Elton John was the first musician I was aware of. I became conscious of his catchy tunes and wonderfully elastic voice from hearing him on my brother’s cheap record player, my Dad’s stereo and my Mom’s car AM radio. His hits were the the soundtrack of my early childhood, in the early to mid 70’s and I was fascinated with the sound of his records, way beyond my pre-kindergarten existence. My brother and I had quite a few of Elton’s 45’s from his UNI Records days, then MCA and we had to badger our Mom into buying multiple copies of them, because we wore them all out, because they were really, really good. Elton John’s music has been an anchor throughout my life.
By the late 1970’s and 80’s, Elton, was still enormously popular but slowly losing steam as the hit making machine he had been before he hit the age of ripe old age of 30. This hardly derailed his career. Although he did not start out that way, Elton became the consummate showmen, with outlandish costumes and stage antics accented by oversized novelty glasses, all of course for the benefit of those in the nose-bleed sections of the venues. (Look on youtube for his Central Park performance in 1980 and you’ll see what I mean.) Despite a dotting of hits through the 80’s and 90’s, Elton’s performances allowed him to continue to sell out large-scale venues, and still do.
I also have to add that Elton’s foray into soundtracks and musical theater composing, and success with the “Lion King” helped keep his professional resume in the mainstream, and sell concert tickets, though some of his older fans, myself included, couldn’t muster up too much enthusiasm for these kinds of projects, not that there’s anything wrong with it. I suppose.
While I would have liked to have added his amazing voice alongside his showmanship as to why he has continued to sell out in the present day, that would be more than a bit of an overstatement. As you can hear from this youtube clip from 2013, Elton’s voice is, I would have to say, noticeably different.
I hear the argument from his die-hard defenders that of course his voice has changed. He’s in his late 60’s, what should I expect? My problem with this argument is two-fold. First, on an aesthetic level, his voice, with its severely diminished range, deeper and somewhat gravelly tone, excessive vibrato and minus his old trademark falsetto, is no longer enjoyable for me to listen to, especially in comparison to his records from the 70’s and early 80’s. And while age itself might be a legitimate excuse for his vocal deterioration, it isn’t that simple or even true, bringing me to my second point. Elton abused the heck out of himself from the mid 1970’s to the 1990’s, with drugs and alcohol as well as abusing his voice due to excessive touring. In addition to being in and out of rehab for substance dependency, by his late 30’s (around 1986-87) Elton had polyps removed from his vocal chords. Subsequently, the upper register of his vocal range was severely compromised and his falsetto gone, now leaving him to compromising his songs by lowering their keys or overcompensating vibrato, cartoonish sounding characterizations and leaving much of the more challenging work to backup singers. (And yes, I know he’s always used backup singers, but for accompaniment and embellishing. Not for carrying his melodies or hitting high notes for him).
And while this piece may sound a little preachy and judgmental, I’m not really writing this to tear the guy down for the sake of it. I think his earlier albums are masterpieces and he had one of the most compelling voices in the history of rock music. And, I will always consider him, unquestionably, to be one of the most significant artists in the history of rock and roll.
What I guess I’m really getting at, and this is what sticks in my craw, is that I think it’s amazing how celebrity culture seems to be self-reinforcing, i.e., Elton John, despite a severely diminished voice, is a world-famous, concert selling-out and hit-making composer and legend so the public will keep buying gobs of tickets to his shows. Which reinforces his celebrity status. And then they buy more tickets. So what if his voice is gone? After all, he still is Elton John!
My head hurts.
Anyone else’s thoughts. Feel free to argue with me.