Pop Music Faces the Coronavirus in Prime Time

Pop Music Faces the Coronavirus in Prime Time

Songs called for inspiration, empathy and perseverance on “One World: Together at Home,” the prime-time special produced by Global Citizen that was broadcast Saturday night on CBS, NBC and ABC and online. Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel, late-night representatives from each network, were the hosts, toggling awkwardly between deadpan comedy and earnestness. Lady Gaga helped select the musical lineup, which included Billie Eilish, Lizzo, Taylor Swift, Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney, Camila Cabello and Shawn Mendes, the Rolling Stones, Elton John and more — many more, since there was also a six-hour webcast before the televised broadcast.

Billed as a special to celebrate Covid-19 workers and to support the World Health Organization, the show was not a fund-raiser. Instead, it was a reminder of the medical, logistical and humanitarian efforts being made worldwide.

Global Citizen’s productions — it has presented annual all-star concerts in Central Park since 2012 — hammer home messages about worldwide predicaments and relief efforts between acts. “One World: Together at Home” was full of stay-inside advisories alongside tributes to and testimonials from health care workers, volunteer initiatives and international officials fighting the pandemic. It also extolled palliative efforts by corporations, and it urged viewers to pressure governments to provide far more extensive testing.

Musicians sometimes performed in split-screen with montages of health care workers (like Paul McCartney doing “Lady Madonna”), and they took care to thank those on the pandemic’s front lines. Beyoncé and Alicia Keys, who didn’t sing, used their segments instead to point out the severely disproportionate effect of the coronavirus on African-Americans.

Popular music is still seeking appropriate ways to face this crisis. Musicians are separated from both bandmates and audiences, forcing both players and listeners to reconsider what they have always taken for granted. Performers are coming to terms with the unpolished sound and look of playing from home online: solo in the living room or home studio or, more ambitiously, collaborating virtually with homebound bandmates. And then there’s the question of tone: Mourning? Sympathy? Stoicism? Comfort? Dogged determination? Upbeat defiance? Let’s just try to forget?

On “One World: Together at Home,” the mood was usually reflective, with a handful of more lighthearted moments. Many stars chose to revive an inspirational oldie. Lady Gaga reached back to “Smile,” the 1954 song with music by Charlie Chaplin, in a poised Broadway mode. Shawn Mendes, at the piano, and Camila Cabello shared a reverential “What a Wonderful World”; as a coda to the song’s resolute optimism, they added lines about, “all the pain that we’ve been through/All the fears and the hurt.”

Jennifer Lopez sang the Barbra Streisand hit “People” with an orchestral track and birdsong in the background. Billie Eilish, with her brother Finneas on electric piano, cooed her way through the Bobby Hebb love song “Sunny” with jazzy aplomb and multiple key changes. John Legend and Sam Smith, in split screen from their homes, duetted on “Stand by Me,” and Legend reappeared for “The Prayer” alongside its original performers, Celine Dion and Andrea Bocelli, with a silently demonstrative Lang Lang on piano and a dramatic Lady Gaga. Lizzo, in a bare-shouldered close-up with gospelly organ backup, reached deep into the tribulations and tenacity of the Sam Cooke standard “A Change Is Gonna Come.”

Stevie Wonder has plenty of inspirational oldies in his catalog, but he started his segment with “Lean on Me” from Bill Withers — who died on March 30 — and segued into his own “Love’s in Need of Love Today,” with its warning of “disaster.” Meanwhile, Elton John pounded and growled a more combative anthem: “I’m Still Standing.”

Keith Urban offered the show’s slickest surprise with a version of Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love.” His segment started like the kind of bare-bones performance often seen online recently: Urban and his guitar playing the song over a drum machine in an empty studio. But then another Urban appeared with another guitar, and then a third, so all three could twang and harmonize together. The Rolling Stones had a less engaging video confection, a four-way split screen with Mick Jagger and Ronnie Wood enthusiastically strumming through “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” while Keith Richards indifferently cradled an acoustic guitar and Charlie Watts played air drums.

Some songwriters brought sober material of their own. Taylor Swift sang one of the most somber songs in her catalog: “Soon You’ll Get Better,” about her mother, who has battled cancer. Eddie Vedder, solo on a vintage pump organ, played “River Cross,” a hymnlike meditation on destiny in uncertain times, from the new Pearl Jam album, “Gigaton.”

Despite the Global Citizen moniker, the prime-time special was geared toward American (and English-speaking) listeners, though it did gesture toward the rest of the world with songs by Maluma, from Colombia, and by the ultracool Burna Boy, from Nigeria. The six-hour webcast reached further, with performers from India, Hong Kong, United Arab Emirates, France and Colombia; the Puerto Rican songwriter Luis Fonsi had a boyish acoustic version (with a remote band) of his international blockbuster “Despacito.”

“One World: Together at Home” sought to strike a balance between the vast magnitude of the pandemic and glimmers of hope. It couldn’t make any promises.

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