Elton John: The cultural standard
Elton John has been a groundbreaker for much of his career. As a stage performer. On the pop charts. On Broadway. And in the LGBT community.
Being gay, of course, isn’t the defining aspect of John’s persona. He’s much more than that. But it is an intrinsic part of who he is — and it inevitably finds its way into his work (and his costumes). Along the way, he’s directly influenced a legion of artists who also play by their own rules, from Adam Lambert to Lady Gaga to Miley Cyrus.
John will take what looks to be his final bows in San Antonio on Wednesday as part of his Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour. It includes more than 300 shows across five continents through 2021.
“After the tour finishes, I’m very much looking forward to closing off that chapter of my life by saying farewell to life on the road. I need to dedicate more time to raising my children,” John said in a statement.
With that, it feels like a fine time to look back on a long career in the pop-culture sphere. We all know his music, and Andrew Dansby writes about some of John’s work and influence elsewhere. But John has also been an indirect and overt influence on gay culture as it grew out of the fringes to become a large part of society. Here, then, is a look at the ways John has impacted and helped shape gay culture.
He came out
John first admitted he was bisexual in 1976, which wasn’t a trendy or common thing for stars to do. He later came out as gay.
“There’s nothing wrong with going to bed with somebody of your own sex. I think everybody’s bisexual to a certain degree. I don’t think it’s just me. It’s not a bad thing to be. I think you’re bisexual. I think everybody is,” he told Rolling Stone in 1976.
“It’s going to be terrible with my football club. It’s so hetero, it’s unbelievable. But I mean, who cares! I just think people should be very free with sex.”
The song from 1981 album “The Fox” was written by Tom Robinson, an openly gay punk singer. It was an early personal moment for John. The video follows a young boy pining for a fellow student at school.
“Staring all alone/And your grace and style/Cut me to the bone/With your razor blade smile/I watched you playing pool/It’s all around the school that I love you …”
John has been one of the biggest, and most famous, proponents for AIDS education and prevention. He established the Elton John AIDS Foundation in 1992, which has raised more than $400 million. His annual high-profile Oscar party also raises money for AIDS prevention.
‘The Last Song’
John’s 1992 single is about a gay man dying of AIDS who has one last conversation with his father. The lyrics are simple but emotional: “I can’t believe you love me/I never thought you’d come/I guess I misjudged love/Between a father and his son.”
He sang with RuPaul
John teamed up with another icon, drag superstar RuPaul, for a new version of “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.” It went top 10 on the U.K. charts and spawned a campy video that saw them dressed up as Sonny and Cher and Danny and Sandy from “Grease.”
And he sang with Eminem
Who can forget Eminem and John teaming up for a version of “Stan” at the 2001 Grammys? John did it as a show of support for the rapper, who was heavily criticized at the time for his violent and homophobic lyrics. John told Rolling Stone in 2010 that after his civil partnership with David Furnish, Eminem sent them a gift. “So there’s a homophobe for you.”
He started a family
John and Furnish were one of the first couples to enter into a civil partnership in 2005 in the United Kingdom. They were married in 2014 in England once it became legal and have two sons born by a surrogate. Even today, that’s not a common sight among A-list stars.
John told Parade magazine in 2010 that he thought “Jesus was a compassionate, super-intelligent gay man who understood human problems. On the cross, he forgave the people who crucified him. Jesus wanted us to be loving and forgiving. I don’t know what makes people so cruel. Try being a gay woman in the Middle East — you’re as good as dead.”
Young Thug sampled Elton John’s “Rocket Man” for the emotive track “High,” released in September. John has frequently said he’s a fan of the rapper, who has also played with ideas of gender and sexuality.
“In my world, you can be a gangsta with a dress or you can be a gangsta with baggy pants,” Young Thug said in a 2016 Calvin Klein ad. “I feel like there’s no such thing as gender.”
John becomes one of the few gay icons with a splashy biopic when “Rocketman” is released next year. And it’s reportedly not holding back on his personal life (unlike “Bohemian Rhapsody” does for Queen’s Freddie Mercury).
“I think the film feels like something that the gay community, especially, can really take ownership of,” Taron Egerton, who plays John in the film, told MTV. “I actually think the gay community will be quite surprised by quite how gay it feels.”