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Friday, August 9, 2019

August 9, 2019: Remembering Marilyn Monroe: “Candle in the Wind”

[On the early morning of August 5th, 1962, Marilyn Monroe was found dead in her LA home, in a moment that quickly became as mythic as everything else about young Norma Jean Mortenson. So this week I’ll remember the iconic and singular Marilyn through posts on her life, career, and legacy as well as her tragic death.]
On three ways in which Elton John’s iconic song captures key elements of Monroe’s identity and legacy.
Perhaps the most interesting thread in John’s 1973 song is its consistent acknowledgment that the speaker didn’t and doesn’t know the woman to whom he’s paying tribute. That starts with the song’s opening two lines, “Goodbye Norma Jean/Though I never knew you at all” (repeated at the start of the last verse); is again highlighted in the chorus’s “I would have liked to have known you/But I was just a kid”; and is more subtly but most strikingly captured in the title phrase: “It seems to me you lived your life/Like a candle in the wind.” This is the central image around which the entire song is built, but even here “seems” is the closest the speaker and we can get—in truth, neither Elton John, lyricist Bernie Taupin, nor any of the rest of us have any idea how Monroe lived her life. Doesn’t mean we can’t pay tribute to a public figure, but the emphasis there is on the “public” part, and “Candle” compellingly recognizes that fact.
Moreover, “Candle” isn’t just about the gap between Monroe’s public and private selves—it’s also, and perhaps even more centrally, about the destructive quality of such public images. The first verse’s final lines, “They set you on the treadmill/And they made you change your name,” establishes that theme (although my understanding is Monroe chose her own stage name, with the last name paying tribute to her mother as I noted Tuesday). And the entire second verse develops the theme in full: “Loneliness was tough/The toughest role you ever played/Hollywood created a superstar/And pain was the price you paid/Even when you died/Oh the press still hounded you/All the papers had to say/Was that Marilyn was found in the nude.” As I noted Monday, the conspiracy theories about Monroe’s death were just beginning to gain steam in the same year “Candle” was released (thanks to Norman Mailer’s sensationalized “biography”), but John and Taupin here clearly already engage with the limited and destructive ways that in death, as in life, Monroe was so consistently defined.

Those would already be a couple pretty nuanced layers to a tribute song, but in the last four lines of its third and final verse, “Candle” goes one important step further still. There, John sings, “Goodbye Norma Jean/From the young man in the 22nd row/Who sees you as something more than sexual/More than just our Marilyn Monroe.” While these lines continue some of those other threads, they also add a different and much more personal theme—the idea that there could be genuine connection despite those public gaps and destructions, that an artist and an audience can indeed reach a level of understanding despite those inevitable limits. And in so doing, John and Taupin nonetheless (or rather, crucially at the same time) seek to keep Monroe’s—or rather, Norma Jean’s—individuality and autonomy, recognizing that she was and is not just “ours,” that her legacy, as her life, are ultimately her own. If this series started with Monroe’s death, it certainly should end with that vital perspective on her life.

Annual birthday series starts this weekend,
PS. What do you think?

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