The recent Elton John Grammy Salute was a reminder of just how much has been lost in popular music – and how much is still there. There were a number of lessons in the performances of John’s and Bernie Taupin’s songs, some of which were stunning (and some of which were not).
First, it was noticeable that most of the songs came from John’s and Taupin’s 1970s catalogue. There is a good reason for that – the songs were much better than the later catalogue, and the singers presumably knew it.
John lost his vocal range after an operation in the late 1980s, which turned him from a tenor into a baritone. It meant that he no longer wrote the imperious, angular melodies that were gloriously counterpointed against subtle harmonies. From that point on he just became another mediocre pop writer, producing melodies that moved around little.
Almost all the songs in the Salute dated from before that unfortunate event. What the performances showed is that the current mediocrity of popular music is not due to a lack of singing ability; it is a lack of quality in the song writing. John in that early period wrote melodies with large intervals, which is almost never the case now. This night was reminder of the poverty of modern pop writing, which rarely uses such a range: they are monotonous in both senses of the word.
Many of the performances were on a par with the John’s originals and some were better. Those who could sing revelled in the melodies that required genuine vocal craft. Sam Smith’s version of Daniel displayed a tonal subtlety and range that brought something new out of the song.
Lady Gaga, who has always been an outstanding singer, produced a version of Your Song that successfully trod a delicate line between plangent expressiveness and showmanship. She was able to use her vocal virtuosity to contribute to the effect of the song rather than to show off the aforementioned vocal virtuosity. Would that her contemporaries would follow suit.
Little Big Town’s part a-cappella version of Rocket Man was beautifully arranged and sung, drawing out Taupin’s desolate, sad lyrics. Coldplay’s lead singer Chris Morris’ version of We All Fall in Love Sometimes was soulful and well executed, although it was a little subdued and there was some dubious microphone technique.
The standouts, however, were two country-gospel singers. Maren Morris’ version of Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters was inspired and exhibited a delicious swing not evident in the original. John and Taupin were noticeably swaying in time in their seats and swapping astonished looks. Miranda Lambert’s version of the relatively unknown My Father’s Gun simply soared.
The failures were instructive. Ed Sheeran is a skilled solo performer but he produced a version of Candle in the Wind that was perfunctory and soulless. It seems that his abilities lie only in writing and singing his own melodies. There was no sign at all of sensitivity to nuance of phrasing.
The duet of Don’t Go Breaking My Heart by Shawn Mendes and SZA showcased both singers’ tonal distinctiveness, but the song itself is trivial and they were not able to do much with it. John Legend delivered a sound version of Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me, but it was more notable for strong formal technique than expression.
Worst was an execrable performance of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road by Kesha, who was either overcome by nerves or exposed as a singer who uses excessive mannerisms to conceal the fact that she can’t, well, sing. At least she is not alone in that in the contemporary pop pantheon.
Live performances in pop music are now so mechanised and controlled it is unusual to see the performers in the raw, so this was an interesting insight into how good the performers really are. The band was John’s own and their playing was as flawless as one would expect from musicians who have, for the most part, been playing together for decades.
There was also a reminder of how good Taupin’s lyrics have been – and how bad pop music lyrics are now. This may be partly due to the pernicious influence of rap lyrics, which sound like the ravings of an ice addict talking to himself in the gutter. How that is supposed to represent any kind of contribution to culture is beyond this writer.
Taupin, by contrast, has not just had a supreme ear for the musicality of words – their sound and rhythmic placing – he also has an ability to tell evocative stories. Rocket Man, for example, came about after he read a short story of the same name by science fiction writer Ray Bradbury. That kind of imaginativeness is nowhere to be seen in modern popular music.
David James is a Melbourne writer and musician.