The nickname seems to be a reference to Kim’s penchant for missile tests. If that’s the case, it doesn’t come off as particularly insulting.
It leaves room to be interpreted in a few different ways, largely because of the megahit song performed by Elton John, a fact that wasn’t lost on many people paying attention to Trump’s speech.
It led New Yorker humorist Andy Borowitz to write a satirical piece with the headline, “In war of Elton John lyrics, Kim Jong Un calls Trump ‘Honky Cat,'” a reference to another Elton John classic.
And it inspired a number of Twitter memes featuring Kim as the famously flamboyant rocker.
So what is “Rocket Man” about, and how could the new nickname be perceived?
The song’s lyrics describe a lonely astronaut on a long mission in space, reflecting on the difference between his public and personal personas. Its famous refrain goes:
And I think it’s gonna be a long, long time
‘Til touchdown brings me ’round again to find
I’m not the man they think I am at home
Oh no, no, no! I’m a rocket man!
“It’s a song about space,” John once said.
The true authority on the subject is Bernie Taupin, who wrote the lyrics for most of John’s songs, including “Rocket Man.” He agreed, adding that it was originally inspired by the Ray Bradbury short story “The Rocket Man.”
“It was about how astronauts in the future would become sort of an everyday job,” Taupin said. “So I kind of took that idea and ran with it.”
So the nickname could be taken as a compliment, depending on how Kim’s interpreters decide to play it. They could tell Kim that Trump described him as a hero, like the late, beloved John Glenn.
They could note that when the 77-year-old Glenn became the oldest man to enter space in 1998, Elton John was there at Cape Canaveral performing that song to excited crowds. In fact, People magazine once called Glenn “Rocket Man.”
But fans ascribe their own meanings to songs, which is where it gets interesting.
Since the song contains the lyric, “I’m going to be high as a kite by then,” many consider it to be an ode to smoking marijuana.
Kim’s interpreters could feign confusions and tell him Trump’s insinuating, for some strange reason, that he enjoys rolling the occasional doobie.
Others see it as a meditation on isolation. As described on Song Facts, “The song can be interpreted as a symbol of how rock stars are isolated from their friends, family and from the real world by those with power in the music industry.”
If they took a particularly poetic approach, Kim’s interpreters could say Trump is referring to the loneliness of the despot.
It’s unclear how much thought Trump puts into his nicknames, or how they’ll be perceived. It’s also unclear why he’s decided to deploy this particular one now.
Maybe Stephen Colbert was right when he tweeted that he was “90% sure Trump nicknamed Kim Jong Un ‘Rocket Man’ because he forgot his name.”