“Here we are, all together at home,” Elton John announced cheerily at the start of his star-studded Living Room Concert for America on Sunday night. “And since we’re all hunkered down together, we thought we’d put together a little show for you, from our homes to yours.” It was a moment only Elton could get away with — Captain Fantastic, the glitziest of rocket men, sitting in his fascinatingly ordinary kitchen, looking like any other tired dad, bored from too much social distancing and desperate for a little human connection (not to mention the soothing power of music at a time of mass anxiety). Elton even complained, “I happen to be quarantined in the only house I’ve ever been in without a piano.”
The benefit special featured Alicia Keys, Dave Grohl, Billie Eilish, Shawn Mendes, Camilla Cabello, and other stars, raising funds for coronavirus relief by singing in homemade videos from their quarantine zones all over the country. As Elton said, “Our concerns are a mile high, but we hope this bit of entertainment can feed and fuel your soul, and maybe bring you some strength and a touch of joy to prepare for the days to come.” By the end of the show, he’d swiped his kid’s keyboard in time to do an all-too-brief snippet of “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me.”
The charm of the show was its amateurish just-winging-it quality. None of the stars looked or sounded their best — that was the point. Instead, it was touching to see them suffer from relatable “I look like crap on Zoom” anxiety: Tim McGraw covering his head in a ski cap. Lady Gaga hiding behind shades, in sweatpants and with a ponytail. Billie Eilish doing “Bad Guy” with brother Finneas on a basement rec-room couch, looking exactly like a couple of surly teen siblings sick of being cooped up together. Stars — they’re just like us!
Inevitably, it became a show about seeing where these people were trapped — the quarantine equivalent of real-estate porn. The Backstreet Boys sang “I Want It That Way” from their five different houses — Brian Littrell has the most Backstreet-tastic of pads, with a gigantic chandelier and a couch full of impressively fluffy throw pillows. Kevin Richardson (always the coolest Boy, don’t @ me) got his kids into the act — one played drums, one played guitar, both wore BSB T-shirts. It made quite a contrast with Dave Grohl, who sang a touching acoustic “My Hero” in a dreary white cell that looked like an authentically claustrophobic dad-cave hideout. McGraw sang his 1999 country hit, “Something Like That,” from the diving board of his swimming pool.
Camila Cabello and Shawn Mendes, lovebirds quarantined together in Miami, did “My Oh My” as she read the lyrics off her phone. Eilish and Finneas sounded fantastic — a year to the day after her album was released — next to a shelf full of vinyl; it would have been a blast to see them flip through their parents’ records and make fun of them. (Maybe next time?) Billie Joe Armstrong sang “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” wearing beads that rattled so loud they almost drowned out his guitar — a cute down-home touch, especially when his dog jumped up to join him. When Keys began rambling on her purple piano, oddsmakers put the over/under at 14 minutes, but she managed to keep “Underdog” to single digits.
As the night began, the MVP was Gal Gadot — she wasn’t on the show, but she took the initiative last week in neutralizing the “Imagine” menace, always a threat during a time of global crisis. After Gal’s celebrity “Imagine” singalong went viral, it looked like she’d done us all a huge public service by ensuring that nobody would try tackling “Imagine” again for a while. (Natalie Portman singing “nothing to kill or die for” alone should be enough to inspire anyone to keep a six-foot distance.) However, a team of doctors sang it, and if the docs want to sing it during a pandemic, you better let them. Nice try, Gal.
Many of the performers didn’t perform — Lady Gaga and Lizzo declined to sing at all, though Elton tried to tempt Lizzo with his rendition of “Juice.” Sam Smith, Ellen DeGeneres, Demi Lovato, and H.E.R. appeared as well. Nobody got too heavy, not with the news getting worse by the hour; right before the broadcast, reports broke about the great country star Joe Diffie’s death alongside John Prine’s hospitalization. During the show, Joan Baez posted a homemade tribute video singing Prine’s “Hello in There” that instantly went viral — nothing in the concert went for that kind of raw, spontaneous emotion. This was a lighter, cozier affair. As if to remind everyone this was on Fox, Elton spread some dangerous social media misinformation about dolphins (no, this is not “a message from the universe”), but made up for it with a personal and poignant speech about another disastrous pandemic, the AIDS crisis.
Mariah Carey ended up stealing the show, coming in at the end to deliver a badly needed blast of diva glitz. It wouldn’t be like Mariah to dress down even for a stay-home PSA like this — she showed up with all her *Glitter* mentality raging, with her piano player and backup singers on their own screens. She had the excellent taste to stay the hell away from “Hero” and instead go for “Always Be My Baby,” easily the most moving performance of the night, with the exact right dose of pop uplift. She gave it the Full Mariah treatment, goosing the end with falsetto trills, before signing off with a reminder that she wears gloves even in her own house, and the words, “Stay happy. Stay blessed.”
Maybe Elton can make this a weekly event, live from his kitchen counter, for as long as the quarantine lasts. And maybe he can invite Mariah back for more.