Mourning All The Way To No. 1

IF YOU FELT BAD ABOUT THE DEATH OF Princess Diana, take heart. Soon you'll have the chance to feel really, really good. On Sept. 23 Elton John releases ""Candle in the Wind 1997,'' his freshly minted recording of the song he performed at her funeral on Sept. 6. All proceeds from the single--artist royalties, songwriting royalties, record-company profits--will benefit the many charities Diana supported. ""Candle in the Wind 1997'' could raise $10 million to $15 million; the British tabloids are already calling it the biggest single of all time. Meanwhile, media mogul Richard Branson has announced he's putting together a superstar charity album, to be ready by Christmas, with possible songs from Sir Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton and Annie Lennox. Branson also wants to organize a series of Diana concerts next summer, ""with all her favorite musicians, in celebration of her life.'' Even the normally saucy Spice Girls are experiencing a burst of saintliness. They've reportedly pledged to withhold the release of their next single to ensure that ""Candle in the Wind 1997'' goes straight to No. 1 in England. Is this the music business we're talking about, or a convent?

Actually, death has been a major pop staple lately. ""Candle in the Wind 1997'' arrives just as Puff Daddy and Faith Evans's ""I'll Be Missing You,'' a tribute to the Notorious B.I.G., gives up its summerlong stranglehold on our consciousness. Look, we think it's sad that the Notorious B.I.G. died so young, and so unnecessarily. But if Puff Daddy really wanted to do right by his slain friend, couldn't he have picked a more interesting song to sample than the Police's ""Every Breath You Take''? Bone Thugs-n-Harmony's elegy to lost friends, ""Tha Crossroads,'' lodged for weeks at No. 1. Eric Clapton won Grammies for his paean to his young son, ""Tears in Heaven.'' Natalie Merchant eulogized River Phoenix. R.E.M. and Neil Young both sang odes to Kurt Cobain. Yoko Ono wrote an album about John Lennon, ""Season of Glass,'' and put his bloodstained glasses on the cover. We know that death sells, and that sadness is grist for creativity. But while we're all busy buying records about death, are we also taking the time to mourn?

The most potentially mushy tribute song is, sadly, ""Candle in the Wind 1997.'' Originally recorded for John's 1973 album ""Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,'' and revived once already in a 1987 version with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, ""Candle in the Wind'' was hastily reworked to suit a newly tragic occasion. In the context of Diana's funeral, the song was undeniably moving: it yanked the funeral out of pomp tradition and into the pop now. But on its own, saturating mainstream radio and record-store sound systems, ""Candle in the Wind 1997'' is poised to become just another artifact, as facile and pretty as a souvenir thimble.

John, to his credit, is trying to staunch the overexposure. Last week, when MTV and VH1 began programming an unsanctioned clip of his funeral performance, he requested a cease and desist, except in conjunction with newscasts. He's also vowed never to play the song in concert again (although he will play the single's A side, ""Something About the Way You Look Tonight,'' from his new album, ""The Big Picture,'' which also happens to be coming out next week). But even his best intentions have a slightly disingenuous touch. The new ""Candle in the Wind'' was built for the top 10. When John and collaborator Bernie Taupin pried the song apart to make it topical, they erased what was most interesting about it: a humble, vivid narrative perspective. ""Goodbye Norma Jean, from the young man in the 22d row'' became ""Goodbye England's rose, from a country lost without your soul.'' It's cavernous and impersonal enough to house a whole world's mourning.

Pop songs about death often don't work for a simple reason: grief, even when publicly shared, is essentially private. Mass-marketed, it loses meaning. Songs about dead icons have an unfortunately chummy aspect: they tend to remind us that the celebrity singer probably knew the subject a lot better than we did. And in their effort to memorialize a fallen friend, celebrities can unwittingly become inappropriate spokespersons for the dead. Puff Daddy seems to have elected himself recipient of all affections formerly directed toward the Notorious B.I.G. Courtney Love most assuredly missed her husband, Kurt Cobain, after he committed suicide in April 1994. But she made a mistake when she tried to become his ambassador to the living in the press. It's interesting how differently Cobain's former bandmates, Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic, handled the situation. They kept quiet. When Nirvana won a posthumous MTV Video Music Award for ""Heart-Shaped Box,'' Grohl gave a simple speech that remains one of the most poignant tributes to Kurt. ""It would be silly to say it doesn't feel like something's missing,'' Grohl said. ""I think about Kurt every day.''

There are good, affecting pop songs about death. But I think it helps when the subject isn't a celebrity. Then, instead of the singer telling the audience how to feel, the listener is allowed to interpret the imagery as he or she wishes. The Chills, a power-pop band from New Zealand, released a single in 1984 called ""Pink Frost,'' a tribute to a band member who died of leukemia. But the song is so well written, you don't need to know the back story. ""What can I do if she's lost?'' asks singer Martin Phillipps. ""Just the thought fills my heart with pink frost.'' Patti Smith, a similarly gifted songwriter, found just the right words for sorrow on her album ""Gone Again,'' a tribute to her late husband, guitarist Fred (Sonic) Smith. ""The life in his fingers unwound my existence,'' she sings in ""Dead to the World.'' These songs don't make us feel good about death; they invoke its power in precise, personal terms.

Of course, these songs weren't huge hits. Maybe mass sorrow on the scale of Diana can't be scripted from an individualistic point of view. Or maybe no pop tribute is perfect. Sometimes I find myself wishing that MTV would permanently retire Nirvana's videos. Once or twice a week, instead of playing ""All Apologies'' or ""Lithium,'' the station could show a blank screen for a few minutes. At the bottom could be a discreet explanation: In mem- ory of Kurt Cobain, who sings no more. That, to me, is the most fitting tribute of all: silence.