Last September, Trump famously pet-named his nuclear frenemy Kim Jong Un “Rocket Man,” after John’s signature cosmonaut ballad from 1972, of course. And as recently as July, at a rally in Montana, Trump praised John’s ability to fill arena seats as a way of praising himself: “I have broken more Elton John records, he seems to have a lot of records. And I, by the way, I don’t have a musical instrument. . . . Really we do it without, like, the musical instruments. This is the only musical instrument: the mouth. And hopefully the brain attached to the mouth. Right? The brain, more important than the mouth, is the brain. The brain is much more important.”
Trump’s brain knows there are plenty of rock stars roaming God’s green earth who draw massive audiences, which suggests that John’s music remains special to him — but apparently not enough to get Trump to make a night of it when John’s farewell concert tour rolled through Washington’s Capital One Arena over the weekend. And it cut both ways. John didn’t mention his loudest fan from the stage on Friday night, nor was there any chitchat about nuclear annihilation before, during or after “Rocket Man.”
But you didn’t have to squint your ears too hard to understand why Trump admires Sir Elton’s wider aesthetic. First, there’s all that flash. John spent the first half of the concert armored in a densely sequined tuxedo — a jacket with lapels so wide, you could parallel park a Dodge Durango between the corners. When John opened the show with 1973’s “Bennie and the Jets,” his hands moved deliciously slow across the keyboard while his voice reached for the highest notes it could find. It all felt so luxurious — and perhaps it reminded you of how our president loves excess. Or maybe it sparked a daydream about an alternate universe where, instead of relentlessly freaking out the free world, Trump simply chose to ride out his days sporting an opulent array of designer eyewear.
Although there’s an unmistakable amount of ritz in John’s music, this three-hour retrospective proved that it had always been anchored in certitude. When John stretched out a few of his songs — “Levon” in particular seemed to curl into a Mobius strip — the improvisations of the pianist and his bandmates never signaled any kind of deeper search. The destination was always clear, and every melodic gesture felt strong and deliberate. Strength, certitude. Those are Trumpy things, right?
Late in the show, when John dashed through 1983’s “I’m Still Standing” and 1972’s “Crocodile Rock,” suddenly, there were some stray lyrical dots to connect. A song as lyrically tenacious as “I’m Still Standing” clearly must resonate with a leader as embattled as Trump, whereas remembering a song about remembering “when rock was young” could have felt like a weird MAGA echo if you bent your ears the wrong way.
But if Trump has ever truly listened to the lyrics in John’s catalogue — which were penned by John’s career-long collaborator, the lyricist Bernie Taupin — he would have picked up on the humanity, the compassion, the tolerance. On Friday night, during a surging “Border Song,” John sang, “Let us strive to find a way to make all hatred cease.” With “Believe” — a power ballad that John introduced as a balm against “our sick world” — he sang, “Hate breeds those who think difference is the child of disease.”
Of course, I’m not convinced that Trump really listens to anyone’s lyrics because I’m not confident that he listens to anything other than the voices that are talking about him at any given moment. And if that’s actually the case, we can only assume that Trump hears the Elton John songbook on the most superficial level — as a collection of massive hits that convey an almost banal grandeur. As lavish and majestic as it all might feel, you still hear this stuff at the dentist. In that sense, this music flows parallel to our president’s fundamental drive to be perceived as grand, and to be inescapable.