Some of One World’s Comfort Songs Are Off-Key

One World: Together at Home and what our choice of anthems says about how we cope with a crisis.

Good intentions, the inconsistencies of transatlantic high-speed internet connections, and legendary musical artists incapable of reading the room can sometimes make for a tone-deaf collection of performances. The 18 April program
One World: Together at Home, spearheaded by Lady Gaga and intended to raise awareness of the WHO (World Health Organization) and other agencies fighting the COVID-19, is an eight-hour broadcast available on various network and streamed platforms. Hosts Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon, and Stephen Colbert anchor from their respective homes, interview health care professionals, and provide some degree of levity to our international quarantined lives. Artists include Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, Elton John, the Rolling Stones, and John Legend.

One World: Together at Home focuses its first six hours on fundraising, and the results are, according to The Guardian, successful. However, malaise sets in shortly before the main event when singer Jennifer Hudson closes out the first six hours with a performance of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah“. The power in her singing and the slow, careful choral arrangement is undeniable, but the song seems the worst fit.

Consider the lyrics: “Love is not a victory march / it’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah”. It’s not the most auspicious song to introduce the main show, but Lady Gaga makes up for it with her cover of the old
Charlie Chaplin song, “Smile“. Suddenly we’re transported back to 1954 watching Nat King Cole sing this song about maintaining hope beyond all reason. Here, the lyrics and sentiment are much more relatable and in keeping with our lives at the moment:

“Smile though your heart is breaking / Smile even though it’s breaking”.

It would be generous to say that the good song choices balance the oblivious and questionable ones. Stevie Wonder pays tribute to his late friend Bill Withers with an appropriate and strong cover of “Lean on Me” that blends into his own “Love’s in Need of Love Today”; John Legend and Sam Smith join forces for Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me”; Lizzo performs an impressive cover of Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come”; and Jennifer Lopez does her best with a cover of Barbra Streisand’s “People”.

Elton John does an energetic and nicely produced version of his song “I’m Still Standing“, pounding away at a grand piano in what looks to be his backyard. There are no expectations of sonic perfection from any of these performances — that’s obviously impossible to achieve in these isolated, online broadcasts, but at least these song choices are appropriate and in keeping with the mood of the moment.

The most confounding part of the program, however, comes from legends who really should know better. Paul McCartney speaks about his late mother’s life as a nurse before launching into a wobbly version of “Lady Madonna“. If not for the photographs of nurses and other hospital workers displaying on the screen behind McCartney, we might not make the connection between this song’s story of a harried woman, her children scurrying around her feet, and the overworked caregivers for whom this event is raising funding. It’s frustrating to know McCartney settles for this song when he has “Let It Be” in his back pocket.

The Rolling Stones are a last-minute addition to the program, and it shows. Their performance of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” is the embodiment of everything the group has been for over half a century. Mick Jagger is up for the task, strumming an acoustic guitar and staying surprisingly contained. Keith Richards looks like he’s cosplaying Picasso’s 1903 painting “The Old Guitarist” — barely moving and never making contact with the camera. Ron Wood seems to enjoy himself on lead electric guitar, and Charlie Watts is sitting cross-legged in his room and air-drumming on boxes and furniture within his reach.

Besides the strangeness of this necessarily disconnected performance, of a band that’s been on tour together for decades, their song choice is just wrong. At first it seems to work. Consider the second line of the chorus: “But if you try some time you find / You get what you need”. But a queasy moment comes during the verse about standing in line with Mr. Jimmy at the Chelsea Drug store: “I was standing in line with Mr. Jimmy / And man, did he look pretty ill … Yeah, and he said one word to me, and that was ‘dead'”.

Sigh. Is that what we need right now? Had the Rolling Stones chosen to perform their classic song ” Salt of the Earth” we may find some comfort: “Raise your glass to the hard working people / Let’s drink to the uncounted heads / Let’s think of the wavering millions / Who need leaders but get gamblers instead”.

We will get the leaders we need, one of these days, but the need for comfort songs in these times of global pandemic is needed in the meantime. We need melodies that hold us in their arms when we can’t sleep, lyrics that blanket us in re-assurance and offer hope for tomorrow.

We need Brandi Carlisle’s heartbreaking cover of John Prine’s ” Hello In There” sung from the perspective of an elderly person who sees that loneliness is now the new normal and wants only to maintain a connection with the outside world. We need Steve Perry’s devastating a capella cover of Brian Wilson’s Beach Boys classic “In My Room, a song that brought him comfort during his teenage years and still resonates. May someone will revive Julie Gold’s 1985 classic “From a Distance” first recorded in 1987 by Nanci Griffith and startlingly relevant to the world situation today:

“From a distance, we all have enough / And no one is in need…From a distance, we are instruments / Marching in a common band”.

Or maybe we’ll just listen to Nanci Griffith.