David Frum January 31st, 1998 at 12:00 am
Sometimes the small newspaper stories tell us more about reality than the big ones. Take this little news bulletin from London for example: According to a survey by the Independent newspaper, Elton John’s rewrite of ‘Candle in the Wind’ for the death of Princess Diana has become the single most played song at British funerals. It replaced two previous favorites — no, not ‘Abide with Me’ and Albinoni’s ‘Adagio in G’, but instead Frank Sinatra’s ‘My Way’ and Tina Turner’s ‘Simply the Best’.
The Independent survey, it should be noted, did not use scientific sampling techniques and so its conclusions are not absolutely reliable. But they are not implausible: after all, ‘Candle in the Wind 1997′ has sold an amazing 35 million copies since it was released last summer.
I must confess to finding this tidbit both baffling and sad. I find it baffling because — while I know that millions of otherwise sensible people take pleasure in Elton John’s weepy ballad — I cannot begin to understand what that pleasure can be. The song is made up of equal parts sugar and grease, like a bad doughnut.
And I find it sad because, even if you somehow manage to enjoy the song as a song (and lots of people do like doughnuts), ‘Candle in the Wind’ is so miserably out of place at a funeral. ‘Your candle’s burned out long before your legend ever will.’ One would think mourners burying a relative or friend would want music that connects them not to the cult of celebrity but to what is loftiest and best in in human beings, that asserts we are not merely walking heaps of dust; that there is something imperishable in every human soul. That’s why we used to play the great musical classics or else the ancient hymns of our faiths at funerals. One would think about the last thing anybody would be in the mood for, as he or she says goodbye to a loved one, is the icky, gluey stuff they play on Lite FM.
Wrong again, Davey-boy. That turns out to be exactly what people want. And Elton John has a mansion in the English countryside to prove it.
Let me try an audacious explanation of why ‘Candle in the Wind’ has come to have such intense meaning to so many people. In Shakespeare’s King Lear, the old monarch sets his tragedy into motion by asking his three daughters how much they love him. The two bad daughters, Regan and Goneril, lavish upon him one overripe compliment after another (‘Sir, I love you more than words can wield the matter; Dearer than eye-sight, space, and liberty ‘ ‘A love that makes breath poor, and speech unable ‘), and they are loaded down with lavish rewards. The one good daughter, Cordelia, replies in sensible, sincere language – and is promptly cut out of the old man’s will.
As king, Lear has been heaped with flattery, that he has forgotten how people who bear each other genuine affection actually speak. Real love seems cold and stark compared to the lush extravagance of falsehood. A lifetime of listening
to lies has deafened Lear to the sound of truth.
Isn’t that our modern problem? We are as accustomed to the fulsome, saccharine style of music epitomized by ‘Candle in the Wind’ as King Lear was accustomed to sycophantic compliments. That music is piped into our offices, into the corridors through which we walk, the restaurants in which we eat, and the stores in which we shop. We hear it when we step into an elevator or are put on hold on the telephone. This Lite FM stuff has, for millions of us, genuinely become — as the commercials for radio stations say – ‘the music of our lives.’
And what this music offers is cheap, immediate and yet simultaneously shallow emotionalism. I’ve had to listen to more of it than I like to remember, and what I’m always struck by is the enormous range of human experience it pays no
attention to. I’m not talking about the lyrics (impoverished though they always are), but the music itself. It’s good at conveying the overwrought passion we think romantic love will be like before we actually experience it. (‘Oh,
eye-uh-eye-uh-eye will ul-weeez luv yoooooo,’ as Whitney Houston puts it.) But it’s bad at summoning up the steadfastness that characterizes the love grownups feel, and that pulls us to the gravesides of our friends and kin.
Can there be anyone whose life means so little it deserves no keener grief than the easy and unmeaning tears evoked by Elton John’s awful song? Better to do as the Quakers used to do, and bury our dead in silence, than to bury them to the
empty sentimentality of ‘Candle in the Wind’.
Originally published in The Financial Post