The most comforting thing about Sunday night’s “Living Room Concert for America” — an all-star musical fundraiser hosted by Elton John and broadcast on Fox — wasn’t Alicia Keys using her song “Underdog” to salute the first responders putting their lives at risk to protect people from COVID-19. Nor was it the brief message of sympathy Lady Gaga offered folks who’ve already lost loved ones or their jobs — a message that, it’s worth pointing out, squeezed more compassion into 40 seconds than President Donald Trump has mustered in weeks.
Instead, the true reassurance to be had from this socially distanced telethon came from the fact that Mariah Carey appeared to have set up a small electric fan to blow her hair as she sang “Always Be My Baby” in her home studio. It came from Camila Cabello and Shawn Mendes’ eagerness to flirt amid a global pandemic. And it came from the obvious boredom with which Billie Eilish sang her smash “Bad Guy” for what had to have been the zillionth time.
Typical pop-star stuff, in other words — and a welcome reminder of life before (and hopefully after) the pain and disruption caused by the novel coronavirus.
Presented by media conglomerate iHeartRadio on the evening reserved for its annual awards show, Sunday’s one-hour production was basically a more polished rendition of the virtual concerts that countless artists have been playing on social media since the live-music business shut down. In addition to the aforementioned acts, the special featured performances — each shot in a living room or bedroom or some such — by the Backstreet Boys, Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl, Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day, Tim McGraw, Sam Smith, Demi Lovato and H.E.R.
It’s a virus-specific approach to the kind of pop-star do-gooder-ism that in previous crises would lead to a telethon (like “A Concert for Hurricane Relief” after Katrina in 2005) or a live benefit gig (like “The Concert for New York City” after 9/11 in 2001). This time those types of large public gatherings are part of the problem, which is how McGraw ended up delivering his song “Something Like That” while perched on the diving board of his enormous swimming pool.
For pop fans accustomed to the solidarity that can arise from an in-person audience, this format clearly has its limitations. And Fox and iHeart didn’t help matters by making this show out of taped performances; because the music wasn’t live (as it has been when John Legend and Chris Martin, among many others, have gone on Instagram), you didn’t get to enjoy the thrill of artists working without a net.
Still, the thing had its charms, not least among them the discovery that Brian Littrell of the Backstreet Boys keeps a branded BSB pinball machine in his home. Grohl sounded great in a solo-acoustic take on “My Hero”; Eilish, even slumped on a lumpy sofa, was as precisely nuanced a vocalist as ever. And Carey earned her diva self-treatment with the smiley exuberance we’ve come to rely on her for.
As host, John claimed at the beginning that he’d happily play a song himself … except he was quarantined in the only one of his properties that lacks a piano. By the end, though, he’d laid his hands on a keyboard he said belonged to one of his young sons and busted out a few verses of “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me.”
“When this is over and done, I’ll be out there playing for you again,” he vowed.