Music

Elton John Is Pop’s Hippest 74-Year-Old Tastemaker

How the septuagenarian became the go-to talking head about music’s cutting-edge, from Billie Eilish to Phoebe Bridgers to Young Thug.

A man with brown hair and purple sunglasses wears a purple suit while performing on stage. He is playing a bright red piano, and there are sparkly purple-and-gold decorations behind him.
MARK RALSTON/Getty Images

In March, Sir Elton John made headlines for tweeting at Phoebe Bridgers that if she didn’t win “at least one” Grammy, he was going to “hit someone.” Superfans, or stans, making public threats of physical violence isn’t really rare—just look at the Twitter mentions of anyone who has ever written a less-than-glowing review of a pop fave’s new album. Those impassioned threats, however, are often made anonymously, not by 74-year-old rock legends. Elton John, of course, isn’t like most fans. He’s one of the most successful artists of all time, with a career spanning almost six decades, 30 studio albums, and enough Grammy nominations and wins of his own that they occupy an entire section on his Wikipedia page.

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But Elton John is still absolutely, unequivocally a fan in his own right. Despite possessing immense success and enough wealth that he could disappear off the face of the earth if he chose to, he instead dedicates his life to championing new music and young artists. One way he does this is through his show Rocket Hour on Apple Music, where he interviews musicians, plays music he loves, and talks about, well, just music, pretty much. Rocket Hour has been on for a few years and has almost 300 episodes, and it doesn’t seem likely that John will wrap it up anytime soon.

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The artists Elton discusses or plays on the show often come as a sweet surprise. Last year, with the release of her solo record Petals for Armor, John shouted out Hayley Williams, calling Paramore’s After Laughter “one of the most underrated albums of all time,” delighting emos everywhere. Later that year, he invited Williams onto the show to discuss her new EP. John isn’t choosy or exclusionary in who he listens to, interviews, or discusses, and a playlist of artists he’d played up to episode 150 showcases that: all genres, artists, decades get a look into. From Grace Jones to Blur to The Beach Boys, to Kaytranada to Muse to Bleachers to Tom Petty, the playlist is a couple of thousand tracks long. It shows a man who isn’t scared of learning, even at his big age.

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This shouldn’t really be extraordinary: Elton John is a musician, so why shouldn’t he love new music? But it’s often the case that the older musicians get, the crankier they become about … everything. Gene Simmons of Kiss famously said that he is “looking forward to the death of rap,” and just recently, The Misfits’ Glenn Danzig said that “woke bullshit” was “killing punk rock.”. Green Day, weirdly, put out a whole ad campaign that took a stab at “trap beats” and “Swedish songwriters,” while one-hit wonder, ’90s boy band Hanson called Justin Bieber “chlamydia for the ears.” It’s the circle of life: You get big, people start to hate you; you get old, you hate whatever’s new. The Killers’ Brandon Flowers, admirably, recently expressed regret in an interview with Phoebe Bridgers for “talking shit” about other artists, confessing to apologizing to John Mayer.

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Artists, particularly older ones or those in “alternative” genres, are often prone to a particular gatekeeping that comes with a blindspot for anything popular, young, or even tangentially associated with rap music. That, too, is where it’s hard to give older (and predominantly white male) artists the benefit of the doubt or allow them to claim the excuse of being curmudgeonly—the dismissal of a historically Black music genre like rap or anything associated with it wholesale just reeks of racism. It’s not surprising that in Danzig’s freakout about “woke bullshit,” he failed to acknowledge that Lil Nas X had recently sent an Ozzy-level moral panic shockwave through conservatives for grinding on the devil. Elton John, on the other hand,  reveres hip-hop and other genres dominated by Black artists. He collaborated with Young Thug on a track in 2018, and in a July 2019 interview with Complex, he shouted out both him and Khalid, saying, “We’ve seen time and time again that reluctance from the establishment to embrace the new when something fresh comes along and threatens the status quo. And that’s what hip-hop did.” He went on to say that hip-hop does what new music should do: “shake things up and confuse or scare the regime.” (Shake things up by, say, giving Satan a lapdance maybe?)

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Elton John’s unabashed embrace of new music—of all music, really—is endearing. He joins other revered music lifers like Paul McCartney and David Bowie, legends in their own right who could have done what all old, successful dudes often do: give up, stop learning, stop growing. David Bowie once said that Lorde was “the future of music,” while McCartney famously collaborated with Kanye West and Rihanna and more recently with artists like St. Vincent, Phoebe Bridgers, and Beck on a remixed version of his latest album, McCartney III. While not everyone is as outspoken as Danzig in dismissing things they hate, it’s rare to see an older artist love new music with such genuine enthusiasm.

Like McCartney, John’s involvement with supporting newer musicians extends beyond shoutouts on Rocket Hour. In April, he worked with British pop artist Rina Sawayama on an updated version of her track “Chosen Family,” a tender homage to queer families. With John’s piano and voice threaded through, the collab refreshes the track, and at a time when music by and about gay artists still can send much of the US into panic, it remains radical to celebrate queerness. His choices are often bold, but it’s his work with artists that many refuse to take seriously that is most enjoyable. In 2013, John appeared on “Save Rock and Roll,” Fall Out Boy’s comeback single after a lengthy hiatus. “Save Rock and Roll” was a huge departure for Fall Out Boy musically, and it was a risk for both the band and John. Of course, John fully committed to the pop-tinged song and its success, even appearing in the video, wearing a blood-spattered white suit. He pays, it seems, zero mind to what another artist or critic might consider uncool. 

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These are just a few examples of John’s fandoms and proteges, and a more comprehensive list of his collaborations is as diverse as his own music taste: Red Hot Chili Peppers, Engelbert Humperdink, Gary Barlow, and Kate Bush, to name a few. He’s appeared onstage with Lady Gaga, Christine and the Queens, and Ed Sheeran. Recently, he was quoted in a British Vogue cover story gushing about Billie Eilish, comparing her to Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan. In the same story, he also praises the ways that Kesha and Lady Gaga have worked to dismantle abuses of power in the music industry. In March, he even appeared in Demi Lovato’s YouTube documentary series, calling her “perfect.” John’s taste is broad, and he appears to have zero sense of hierarchy—anyone with a love of music, in his eyes, can be a genius.

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For many of us, Elton John has long seemed like a kindly uncle figure, someone ever-present and fairly chill. It’s easy to perceive him as kinda goofy—the Lion King and feather boa guy, the man with good vibes and bops our nans enjoy. We forget that once, particularly for the era he came up, he was groundbreaking, even controversial. Elton John, born Reginald Kenneth Dwight to very normal parents in Pinner in 1947, was a quick learner and a talented musician who just loved music. He was at once flamboyant and shy, plagued with mental health and addiction issues while hiding his sexuality. He came out publicly twice: first as bisexual in the 1970s, and then as gay in the early ’90s. This was a big deal then, and it still is an important moment in music history. He’s dedicated much of his life to advocating for HIV and AIDS research, launching the Elton John AIDS Foundation the same year he came out himself.

Artists like Glenn Danzig or the similarly conservative alt-legend Morrissey need to cling onto the ghost of their relevance and edginess—it’s all they have. Elton John is unique in how hard he rides for new musicians, and he can do it because he does not give a fuck about seeming cool. He doesn’t need to! He just really, really loves music. So much. All of it.

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