Note: We published this article eight months before George Michael’s surprise death at the age of 53. We’ve left it as is.
’90s No. 1s Revisited: “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me”
The fifty-fifth No. 1 song of the 1990s was “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me” by George Michael and Elton John. It’s a remake of a 1974 song by John that reached No. 2 in the U.S.; this 1992 version is a live performance from one of Michael’s concerts at which John’s appearance was a surprise to the audience. This would be Michael’s eighth (or 10th, if you include his work with Wham!) and final U.S. No. 1 hit. It was John’s seventh of eight No. 1 hits (or eighth of nine, if you count “That’s What Friends Are For” credited to Dionne & Friends, of which he was one of the friends). John’s run of chart-toppers started two decades prior with 1972’s “Crocodile Rock.”
In retrospect, there doesn’t seem to be any convincing justification for “Sun’s” success, or even its existence as a single. It’s not as if Michael or John were retiring, or coming out of retirement: Michael was 28, and John was 44. Nor was the song particularly iconic, or celebrating a significant anniversary: It was 17 years old, and not even one of John’s best tracks. To put this in 2016 perspective, this release’s modern-day equivalent would look something like Rihanna, 28, teaming up with Ricky Martin, 44, to release a live performance of “She’s All I Ever Had,” a No. 2 hit for Martin in 1999. That wouldn’t be a No. 1 song, right? But back in 1992, people thought this was interesting.
Re-immerse yourself in “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me”:
The success of this song must have to do with a broader cultural interest in the 1970s in 1992, because in and of itself there’s nothing interesting about this performance, this video or this song. Shortly after “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me” went to No. 1, Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which peaked at No. 9 in 1976, famously returned to the charts as part of the Wayne’s World movie soundtrack, peaking at No. 2 in May. And, in fact, Michael charted in 1993 with a live performance of “Somebody To Love,” another mid-’70s Queen song, in that case backed by the band minus the late Freddie Mercury. Even Mariah Carey would find success with a live performance of a ’70s cover later in 1992, when her version of The Jackson 5’s 1970 hit “I’ll Be There” hit No. 1 in June. And Whitney Houston ended the year at No. 1 with her remake of Dolly Parton’s 1974 Country hit, “I Will Always Love You.”
Why? What’s old is new again, and there tends to be a generational cycle when it comes to music. As part of the shedding of the 1980s, it was cool to return to the 1970s. This will influence ’90s music movements to come.
We never liked this song or understood why it was popular, but Michael and John were both on their game in 1992. Michael was still an A-lister. This was his last No. 1 in the U.S., but he would have three more Top 10 hits in the ’90s, ending in 1996 with the very good track “Fastlove,” which peaked at No. 8. (That was actually his last Hot 100 appearance in the U.S., although he’s continued having hits in his native U.K., even in the 2010s.) John, in 1992, was a respected but somewhat passe Adult Contemporary artist, although he would go on to have a resurgence in mainstream popularity with the success of the Lion King soundtrack and, later, his tribute to Princess Diana.
Does it hold up? The song holds up fine, but the fact that a somewhat routine performance of a somewhat ordinary song was the most popular recording in the country is extremely 1992-specific. In fact, after 1992, we won’t be seeing anything like this happen again.
Dopeness: 2 out of 5 Birkenstocks
’90s No. 1s Revisited is a regular feature on “Was It Dope?” where we walk through every No. 1 song of the 1990s on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in order, give it another listen, and answer two critical questions: Was it dope? And does it hold up?