How Elton John Broke the Serious/Frivolous Pop Dichotomy
Elton John on the Cher Show in 1975.
image via Wikimedia Commons
We can likely blame this on the '60s and the musical shift therein, but since the dawn of rock 'n' roll as Serious Art Form, there remains a pervasive opinion that Serious Rock can't also be fun. As a related argument, then, there's also the argument that pop automatically can't be serious or carry any substance. Any "rock" performer who dares to cultivate a purposefully fanciful or contrived image is often critically savaged, while any outright pop act is automatically thought to be an essentially talentless puppet of the industry.
In 2012, the tides have finally shifted a little bit. Yes, we have super-serious artists like Adele whose entire marketing angle is raw talent with few frills. But at the same time, we also have acts that freely cross these invisible boundaries. See, just for one glaring example, Lady Gaga, who despite her glossy production and often-ridiculous outfits, has become critically accepted and who writes -- and even plays -- the majority of her material.
For the fact that there's any room for this kind of perceived transgression, we can thank Sir Elton John. The musical environment in which he first appeared was not exactly friendly to a piano-playing rock and pop crooner in glittery suits. (Let's ignore Liberace, who was clearly not aiming at the same kind of new youth-type audience.)
When John, born Reginald Kenneth Dwight, first appeared to break out, he had a tough act -- the whole of the deadly-earnest hippie era -- to follow. John had already ridden out the '60s with some industry success behind the scenes, putting Bernie Taupin's lyrics to music and creating hits for artists like Lulu. With Taupin, he then put together his own first debut album, the self-titled Elton John, which was released in 1970 and featured the single "Your Song," written when John was just in his early twenties.
"Your Song" was a kind of sweeping, genre-less hit, one of pure melodic and lyrical satisfaction. (True, without Bernie Taupin, there probably would have been no Elton John, the star, in quite the same incarnation.) It was pop in that it was popular, with a timeless appeal and a kind of reflective, almost bittersweet mood at which John would prove a master. It was the same with the next few follow-up albums, 1970's Tumbleweed Connection, 1973's Don't Shoot Me I'm Only the Piano Player, and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, later that year. On that last album, few musical moments of the era -- and even today -- match the sweet but slightly painful falsetto "ahhh" of the chorus.
These were all unassailably quality tunes, backed by real piano playing and unadorned singing that sounded almost otherworldly all on its own. Yet the man behind the, looked equally otherworldly in a way that had scarcely been seen up to that point. As glam rock rose in the early '70s in England via David Bowie, T. Rex, and so on, John finally had a set of somewhat likeminded artists to make him look less crazy -- but he wasn't really a glam rock artist. John's songs were rarely built on anything that was truly rock and roll -- very few distorted guitars or even blues progressions. He was an outlier, even in the glam scene of outliers.
Bowie certainly helped set the tone for weirdos in the pop world, but for Bowie, it always sort of seemed like he would do his own thing regardless, and the success was a nice aside. Bowie seemed like an avant-garde artiste who had less use for Top of the Pops. John, meanwhile, always seemed to be aiming squarely at popular adulation, but still on his own uncompromising terms. It's a role that people came to accept and even embrace, thanks to the pure talent behind it, and without it, there would likely be no public-eye, piano-playing little monsters today.
Elton John. 8 p.m. Friday, March 9, at BankAtlantic Center, 1 Panther Parkway, Sunrise. Tickets cost $47.75 to $156 with fees. Click here.
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