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One World: Together At Home review – a virtual Live Aid full of brilliance, boredom and buffoonery

A cornucopia of huge pop names came together for an unprecedented cultural and technological event

Mark Beaumont
Sunday 19 April 2020 10:53 BST
The Rolling Stones play 'You Can't Always Get What You Want' for One World: Together at Home

If a week is a long time in politics, a month is an eternity in lockdown. Plenty of time for the art of live-streaming to accelerate from self-conscious acoustic Q&A sessions to full-blown virtual Live Aid.

What began with Chris Martin fluffing his way through snippets of Coldplay songs in his home studio and Lizzo playing yoga flute – sporadic and disconnected Instagram happenings designed to comfort a world of terrified shut-ins – swiftly developed tribal formations along established lines.

Cult artists like Ben Gibbard of Death Cab For Cutie set up regular independent streaming events for their devoted followings. America’s folk and country big-hitters, including Paul Simon and Kurt Vile, rallied behind Willie Nelson’s online festival ’Til Further Notice. The woke punk crews of Idles, Sports Team and Pussy Riot are set to play Block By Blockwest next weekend inside Minecraft. And the major pop acts – Camila Cabello, Shawn Mendes, Charlie Puth, Niall Horan and their mainstream ilk – followed Martin into the Together At Home stable, performing live streams from their homes in aid of the World Health Organisation.

The initial stage of that campaign culminated in the two-hour online A-list spectacular One World: Together At Home, a cornucopia of huge pop names curated by Lady Gaga. It passed the McCartney test of cultural enormity and promised over a hundred housebound performances from stars as glittering as Stevie Wonder, Billie Eilish, Taylor Swift, The Rolling Stones, Pharrell Williams and Elton John. It’s Cov-Aid 19.

Prior to the main event, six hours of telethon-style contributions warmed up 700,000 viewers. There were a stream of sofa songs from a vast and impressive subs bench of acts – Jess Glynne, Sheryl Crow, Ellie Goulding, Common, Kesha, Niall Horan and Liam Payne, or two-fifths of an entire Direction. Others were beamed in from as far afield as India, China, South Africa (the uplifting pop Afrobeat of Cassper Nyovest and Sho Madjozi) and the United Arab Emirates (Hussain Al Jassmi, the UAE Chris de Burgh). Alongside tributes to frontline workers from Samuel L Jackson, Matthew McConaughey, WWE wrestlers, a shamanic Pierce Brosnan and a virtual supergroup of world leaders, the sense of global communion in a crisis was palpable.

A couple of hours in, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were the only one who didn’t stockpile enough over-emotive R&B. Cabin fever appeared to have pushed several stars past the point of sentimental balladry and into mild, inspired derangement. Rita Ora managed to cut together a multi-shot party for one in her front room, Jack Black flattened his own personal curve with a poolside “prancersize” class and The Killers delivered a pumping EDM “Mr Brightside” in a house so big the mile-wide fireplace was out of focus. K-pop idols SuperM harmonised from their various isolation pods while cooking and building model boats, and Billy Ray Cyrus even convinced himself the massed internet didn’t want to hear a rousing and acoustic “Achy Breaky Heart”.

Ferns abounded – Adam Lambert appears to live in a disco arboretum – as did a suspicion of backroom vocal tinkering here and there, which only plays into a million of pop’s auto-tune conspiracy theories and dents live-streaming’s sense of authenticity and intimacy. Even sat in their comfies in soft-furnished dens or grinding against their Smeg fridges, we’re expected to believe Liam Payne, John Legend and Lady Antebellum exude a superhuman studio gloss. There’s no doubting Jessie J’s “Bang Bang”, Kesha’s “Praying” or Jennifer Hudson’s screen-shattering blasts through Lloyd Webber’s “Memory” and Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, though, which didn’t so much break the internet as damn near burst it.

Such a quick-fire parade of major names stripping their songs to their base components too often rammed home the formulas at play in modern pop. It was therefore a huge relief when Annie Lennox’s “I Saved the World Today” threw back to an era before by-numbers committee songwriting, which only rare visionaries like Christine and the Queens attempted to honour.

Elton John performs ‘I’m Still Standing’ during One World: Together at Home (Global Citizen)

When the Gaga gala began in earnest, though, we were in a different league. Hosted by US late-night legends Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel and kicked off by a theatrical jaunt through Nat King Cole’s take on Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile”, it swiftly transported us to Stevie Wonder’s palatial piano room for an impassioned tribute to Bill Withers on “Lean On Me”. We then got a ragtime jazz take on “Lady Madonna” from the corner of Paul McCartney’s house most resembling a jerk chicken cafe. It was an MTV Cribs producer’s wildest dream.

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And One World hadn’t even shot its bolt. Inside the first hour the Beckhams introduced Elton John, hammering out “I’m Still Standing” on the spare basketball court where he stores his leftover baby grands. Mendes and Cabello delivered a Disneyfied “What A Wonderful World” from pop’s most idealistic self-isolation. Alicia Keys and a scandalously outdoors Beyoncé discussed the virus impact on the African-American community. Eddie Vedder was spied playing a churchy “River Cross” in his most crypt-like, candle-lit nook. A split screen Stones compiled “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” from their various stately piles, Charlie air-drumming on packing cases and Keith seemingly caught having a quiet lager over a tome of dark magick with what looks like a quill and a pistol within reach. It all gives you an insight into what the organisers of “We Are the World” might have achieved had 1985 had Zoom.

As sensitively as the broadcast treated its subject, with interviews with doctors and reports from hospitals and homeless shelters interspersed throughout, it also acknowledged its purpose as a smile raiser. There were Sesame Street and Spongebob cameos, camera trickery gave us a trio of Keith Urbans playing “Higher Love”, and Fallon himself singing Men Without Hats’ “Safety Dance” with The Roots, while frontline workers raved around the wards. From the camera framing, Lizzo might well have been belting out Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” in her outdoor shower. Burna Boy, singing his Nigerian soul rap from a retro Seventies armchair, seemed to think he was doing a tribute gig for Ronnie Corbett.

Inevitably there were dips into mawkishness and self-indulgence – Jennifer Lopez singing Barbra Streisand’s “People” at the foot of a fairylit tree, or Sam Smith and John Legend competing over who can load their background with the most Grammys while duetting on “Stand by Me”. The operatic finale, featuring a four-way trill-off between Celine Dion, Gaga, Legend and Andrea Bocelli on “The Prayer”, was over-egged too. They were swiftly offset, however, by moments of real warmth and honesty – Billie Joe Armstrong’s plaintive “Wake Me Up When September Ends”; Billie Eilish’s sweetly understated take on Bobby Hebb’s “Sunny”; Taylor Swift’s shiver-inducing “Soon You’ll Get Better”, each keystroke a cure.

Just as coronavirus is an unprecedented challenge for our generation, One World was an unprecedented cultural and technological event, as historic, perhaps, as The Beatles playing “All You Need Is Love” via satellite in 1967. An eight-hour rag bag of brilliance, boredom and buffoonery it may have been musically, but its triumph was in the connections and creativity still possible in the most dislocated of times, of technology and humanity combining to overcome. It’s unlikely we’ll see its like again this pandemic, but the precedent is set for our musical exit strategy. Once the lockdown lifts, nothing less than the biggest gig of all time will do.

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