'Candle in the Wind' was the perfect song at a tragic moment

John’s recording of Something About the Way You Look Tonight/Candle in the Wind 1997 was certified eight times platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America in its first day of release in the United States.
John’s recording of Something About the Way You Look Tonight/Candle in the Wind 1997 was certified eight times platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America in its first day of release in the United States.
Published Aug. 17, 2017

When's the last time you listened to the biggest pop single of the modern era?

Not Thriller. Not I Will Always Love You. Not My Heart Will Go On. No, not Despacito, either.

That would be Candle in the Wind 1997, Elton John's 1973 ode to Marilyn Monroe, reinvented 24 years later as a tribute to Princess Diana.

Hastily rewritten by Bernie Taupin in the days after Diana's death, Candle sold 33 million copies, more than any song since Bing Crosby's White Christmas. The paean to "England's rose" was not intended as a pop hit — John and Diana were good friends, and he was invited to perform at her funeral — but that's exactly what it became, ending up as one of the longest-reigning No. 1 singles in history.

Twenty years later, the Candle phenomenon feels like a bizarre, blurry memory. It is not one of John's most popular songs on Spotify, and outside the annual anniversary of Diana's death, what radio station in its right mind would slot it into rotation? Its appeal in 2017 isn't even nostalgic; it's almost kitschy.

But however well Candle has aged, it remains a curious cultural artifact for a few reasons.

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Grief is not an uncommon subject in song; rare is the songwriter who hasn't tackled the loss of a loved one. And sometimes that loved one happens to be famous. Puff Daddy's Notorious B.I.G. eulogy I'll Be Missing You, also released in 1997, is another huge grief tribute from the past 20 years. So was U2's 2000 song Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of, a song inspired by the late INXS singer Michael Hutchence. Others have penned tributes to Michael Jackson, David Bowie, Prince, Amy Winehouse and countless more fallen icons.

None of these songs, of course, sold 33 million copies. The reason Candle in the Wind 1997 did has less to do with subject matter or quality and everything to do with timing. Candle captured with heart-piercing precision how those who loved the "People's Princess" felt in real time, as their grief was still unfolding.

So few songs in the last 20 years have pulled this off. Alan Jackson debuted Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning) two months after 9/11, and to this day, no song better captures the communal sorrow and disorientation that swallowed the nation that autumn. Green Day's Wake Me Up When September Ends managed something similar after Hurricane Katrina, which hit New Orleans near the end of August 2005, but that was a matter of coincidence — singer Billie Joe Armstrong had actually written the song two years prior in memory of his father.

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In recent years, the song that comes closest to matching Candle's impact is See You Again by Wiz Khalifa and Charlie Puth. Commissioned as a tribute to actor Paul Walker, who died in a car crash in 2013, it played near the end of his final film, Furious 7. Though the song debuted 15 months after Walker's death, its emotional ties to the blockbuster Fast and Furious franchise turned its video into a phenomenon. For a while this summer, See You Again was the most-watched YouTube clip of all time, with more than 3 billion views.

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Like See You Again, Candle In the Wind 1997 was the perfect song at the perfect moment in culture, a combination so rare it's nearly impossible. And while its poignancy at the time gets harder to remember with each passing year, it remains a worthwhile window into the pain of a grieving world. The song's candle has long since burned out, but its legend never will.

Contact Jay Cridlin at or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.