First Hit #1: October 11, 1997
With the benefit of 15 years between today and when the song was recorded – and the death of the person who inspired it – I think we finally have enough distance to say what I was thinking way back then.
Candle in the Wind 1997 is awful.
Alright fine, it was written and recorded as a tribute to the recently deceased Princess Diana, killed in a car crash while still young and famous – and arguably, killed because she was famous, given the circumstances behind the accident. And Elton John was Diana’s friends, and was singing the song at her funeral, he wasn’t going to say anything that wasn’t thoroughly complimentary. It might have been the best it could have been, though that’s debatable, but as a song now, after the woman has been buried for over a decade, we can finally admit that it’s terrible.
The choice to base it off an older hit was a mistake. Candle in the Wind, a meditation on fame that was as much about John himself as it was about the late Marilyn Monroe, was a heartfelt tribute, but that’s because it was actually about a person. She’s not presented as this perfect shining angel who cannot be duplicated, but a flawed woman whose reactions to her situation lead to an early death. It also wasn’t written in a state of raw emotion, there was enough time to collect thoughts and put it into a rich ballad.
Candle in the Wind 1997, however, was not going to really be a song about a real woman. That’s obvious from the first line, where Diana is referred to as England’s rose. The woman in this song is not a human being, she’s a perfect angel who walked the earth and spread joy and wonderment to all that touched the hem of her garment. Since it was played at her funeral, fine, though many eulogies are less complimentary than this.
But the real problem is, as a retrofit of an earlier song written in a week in order to meet a deadline and perform something at a funeral, it’s awkward. England’s rose is simply not a great line, and the various modifications to canonize Diana run headlong into the Candle in the Wind part, which remains unaltered, a verse that actually suggests a certain recklessness and is about the only thing less glowing in the song.
To John’s credit, he doesn’t play this song at concerts, and only released it as a single while collecting none of the profits. I wish he had only ever performed it at the funeral and never mentioned it again, it’s the only appropriate context.
Also to John’s credit, he released it as a double A side with Something About the Way You Look Tonight, which is much better.
It’s not the best song John ever recorded, but it’s a solid love song and a nice, happy counterpoint to the other part of the single, which is clouded by death. It’s a good bit of counter-programming, it’s light, somewhat uplifting, polished lyrically, and actually pretty fun as these kind of romantic ballads go. In other words, it’s the exact opposite of Candle in the Wind 1997, and it’s also the opposite in the sense that it is actually good. John had kind of settled into a certain groove in the ’90s, a reliable performer of love songs that didn’t really push too hard, and this isn’t really pushing it either. But something need not be pushing the envelope to be good, and there’s something thoroughly enjoyable about Something About The Way You Look Tonight.
At least the people who bought the single got one good song.