The first step for artists sunsetting their musical careers: retiring from the touring circuit. In 2018, Paul Simon and Joan Baez both made stops in Portland on their way to the finish line, and this year, KISS and Bob Seger will do the same. As much as fans will likely feel the absence of those artists, their impact won’t be as immense as when Sir Elton John bids farewell to his fans in 2021.
This time last year, the 71-year-old singer/songwriter announced his own retirement as a touring act, with plans to spend the next three years slowly moving across the globe for one last run of shows, including a final appearance in our fair city at Moda Center on January 12. John’s reasoning is sound; he wants to spend more time with his husband and young sons. And we’ve likely not heard the last of him, as he has promised to keep making new music even if he doesn’t run the promotional gauntlet.
That doesn’t help ease the ache so many fans will feel once his semi-retirement settles in. For 50 years now, Elton John has been a constant in the pop universe, a lodestar that even today’s school of young talent looks to for inspiration. That may not be apparent from the sounds of the modern hit parade, but scan the tracklists of Revamp and Restoration, a pair of tribute albums to John and his longtime co-songwriter Bernie Taupin released last year—Ed Sheeran, Miley Cyrus, Dierks Bentley, and Kacey Musgraves are among the artists included. Or just point your Spotify account over to Young Thug’s 2018 EP On the Rvn, where he uses a sample of “Rocket Man” to anchor the closing track “High.”
John’s appeal doesn’t stop with music makers. I did an informal poll on Twitter asking the few followers I have under the age of 30 whether his music meant anything to them. All answered in the affirmative. Older fans jumped in the fray to mention how the kids in their world have fallen for his work. My favorite comment came from Fact magazine managing editor Claire Lobenfeld, who said that a teen writer she mentors through the LA nonprofit WriteGirl “heard ‘Tiny Dancer’ for the first time in a Starbucks last school year and was really blown away by it. I thought that was really interesting/cool/weird/surprising.”
Most commenters cited their parents as the source of their early interest in John’s music, which is entirely reasonable. But I would argue that his continued relevance has everything to do with young listeners connecting with his music through his appearances in other major pieces of pop culture as well as his well-documented interest in new talent.
For the former, he has two very different films to thank. The soundtrack he helped create with lyricist Tim Rice for 1994’s The Lion King was huge for John, with a pair of hit singles (“Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” and “Circle of Life”) and the kind of ubiquity that only Disney’s marketing department can provide. For other young fans, it was Cameron Crowe’s semi-autobiographical Almost Famous that piqued their interest. One of the centerpieces of the film is a beloved scene where the fictitious band Stillwater is on the verge of collapse but reconnects via a spirited tour bus sing-along to “Tiny Dancer,” a track from the 1971 album Madman Across the Water.
What keeps John and his music fresh in people’s minds is also the fact that he keeps an ear to what’s fresh in music. Unlike a lot of artists his age who cautiously claim to love new sounds, he’s an outspoken advocate. That’s long been the case. In All Things Must Pass, Colin Hanks’ documentary about the rise and fall of Tower Records, there’s a clip of John in the ’70s scouring the racks for new tunes. And it continues today through his Beats 1 radio show, Rocket Hour. On a recent episode, John dropped tracks from A Boogie Wit da Hoodie, King Princess, and Sam Fender alongside favorites by Smokey Robinson and Tom Petty.
The good news is that Sir Elton John’s music and presence aren’t going to disappear any time soon—he’s made far too many hits that remain in heavy rotation on classic rock radio for that to happen. And the forthcoming biopic Rocketman, with Taron Egerton playing the singer, will surely replenish the pool with new fans. But as he prepares to exit the stage, it feels like it’s gonna be a long, long time before the world sees an artist whose reach goes as far and wide as Elton John’s.