Elton John has long been part of my music repertoire, and up until a few weeks ago I knew that he was no one-hit wonder, and had written a lot of very interesting songs that were nice to hear. Then I began to play the Youtube playlists of Elton John, which- for people who don’t know- is an endless playlist with a series of songs by that musician mixed with similar musicians (like Phil Collins, Cyndi Lauper, Sting and so forth). Through that tool I discovered and rediscovered many songs composed by Elton John, and so I began to put together my own Youtube playlists aggregating all my favorite singers, and with Elton John, I am currently at 43 songs, more than for any other interpreter (playlist available here). How can I be so electrified and fascinated by the songs of this one British musician? So I thought it was time to dig into some video interviews with Elton John and explore some biographical data.
My knowledge of music is so rudimentary that I cannot describe in words feelings about his music. It either makes you feel good or not and you don’t really know why. Not even John can describe his music writing process, as it is intuitive rather than logical-rational. Music is one of those things where the human language cannot really penetrate though it is real and can be perceived, which may be described as a cognitive limitation. Ludwig Wittgenstein claimed “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world”. Fortunately, I can make some sociological statements about Elton John’s success, using the framework of the sociology of emotions. In short, John gets energized in the act of writing a song, and this internal energy gets reinforced via his live concert performances in front of large audiences, who sing along with him, and inspire him in his work.
Sociology of Emotions
Let us first recall the key tenets in the sociology of emotions as laid out in Collins (2004): people are in social interactions and transfer emotional energy to each other based on the characteristics of the social situation and the given social and cultural capital of each individual. Picture yourself going to a party, and meet this really important big shot that everyone should pay deference to, and it turns out that he is a smooth talker, but doesn’t have much brains, but you do, so you feel dejected and want to escape the conversation. You meet the next person, initially very shy and withdrawn in body language, but you both discover that you like oldtimer cars and discuss that topic animatedly for the next two hours, which you perceive as if mere minutes went by. Sympathy for the other person is strengthened via rhythmic entrainment, which is the copying of body rhythms, tone of language and body language to create positive interactional energy. These are micro-situations, where only individuals meet each other, but in large groups so-called interaction ritual chains become possible. Picture a church congregation that is looking forward to the Sunday preachings, because the pastor is so charismatic and leave the congregants with a sense of inspiration that can reverberate outside the context, because some of the congregants share the vibe of that pastor outside the church walls, and that may attract more people to attend that church. Emotions are getting transmitted via social interaction. This is the key thesis that should be kept at the back of our minds.
A Biographical Sketch
Reginald Kenneth Dwight was born in north-west London in 1947 into a largely lower middle class household. He was mostly raised by his maternal grandparents in council housing, which is the British version of public housing. His father, a Royal Air Force lieutenant, was not emotionally close to John, and wanted him to pursue a conventional career as a banker. The father was often away, and when his parents were together they often quarreled with each other, thus creating John’s desire for his parents to get divorced (Interview, 1994). The conventional thinking of his father coupled with the emotional distance with John (John did not even bother to show up at his father’s funeral) created in him the desire not only to become a musician but to wear fancy clothes during his many stage performances, to be considered shrill and unconventional.
Being musically inclined, his family bought a lot of records of contemporary music, which gave him a taste for music. Being very talented on the piano, he was discovered in school and at age 11 received a scholarship at the Royal Academy for Music in London, where he spent about 5 years. While at the Royal Academy, he enjoyed playing classical music, but was not a very diligent student, and often rode around the subway rather than practice or attend class. His rare musical talent, however, allowed him to pass classes, as he could play compositions after hearing them once. John’s domestic situation improved when the father divorced his mother, and she then got married to the painter Fred Farebrother, a caring and supportive stepfather. John wrote his early songs in Farebrother’s house before he moved out.
His early musical forays began when he became a weekend pianist at a pub. He formed a band with his friends called Bluesology, and while writing songs also went on tours with them. He divided his time between running errands for a music publishing company, performing solo at a hotel bar and working with his band. John was so serious with his music that by age 17 he had dropped out of school. In 1967, John and Bernie Taupin answered the same ad for a British magazine, seeking for song composers. John admitted to Ray Williams, record company manager, that he was a good melody composer but a bad lyricist and needed help from a lyricist. Williams gave him an envelope from another person that had been rejected, Bernie Taupin. John left and took a look at Taupin’s lyrics and was enamored by it and immediately contacted Taupin (Interview, 2017; Interview, 2017).
Taupin and John became close collaborators, as Taupin wrote all the lyrics in an hour and send them to John, who would read the lyrics and produce the melody in another half hour. Some lyrics do not inspire John, and he throws it out, finding it not worthwhile to waste his time pondering over uninspiring text. While reading the lyrics, John would have an immediate feel for the mood, the speed and the tone of the song (Interview, 1999), which distinguishes musical geniuses from the average musician. Around that time Dwight also changed his name to Elton John in homage to two members of Bluesology, saxophonist Elton Dean and vocalist Lohn John Baldry. John and Taupin became staff songwriters for Dick James’ DJM Records in 1968, setting off the pattern of collaboration. Taupin writes the lyrics, and John comes up with the melody. As staff writers they primarily wrote songs for other people, but also increasingly produced their own songs. By 1970, they had put out their first album titled “Elton John”, and the second song in the album “Your Song” became the first hit single, landing number 7 in the UK charts and 8 in the US charts. However, John had almost been a failure in the UK, and it was only when his record company contacted an American record producer, Russ Regan, who really liked the song that he got his breakthrough (BBC documentary, 2010).
The rest, as the proverb says, is history (which can be read in Wikipedia), because the first successful hit generates revenue to allow John to concentrate more on his own work composing new songs, and name recognition would grant him invitations for music concerts at popular venues, which increases his listenership further, thus generating even more revenues and social attention. The Matthew effect is clearly at work here, as initial success is converted into more success (Merton 1968). But it is not enough to have initial advantage, as that initial advantage is also tied to personal talent and knowing the right people at the right time (such as knowing the lyricist Taupin, or knowing Russ Regan, the American record producer; or being in close proximity to other great artists forming a huge network and generating more creativity, as had been the case with philosophers: Collins ). John had all of these factors speaking for him.
So how come John could nourish his ability to write one great song after another? Here economic explanations are insufficient. We can’t just say that John was driven by the money, and in his labor-leisure tradeoff he placed a low value of utility on leisure, and thus favored the labor income by writing great hits and performing at live concerts. The problem with this explanation is that the homo economicus is showing up nowhere in the interviews that I have watched of John. Money cannot be the key driver for John’s internal drive to success, though he has enjoyed a great material life, owning multiple large residences and nice cars that he mostly resold because he wasn’t using them.
Fame, which is a form of social recognition, is already closer to the truth, but fame for its own sake was not what John had emphasized in the TV interviews. Rather there were three crucial factors that he emphasized in his conversations with journalists: (1) the need to be loved/ recognized for which fame was one tool to get there; (2) the love and skill of writing music and performing; and (3) the emotional energy generated from audience feedback. In short, the productive use of emotions works out very well for John, thus allowing him to coast from one great hit to another, and endure even during career stretches of less success.
Love and Fame
John’s need for fame and recognition really came from his need to be loved. In his interview with Barbara Walters, he described the trauma of seeing his parents get divorced. He explained how he got tremors when his father came home, as he had a tense relationship with him. “The only thing I would get excited about was playing the piano and singing. I would go out. It would be easy for me to get recognition from 20,000 people, and I loved it. Then I would come home and it was me [alone] again. And that wasn’t enough.” (Interview, 1994) Continuing the line of tense household relations and the importance of music, he states in another interview “I used to find solace in music. When my parents used to argue, I would go to my room and listen to radio Luxembourg.” (Interview, 2010)
It is not clear whether all successful people must have gone through a traumatic childhood, but in John’s case he converted his childhood trauma into productivity in the world of music. How could he know that he was being loved? Only via the constant infusion of emotional energy from the audience, and it became a potent drug. To be clear, there was a very negative phase in John’s life that a career civil servant with a predictable schedule would unlikely face. In the 1980s, John was suffering from alcohol and drug addiction, and only successfully battled it after an epiphany moment when he attended the ceremony of a gay young man, who had died from HIV/AIDS. John being a homosexual himself felt that he didn’t do enough to combat HIV, so to do something productive he had to first get his act together by becoming sober again, which succeeded about 1990 (Interview, 2008). Charlie Rose suggested in his John interview that John’s obsessive-compulsive personality can only be accommodated via music, which keeps him alive, which John agreed with (Interview, 1999).
Love for Writing Music
Accommodating this obsessive-compulsive personality via music is a good transition to John’s love for writing music. There are many ways to get fame and attention, but for John, a very effective method for being successful has been to simply enjoy writing good music. In his interview with Stephen Colbert, John stated, “we love what we were doing and didn’t stop for pause. We were having so much fun. When you have that adrenaline. When you have that impetus and you are successful- we were like kids in the candy store. I just loved what we were doing. That helps.” (Interview, 2017)
It is rare for a person to find a career that is completely fulfilling, and the profession of the artist, who also happens to be successful, belongs to that category. Once John was successful, he was able to devote himself completely to writing good music. Being so obsessed about the music also does not leave much time for reflection. As an artist, it is impossible to know whether that song that was just composed, will become a big hit, but one has to be relentless and not really care about temporary setbacks or disappointments. Truly successful people, like competitive swimmers, have to regard their success as mundane, focusing on their craft rather than other distractions like comparison with other successful people (Chambliss 1989). In a separate interview, John stressed the importance of coming up with new ideas and staying innovative. “I am always promoting new things. I am trying not to be an old fart.” (Interview, 2017).
John also does not get obsessed about a single song, which may excite him when it is written, but not really when he plays it for many times in front of live audiences, unless there is a lot of public enthusiasm that he can sense there. “When you first write that song and you have the birth of that song. That gives you chills. And then to be honest, when you are playing a song 1,000 times it’s hard to get chills except on certain occasions…[having] the most incredible crowd [at a recent concert]. That gave me the chills. That was the event, more than the songs.” (Interview, 1992)
Emotional Energy from Live Performances
That is an interesting transition to the last point. How can John know that he has been vindicated as an artist? It can’t be merely the record sales that change the value in his bank account, but the positive reactions from a large audience during a live performance. In an Australian interview, John was asked whether he would tire out performing so many concerts. “It is exhausting, but it is not exhausting playing. It is exhausting traveling.”
This suggests that playing music is part of his natural identity, and the positive audience feedback compensates for any physical exhaustion of the live performance. On the other hand, sitting at the back of the van or in an airplane traveling across different countries may not strain his voice, but the lack of audience interaction and the solitude of the travel does not lend much emotional energy. Therefore, live performances are not incidental to John’s success, but an important part of it. “The career has lasted so long because I do play live… Some nights I play and it’s horrendous. Some nights I play and it is miraculous. That’s the drug that keeps you performing, because you never know what great performance will come out of nothing. And that’s the reason you are doing it, and to get the feedback from the audience.” (Interview, 2017)
John understood the importance of live performances, claiming that it gives him the resolve and the skills to play, and stated in an interview, “Nothing is better for you than to go out and play live, even if it is to 20 people. Because it gives you resolve, it hardens you up. It makes you a better songwriter. It gives you the experience, the backbone.” (Interview, 2010) Live performances generate public approval, which in turn generates the emotional energy that he needs to continue churning out new hits.
Even though John had enjoyed the interaction with the audience, which transmitted positive energy to him, John is by no means an extroverted person, preferring to keep to himself and have his thoughts expressed in the music. It might be said that the most talented people tend to be introverts, as creativity of scientists is expressed in the lab or in front of a computer screen, or painters drawing up their still life need the alone-time with the fruits as objects. For John, his most important partner, the lyricist Bernie Taupin, was not even physically in the same room with John when writing the songs. Taupin sends the lyrics to John. John would sit in his room alone in front of his piano, read the lyrics, brood over it and hit the piano keys with the lyric for inspiration before writing down the notes (John provides some description of how he got the melody for “Tiny Dancer” in a 1971 performance).
To be sure, John’s career was not as productive from 1975 onward compared to his early years of performance (between 1970 and 1975), but he was still able to keep the flow of good songs coming. Even the brilliant scientists have their greatest work published relatively early in their career. But the fact that John kept on producing good records makes him very different from one-hit wonders, whose flame perishes soon after their commercial success. A mixture of talent, knowing the right people at the right time, early success coupled with the need for recognition, the love and skill for music and the positive emotional energy generated from audience interactions produce the music success story of Elton John. Emotions within social contexts are, therefore, an important component for achievement at the top. The benefit to Elton John fans is a long and extended track record of songs that are enlivening our daily experience.