Elton John is everywhere. There’s barely a single aspect of American pop culture in which the pudgy pop star with ridiculous hair does not exist.
Face it, kids. Elton John has reached critical mass. Society simply cannot absorb any more Elton John. The dangerous fact is, we’re only one Disney soundtrack and/or sitcom cameo away from an explosion of Elton John-themed restaurant franchises raining down across the continental United States, Hawaii, Alaska and Puerto Rico.
Perhaps you’ve been too occupied with “American Idol,” the Britney Spears train wreck or some other fleeting “People” magazine moment to notice Sir Elton’s insidious four-decade infiltration. But think about it — his countless hits on classic radio and karaoke machines? As a people, we can’t zone out to reruns of “Will and Grace,” “The Simpsons,” “South Park” or even “The Nanny” without running into an Elton John guest appearance.
So comfortable with his omnipresence, we barely blink an eye at the recent news that the feud between Elton John and his former pop protégé George Michael is still going strong. We take it for granted that his April “Elton’s Closet” tag sale at Rockefeller Center in New York City raised buckets of dough for the Elton John AIDS Foundation. Or that his Las Vegas “Red Piano” show is still going strong, even as he tours in between appearances.
What’s more, it seems only fitting that Elton John’s latest Broadway foray is “Lestat” a musical based on the beloved Anne Rice vampire series. Naturally, he’s shopping a semi-biographical sitcom based on an aging high-maintenance rock star and his entourage. But Miramax even snapped up “Gnomeo and Juliet,” Sir Elton’s garden gnome version of the bard classic, with Kate Winslet attached. (No, really.)
As you slide into your booth at the Goodbye Yellow Brick Road Café and order your Philadelphia Freedom Cheese Steak and Tiny Dancer Dessert, ask yourself something. How is it that this 59-year-old Brit, who arguably hasn’t put out a truly great album in decades, managed to implant himself in American consciousness sans his own reality show?
It’s more than nostalgia for such endless hits as “Bennie and the Jets,” “Crocodile Rock,” “Island Girl,” “Rocket Man,” “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” or “Candle in the Wind” (both the original and the retooled Princess Diana tribute). It’s beyond the image burned in our brains of John’s Pinball Wizard in the Who’s “Tommy,” with his sequined glasses and four-foot-tall glittery platforms — or any of his other flamboyant costumes back in the day. And for those too young to remember, it’s more than the “Lion King” soundtrack burned into every toddler’s brain.
Elton John has succeeded at what F. Scott Fitzgerald claimed American lives don’t have: a second act. Or to put it like Mufasa, Sir Elton’s completed the Circle of Life — three or four times. And he’s done it exceedingly well, overcoming a multitude of obstacles, any of which have singularly felled lesser pop stars: drug addiction, money problems, a failed marriage, bad hair, throat nodules, heart disease (he’s got a pacemaker). And let’s not forget, ol’ Elton poked his head out of the closet long before it was the cool thing to do. The Queen of England knighted him, to boot.
One might argue that the Rolling Stones have been around longer, or that Madonna has expanded beyond her pop-star status, but neither act is up to Sir Elton’s standards. The Stones continue to make money doing almost exactly the same shtick they started with in the '60s. (In a just world, the Stones would be playing the state fair, and the ticket price would be the price of admission.) As for Madge, as they call Madonna in England, her other pursuits — acting, authoring and Judaism — are met with more snickers than respect.
Meanwhile, here’s Sir Elton, who’s had at least half a dozen “retirement” tours, still touring. He continues to crank out records, mediocre though they might be. But he’s also scoring hit musicals, including the Tony- and Grammy-winning Broadway show “Aida” and the West End production of “Billy Elliot.” And he’s been a vocal and visible HIV/AIDS prevention spokesperson and charity organizer since the disease first appeared.
Sir Elton is a model for gay rights, marrying his longtime partner David Furnish the first day England allowed same-sex couples civil union. Sure, he’s got a notoriously outsized ego, as evidenced in the 1995 documentary, “Tantrums and Tiaras” (created by David Furnish), but hey, wouldn’t you?
Maybe we take Sir Elton’s ubiquity for granted because he’s so much like us. Only talented. And famous. And rich ... really, really rich. OK, maybe Elton is more like how we’d like to be. Think about it. Beyond talented, famous, and fabulously wealthy, here’s this chubby guy walking around, indulging in wig-and-weave hair antics, being openly homosexual and seemingly not caring what you, me or anybody else thinks about it. Who doesn’t want to feel that good about themselves?
Bitchy, but humanSir Elton is also admirably bitchy — frequently quoted in gossip columns for the kind of snaps and comebacks we wish we were witty enough to say. When Keith Richards said John is best known for “writing songs about dead blondes,” Sir Elton countered by stating that Richards looks like a “monkey with arthritis.” When asked what he would give Liza Minnelli as a wedding present when she married David Gest, he responded, “A heterosexual husband.” Criticizing Madonna, he said, “Anyone who lip-syncs in public on stage when you pay £75 to see them should be shot. That’s me off her Christmas card list. But do I give a toss?” (He later apologized for that one.)
While Sir Elton may shout “rude, vile pigs,” at paparazzi, as he did when he was mobbed at a Taiwan airport in 2004, he’s not beyond poking fun at himself. “You can call me a fat, balding, talentless, old queen who can’t sing, but you can’t tell lies about me,” he said after winning a libel case against British paper, the Sun. He also happily performed a song on the Howard Stern show that included the lyrics, “Well, Oprah Winfrey’s fat/Phil Donahue just take a hike/Why won’t they let Howard Stern on TV?”
So he’s human. And like us, Sir Elton’s had his problems. Problems with finding his identity, problems with relationships; he had that four-year marriage to female German recording engineer Renate Blauel in the '80s. Despite the fabulous wealth, he’s had money problems caused at least in part by being a shopaholic. (What American can’t relate to that?) While financially solvent these days, Sir Elton certainly isn’t in recovery. Such an overshopper is John that there’s no need for him to start a celebrity clothing line; pretty soon we’ll all be wearing Prada T-shirts and Gucci blazers acquired at one of his many charity tag sales.
Need more evidence of John’s ability to seep into every aspect of our lives? He’s pitching for a part on “Desperate Housewives.”
Another four decades of Broadway shows, Disney movies and charity events, and all the stuff we think is so important now — “Survivor,” Lindsay Lohan’s BMI, gasoline — will be long forgotten. But Elton John, he’ll still be here.
Great. Now New York-based writer Helen A.S. Popkin has “Hakuna Matata” stuck in her head. Just great.