Worst Songs Ever: Elton John’s “Something About the Way You Look Tonight”

Like a good single, a terrible one reveals itself with airplay and forbearance. I don’t want to hate songs; to do so would shake ever-sensitive follicles, and styling gel is expensive. I promise my readers that my list will when possible eschew obvious selections. Songs beloved by colleagues and songs to which I’m supposed to genuflect will get my full hurricane-force winds, but it doesn’t mean that I won’t take shots at a jukebox hero overplayed when I was at a college bar drinking a cranberry vodka in a plastic thimble-sized cup.

Elton John’s “Something About the Way You Look Tonight”
PEAK CHART POSITION: #1 in October 1997 with “Candle in the Wind ’97”

By 1997, Elton John was competing with himself to be as boring as possible. The only single with an EKG reading he’d released since 1988’s all-time “I Don’t Wanna Go On with You Like That” was the flop title track to Made in England (1995), and it rocked like the house band at an “Irish pub” playing Skynyrd in a metropolitan space. Yet he still scored hits: 1992’s “The One” reached the top ten, and the sundry Lion King soundtrack singles became almost as omnipresent as the stuff released during his mid seventies salad years. “Believe” and “Blessed” also took. It’s possible “Something About the Way You Look Tonight” would have scraped the top fifteen on its own, definitely done well on the adult contemporary chart.

Then the People’s Princess died in a car accident. I had just returned from a summer in London; I can’t imagine what I would’ve experienced had I stayed another couple weeks. I will not use this post to assess the reaction to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. But Elton, one of her oldest friends, and lyricist Bernie Taupin were asked to make minor revisions to 1973’s “Candle in the Wind” (it’s worth pointing out that if modern radio listeners knew the elegy to Marilyn Monroe it was thanks to a live version recorded in Australia, an American top ten hit exactly thirty years ago this month). To commemorate Diana and to donate funds for AIDS cure research, Elton released “Candle” as a double A-side with “Something About the Way You Look Tonight,” the anchor single for an album he doesn’t remember called The Big Picture. “Candle” broke the thirteen-year record held by “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” becoming the best-selling single in British history. I can’t find the stat, but I’ve read that for a weeks ago someone bought the “Candle” single every six seconds. “Stunning” is the only applicable adjective — this was a year when, as Chris Molanphy has written, record companies had conspired to make the physical single irrelevant.

If only the label had deleted the single! The Big Picture might’ve been Elton’s biggest album since 1975 instead of a remaindered obsolescence. For week, “Something” owed its staggering popularity to “Candle”; then, a miracle happened: radio stations treated a new Elton John single as if it were 1974 but to the highest power. Even after it relinquished its peak to Savage Garden’s “Truly, Madly, Deeply” in January 1998, “Something” sold and sold, eventually getting certified by the RIAA for shipping more than ten million singles. To give you an idea of how many cassingles and CDs I’m talking about, Whitney Houston’s cover of “I Will Always Love You” for The Bodyguard soundtrack sold less than half of what “Something…”; it remains the second best-selling physical single in the United States.

I stress these statistics because few times in pop history have I seen such a disparity between success and art. Both songs suck. “Something” owes much to Dorothy Fields and Jerome Kern’s “The Way You Look Tonight,” sung by Fred Astaire to Ginger Rogers in Swing Time, although the John-Taupin composition leans too heavily on its vagueness; it’s a singer’s job to articulate what a lyricist hasn’t finished, no? As stately and mildly pompous as an an old aunt dressed up for Christmas dinner, “Something” offers not a single surprising lyric or chord development, and Elton sings somnolently too, overcome by the love that, in the chorus’ melodic downshift, takes his breath away. The polite washes of organ and gospel background vocals, the almost undetectable rhythm guitar tugs — they undercut the gravelly conviction that Elton occasionally puts into his singing. I feel Elton’s devotion once: the slight, faint leap to an upper register on singing “And I don’t know where to start.” He hasn’t come to a sudden realization that his lover is beautiful; the arrangement suggests the casual morning “I love you” exchanged by long settled couples. Which would be fine! But producer Chris Thomas’ strings treats the plaint as if commemorating the Allied forces landing on Omaha Beach. I appreciate concision from Elton’s lyricists: Gary Osborne managed to write grade school-simple lines for 1982’s “Blue Eyes,” and the result causes “Something” to crumble into burned parchment.

The public mourning ended. Elton John completed his transformation into a beloved legacy artist. “Candle in the Wind 1997” has vanished, a moment’s monument. “Something About the Way You Look Tonight” lives, though: a headstone commemorating the twenty-five-year reign of a global superstar.

13 thoughts on “Worst Songs Ever: Elton John’s “Something About the Way You Look Tonight”

  1. That year was just so mad, so far gone, and seems so irrational and is thus so despised – the pinnacle of (to quote from the title of a British book about the previous year) the end of history, and thus profoundly embarrassing to modern eyes. Considering what it saw the ascent of in terms of British politics, there’s an obvious carmodic parallel both with Brexit and with the leadership, and then far greater than expected electoral success, of Jeremy Corbyn: *anything* but what we were doing then seems to be the motto in present-day Britain. If we were talking then about practicality, modernisation, and going further into Europe, we must now do the precise opposite.

    It’s no coincidence then, in that context, that “Candle in the Wind ’97” has been cast to the wind; nobody wants to contemplate and face what we were doing and thinking then, so the safest thing to do is to ignore it utterly. He said he’d never perform that version again unless Diana’s children asked him to; twenty years later, they still haven’t, and so he never has. Certainly the uncertainty over the future of the monarchy, and Diana’s sons’ willingness to be part of it, which persisted until the Golden Jubilee in 2002 and the concurrent demographic shifts in pop seems a very long way off, Corbyn’s republicanism notwithstanding; circles that then seemed as if they couldn’t be squared certainly feel like they can now.

    But when I think of Elton I cannot stop myself thinking of the eulogy for him in Eric Weisbard’s ‘Top 40 Democracy’ – something which only makes sense in a created society: in an old country, he is precisely the opposite.

    (re. an ILM post, when you heard George Michael’s “Star People ’97” all the time that summer, are you sure it was on the BBC? BBC Radio 1 played it, of course, but London’s commercial FM stations played it a lot more.)

    1. The Capital FM of those times (now available much more widely, and considering a 2013 hit an oldie) seems most likely – they couldn’t play George enough.

      Something else that is essential to the context of “Candle in the Wind ’97” in the UK is that the music industry here had for many years aspired to be the Establishment, and were frustrated that they hadn’t really got there and took so long to be fully accepted; 1997 was their big moment, their WE MADE IT. And I think that is essential both for an understanding of this record *and* an understanding, in the UK at least, of the decline in the esteem and status of rock music being discussed in an ILM thread this evening; once rock had got there, it had lost its sheen and its shine, its Elgarisation (as I call it) was ultimately fatal. Of course, after a turn-of-the-century nadir, it resurged very significantly in the late-Blair era, but it’s been on the margins and fringes far longer now. But certainly people who had long felt frustrated by the way those who claimed to care only about the market economy were judging them were going through a “look, Ma, top of the world” phase at this point and would have seen Elton in the Abbey as their literal crowning glory.

  2. Out of interest, in the circles you were mixing in in the London of 1997, was there a lot of talk about how pop had finally Made It in British establishment terms, got to Elgar level and all that, and about the implications of this? Remembering that period as I do, I’d find it hard to believe if there *wasn’t* such talk – depends who you were mixing with, though, I suppose.

    1. Well, that tells its own story of course. The most infamous of the almost instantly-disavowed Be Here Now reviews was the one that said “all of rock music has been leading to this point” – which, in terms of wanting to be the Establishment, it arguably had. But where do you go once you’ve got there?

      (The answer: just about hanging on between Drake & Stormzy at the bottom of the year-end albums Top 10 twenty years later.)

  3. It’s like: I don’t think most rock fans in the UK were ever really opposed to the concept of dominant minorities – all they ever resented was that *they* weren’t the dominant minority, a very different thing from being against the very idea. Once they had become the dominant minority, they were perfectly happy to pull up the drawbridge for the rest of their lives, just as they refuse to acknowledge the role of the people who banned offshore radio in their exceptional wealth and resent any suggestions that they might give any of that wealth to the young. The gleeful pleasure they took in having become the dominant minority – often from the very same people who otherwise moaned about Blair this, Blair that when policies that *did*, for all their faults, aim for relative equality were under discussion – was what put me off rock music in the end, and I suppose it will go down in history as the real lesson of 1997. No wonder Corbyn – bridging the gap between classical & grime, the twin enemies of that tribe – happened in the end.

  4. The other legacy of 1997 is the way reactionary shit like Ali G was embraced by the very same people who were completing the process – leading up to Jagger’s knighthood in 2002 – of the Elgarisation of the Rolling Stones. The best thing about UK pop in the 2010s is that those people, as a serious pop force, have *finally* been shaken off.

  5. Ok, let’s be honest, Elton John recorded a ton of awful songs, and I’m talking about the singles. Really, “Benny and the Jets” and “Crocodile Rock” are both strong contenders for Worst Song Ever (at least until they were eclipsed by some of John’s 90s songs). This isn’t to say he didn’t have some catchy ones too, but it was his showmanship that made the songs take off. This isn’t unlike the situation with Queen and Freddy Mercury. Queen had great singles (not so much great albums) and some not-so-great singles, but Mercury sold the heck out of Queen’s music.
    I think Elton John’s music endures because the songs, whether good or bad, captured moments in time…and space…considering the lengths to which he went make his…well, everything…a spectacle.
    Needless to say, I’m not a big fan, but I could be completely wrong. It’s a darn tricky thing looking back on the 70s with any real clarity, whether the subject be music, politics, film, literature. My evidence? The 70s gave us Disco, and at the time we thought it was good. Then we realized what fools we were.

    1. You lost me with the last sentence. Disco’s existence proves God exists and he’s a gay man

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