There are stirring performances aplenty in the Lady Gaga-hosted singathon, but it’s the glimpses of celebs’ homes that are the real treat
Clockwise from top left: Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts and Ronnie Wood performing on One World: Together at Home. Photograph: Getty Images/Getty Images for Global Citizen
Ben Beaumont-Thomas Music editor
With Together at Home, Lady Gaga brought together music stars from around the world to give everyone something they so desperately need at this time of acute crisis: a chance to judge the interior design choices of the rich and famous.
As you watch this compilation of live performances recorded in stars’ homes while they, like everyone else, self-isolate due to coronavirus, it’s a bit like going round a house with an estate agent: you’re pretending to listen to what they’re saying, but you’re actually trying to check out their bookshelves and thinking, my God, those kitchen units are divine/awful.
Lady Gaga’s home performance space is full of chaotic energy, featuring gold dumbbells and a suitcase pasted with sheet music. On the plus side, Mick Jagger’s taste in floral curtains is rather chic, and John Legend’s house has the desert-modernism aesthetic down pat. In an act of elite-level passive aggression, Elton John has plonked a piano in the middle of his outdoor basketball court, presumably to stop his kids driving him mad during lockdown with endless attempts at three-pointers.
All this ogling is not really in the spirit of the event, which is a deeply earnest appreciation from the stars for essential workers, their performances interspersed with coverage of the fight against the virus, and shows of support from Oprah Winfrey, Michelle Obama and others.
It begins with six hours of online livestreamed performances along with calls to donate to the WHO’s Solidarity Response Fund, before the star wattage intensifies for the TV broadcast and the tone changes. “Put your wallets away,” Gaga says. “It’s our love letter to the world – the incredible artists we’ve got lined up for you, they’re all here to say thank-you, to celebrate you, to give back a little bit of kindness that you’ve given to us.” For the UK, there’s a tweaked version of the package, featuring a higher proportion of Brits including Paul McCartney and Tom Jones, plus social media montages of stars including the athletes Mo Farah and Jessica Ennis-Hill.
There is of course a rather luvvie-ish tendency on show here, that the world will be soothed with the divine gift of song; the weariest health workers watching might have preferred a donation of funds for PPE rather than pop power couple Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello thinking to themselves what a wonderful world it is, no matter how gorgeous and gorgeously harmonised they are.
But these performances are often beautiful and display rare gifts. Stevie Wonder’s medley of Bill Withers’ Lean on Me with his own Love’s in Need of Love Today is a robust double-helix of solidarity. The Rolling Stones’ rendition of You Can’t Always Get What You Want is superbly intimate, Jagger’s big-hearted vocals juxtaposing perfectly with Keith Richards’ Tom Waits-esque murmurs: stoicism and caution in a brotherly duet. Jennifer Lopez isn’t generally thought of as a balladeer, but her performance of Barbra Streisand’s People is Broadway-powerful, and its subject matter – humility in crisis – makes it perfectly chosen. Elton’s performance of I’m Still Standing is less good, delivered in the clipped “club style” of Shooting Stars.
Among the new generation, Billie Eilish is typically spellbinding. She picks out Sunny by Bobby Hebb, an infectiously joyful tune, but while the lyrics face forward into brightness and joy, the way Eilish performs it – using her sensual, high-frequency vibrato – acknowledges the pain that came before. Burna Boy’s song African Giant – “Tell em Africa we done dying” – deftly rebuts the narrative of desperate African strife that has dominated all-star benefit shows in the past, and Taylor Swift’s moving performance of Soon You’ll Get Better, originally written for her unwell mother, will no doubt have powerfully resonated with those whose family members are currently stricken. The line “This won’t go back to normal, if it ever was”, takes on a quiet political edge, too.
The BBC’s package of the material slots it into a shiny-floor studio format ably presented by Clara Amfo, Claudia Winkleman and Dermot O’Leary, the latter dressed to audition for a porn parody of the Steve Jobs documentary. The music takes a more soundtracking role with plenty of heartwarming montages of British health workers, bin men and more. There’s also a wonderful sequence where Skip Marley plays his grandfather Bob’s I Wanna Love You as a surprise first dance song for an NHS nurse who had her wedding cancelled because of the crisis – Richard E Grant plays best man, with Nadiya Hussain as cake provider.
Paul McCartney’s Lady Madonna is jazzily interpreted almost to the point of incoherence, but he and Tom Jones give evocative personal tributes to the NHS, with Jones remembering his own isolation at the hands of tuberculosis as a child. Michael Bublé – whose young son was treated for cancer in 2016 – delivers a rightly sentimental take on God Only Knows for health workers, but it’s Little Mix who are the best of the Beeb exclusives with a perfectly harmonised version of Touch. Their melancholic take on a track that’s about being ragingly horny hints at a painful side of self-isolation that only a pop song could address in this family-friendly format.
There are striking moments across the six-hour preamble, too. Ellie Goulding’s admission – “I can get quite socially anxious, so you’d think [lockdown] would be a breeze for me, but actually I’m finding it really hard” – is a moment of bracing candour amid the peace-and-love bromides, and the husk that develops around her voice as she pushes it into the red is one of pop’s loveliest sounds. Kesha’s ferocious-sounding cat sounds like it’s keeping someone off camera well over two metres away; South African rapper Sho Madjozi flips her Good Over Here with lyrics castigating people breaking lockdown, and is one of the few moments of genuine fun.
K-pop super-boyband SuperM are charming, indulging in lockdown pursuits like exercising, drawing, building a model ship and cooking some rubbish-looking bruschetta as they sing; the comment feed duly explodes into heart emojis. But it’s Italian star Zucchero who steals the show, covering Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometimes on piano. The Korgis’ song is about the loss of innocence at realising the sheer power of love, but in this context is charged with something even deeper: the pain of grief and the inevitability of death.
Although it’s celebrating the work of the WHO, no one comes out to denounce Donald Trump’s defunding of the organisation; Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder edited out the government-bashing lyrics in his otherwise extremely powerful rendition of River Cross. Perhaps there is reticence to be seen to be politicising the crisis, despite it being so profoundly political. A cynical reading is that these performances are merely good PR, which of course they are; a more pointed criticism might be that for all the talk of it bringing people together, music is actually quite impotent in the face of such a devastating disease, and that awareness hardly needed to be raised about it. The situation is so grave for some that art will seem facile, even indulgent.
But Gaga et al’s intentions are ultimately noble, the performers are sincere, and their song choices channel poignancy, acknowledge tenacity and invite self-reflection. They also, meanwhile, show that the chief interior lighting choice for celebrities is the soulful application of candles.