armstrong — looking more moptop than usual, a few weeks into the post-haircut era — sat on a futon and sang “Wake Me Up When September Ends,” a song about the death of his father that may be therapeutic for some of those who aren’t seeing a light at the end of the tunnel for themselves or their loved ones right now.
But it was up to Swift — not usually thought of as a bracingly downbeat figure —who emerged as sober truth-teller at nearly the last minute, appearing alone, mirrored by her piano top, to perform a song she may be unlikely to sing under any other circumstance outside the studio, “Soon You’ll Get Better.” It’s the song she wrote about facing her mother’s recurring cancer, with verses so distraught they threaten to betray the deceptively optimist title as magical thinking. On a day when U.S. deaths from COVID-19 reached their peak to date, there couldn’t have been a more appropriate song for all the families of ICU patients sitting at home, searching for each new set of probabilities and statistics as they face utter uncertainty. The upturn in Swift’s mouth as she wrapped up her appearance was measured in micro-millimeters, as it should be.
When we wake up with Billie Joe in the fall, will it be Swift’s wrenching ballad that we remember? Or the casual irreverence that’s also getting folks through this — doled out Saturday night in occasional comic interludes from hosts Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel or Fallon, who joked that, of the $50 million pledged by corporate sponsors before the show aired, “half of that was from holding Jeff Bezos upside down and shaking him for loose change”?
Somehow, in their own way, the Rolling Stones split the difference, by performing “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” (They could have said, a la Bono, “Donald Trump stole this song, and we’re stealing it back,” but did not.) It was easy to focus on the practical aspects of what they were doing: Were they playing together, or recorded sequentially? Why did Ronnie Wood’s licks appear to be live but Charlie Watts’ air-drumming not so much so? Certain elements of that conjoined performance may remain a mystery, until they’re explained to us. But it was kind of delightful, regardless … even as it imparted the slightly unnerving message that what we want — the old normal — probably isn’t what we’re going to get.