April 26, 2013 6:28 pm

Singalong solidarity

How Neil Diamond’s saccharine love song ‘Sweet Caroline’ is helping Bostonians to grieve
An illustration by Lucas Varela of Neil Diamond singing 'Sweet Caroline'©Lucas Varela

Baseball stadiums across the US have been treating their fans to the chirpy sounds of Neil Diamond this week. For no apparent reason, the old crooner’s hit “Sweet Caroline” is the unofficial song of the Boston Red Sox and so it is being played in solidarity with the city after last week’s marathon bombing. The sound of American defiance has a decidedly breezy tone.

Diamond himself turned up at Boston’s Fenway Park where, slightly surreally, he croakily sang along with a recording of himself. These gestures within Boston reinforce a message of defiance, and outside that city they offer an outlet to those who feel they wish to do something, even if it is as ephemeral as chanting the chorus to a saccharine piece of easy listening.

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Robert Shrimsley

In what was held to be the most touching of these gestures, arch-rivals the New York Yankees also played the song and unveiled a banner with the two teams’ logos and the words “United We Stand”. It is, perhaps, a statement of the preposterous intensity of sporting rivalries that such a decent and wholly appropriate response was deemed remarkable but nevertheless, the Yankees rose to the occasion.

It has to be said that the jauntiness of the tune rather jarred with the bombing and the aftermath which saw a city in near lockdown. “Sweet Caroline” is a feel-good song that became a Red Sox anthem precisely because people love singing along with it. So while it is apposite, it also feels as incongruous as if, after the 2005 London bombings, it was decided that a medley of Shakin’ Stevens songs would get the UK back on its feet.

There is nothing gritty or defiant about “Sweet Caroline”, an up-tempo love song which, curiously, Diamond has admitted was inspired by a childhood picture he saw of Caroline Kennedy. It can claim no “Eye of the Tiger” spirit and one of its central lines notes that “good times never seemed so good”. Diamond, of course, represents something of an old survivor himself, a talented singer/songwriter, never cool but always popular.

But perhaps the reason why “Sweet Caroline” works is its very singalong nature. It answers a need not so much to mourn as to participate. Traditional forms of remembrance and solidarity are passive; observed rather than engaged in. One thinks of the Last Post, the minute’s silence or a stirring hymn. They can be touching but they do not invite active participation and, for a nation suddenly afraid again, it may just be that whistling a happy tune is what is required.

But this was not just about internal fortitude. Across the parks people have been turning up with crude home-made signs expressing solidarity with the stricken city. But it is more than the need to do something – it is also about the need to show you are doing something.

This need for demonstrable solidarity is omnipresent these days. One sees it in the wristbands people wear to associate themselves with causes. There is nothing wrong with this; many of these are worthy and raising consciousness is valuable. But often the bands seem to be as much about the wearer as the cause.

But perhaps in this case, this explanation is too uncharitable. Thinking more about it, I recalled one of those moments of introspection when you (or maybe it’s just me) think about the playlist for your own funeral and how I imagine it concluding with the Spandau Ballet song “Gold”. I was never a big fan of the group but the spawn and I have a routine we sing in the car where I chant the first word of the chorus (“Gold”, since you ask) and they immediately bellow it back. It’s an instantly cheering, bonding moment and I rather like the idea of mourners yelling out “Gold” at the appropriate spot. Just for an instant it would blot out the sadness and bring us together in one last moment of unity.

Perhaps then, the baseball crowds were on to something after all with their singalong solidarity. For while some participants were visibly moved and many sang lustily, some were obviously just enjoying the moment.

In the wake of a wretched week, bad times never seemed so good.

robert.shrimsley@ft.com

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