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,” and it’s still 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. “Something About the Way You Look Tonight” lives, though: a headstone commemorating the twenty-five-year reign of a global superstar.