We are beautiful in every single way
Yes, words can’t bring us down, oh no
So don’t you bring me down today
In her song “Beautiful” Christina Aguilera makes a powerful case for what words can’t do. On Friday night, while watching “Hurricane Sandy: Coming Together,” the NBC benefit concert for victims of the recent hurricane which ravaged New Jersey and New York, we learned something about what words can do. And it was just as powerful.
Especially when you consider that they didn’t have much time to put the show together, the show boasted a star-studded line-up: Christina Aguilera, Jon Bon Jovi, Billy Joel, Steven Tyler, Mary J. Blige, Sting, and Bruce Springsteen. These are legends, and they totally brought it on Friday night (well, except for the unfortunate group number of “Under the Boardwalk,” with Jimmy Fallon inexplicably doing lead vocals.) And knowing that several of these performers had personal connections to these states—Billy Joel and Mary J. Blige to New York, Springsteen and Bon Jovi to New Jersey—intensified the impact of their performances. (As for Sting—no, he’s not from either state, but let’s face it, what benefit concert is complete without him?)
But what truly amazed us was how each performer chose a song from his or her repertoire that seemed as if it were specifically written for this terrible storm and its aftermath. As we were watching, we couldn’t believe how perfect some of these lyrics were, and it made the show all the more haunting and effective because of it.
For example, when Jon Bon Jovi sang (as part a stripped-down mash-up of “Who Says You Can’t Go Home” and “Livin’ on a Prayer”) lyrics such as “There’s only one place left I want to go” or “We’ve gotta hold on to what we’ve got,” you almost forgot that you’ve heard both of those songs about three hundred million times before. Now, those words, paired with the sobering images on the screen behind Bon Jovi as he sang them, took on a new meaning. These people really couldn’t go home again… at least not right now.
Same goes for Billy Joel’s “Miami 2017: Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway” which actually includes the lyrics “They turned our power down/ And drove us underground/ But we went right on with the show.”
When Sting, during an intensely somber performance of “Message in a Bottle” sang the lyric “a hundred billion castaways looking for a home,” we were haunted by the screen images of entire neighborhoods destroyed by floods or fire.
Typically, the beauty of a song can be found in its metaphorical meaning… the message that can found underneath the literal meaning of the lyrics. In a reversal of this experience, what struck us about this concert was the way in which this literal meaning reached out to (and in some cases broke) our hearts. Each song took on new meaning in a way that transformed it and gave it new life. Sting was literally sending out an S.O.S. to the world. And it had us running for our phone to donate to the Red Cross.
Of course, no one does the “lyrics take on new meaning” magic trick quite like Springsteen. Eleven years ago, for the post-9/11 “America: A Tribute to Heroes,” Springsteen played a song called “My City in Ruins”—the lyrics of which fit so perfectly to the September 11th tragedy that it was almost impossible to believe that he wrote the song a year before and that he was talking about his beloved Asbury Park.
After 9/11, Springsteen opened the “Tribute to Heroes” show. At Friday night’s concert, he came on last, and he deserved to: with all due respect to Bon Jovi (and, of course, Frank Sinatra), this guy IS New Jersey. His selection for this show, “Land of Hopes and Dreams,” is a song he originally wrote in 1998– but darn it if lyrics such as “I’ll stand by your side” and “tomorrow there’ll be sunshine and all this darkness past” seem exactly the kind of pick-me-up New Jerseyans need right now from their Boss.
“Words can’t bring us down,” Christina Aguilera tells us. But we know that’s not true. Words can bring us down. But they can do other things. too. They can inform and inspire and force us off the chair and make a donation, to the tune of $23 million. And those things are… beautiful.