I’ve never been an Elton John fan. Never owned an album. Never added one of his tunes to my playlist of favourite tracks. Never really understood the appeal of pith helmets, spectacles, coat tails, and twitchy eyebrows. Yet it’s because I’m immune to his charm that it would be easy for me to mock Elton for falling for the scam arranged by two pranksters who convinced him that he was speaking with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin.
It would be easy but it would also be unfair because what happened to Elton wasn’t a prank. A prank contains some clue that gives the victim a chance to escape the net. There should always be the moment when you cry ‘how could they not see through that?’
Elton assumed he was speaking to Putin’s interpreter and the words as they came back were dull enough to be believable. There was no attempt to mix the implausible with the banal. They never risked discovery in order to produce something absurd, or something believable yet funny.
‘Ah, Sir Elton… The President can only spare five minutes,’ they might have said. ‘He’s due to hunt walrus up the frozen Volga…’
‘The President says he’s a very big fan of your music… especially the early heterosexual songs.’
‘The President asks if you could sing “Candle in the Wind” to commemorate our late President Brezhnev…’
The opportunities are many, yet not one was taken.
‘The President shares your love with straw boaters. He has the biggest collection east of Gdansk…’
There’s no shame in falling for a prank which isn’t a prank. It was a feeble attempt to make him look stupid and the only thing we take from it is that Stolyarov and Krasnov are a couple of sneering bullies who don’t know the first thing about satire.
Yet perhaps the most telling aspect of this story has nothing to do with the prank. It has to do with the perceptions of a influential musician with a remarkably shallow understanding about the world. Perhaps it’s the artist’s temperament that sees only the good in bad people. Perhaps he’s simply so rich that he lives in a place barely troubled by reality. Whatever the reason, I wonder how he copes. How does he stop people exploiting his childishly naive nature? Did he genuinely believe that he could convince Vladimir Putin to do something to change Russian attitudes towards homosexuality?
Think about it for a moment. Sir Elton John hoped to convince Putin to stop being hostile to the gay community in Russia.
Ex-KGB spook Putin.
Putin the man suspected to have ordered the murder of numerous political opponents.
Putin who probably thought it a good idea to send goons to spread radioactive poison all over London.
Putin the man who orchestrated events in the Ukraine that led to the shooting down of a civilian passenger plane.
Putin who has oppressed the democratic movement in Russia, managed the electoral system to ensure that he has kept control of the country since 1999, and now controls the media which he fills with anti-Western, anti-democractic, and homophobic propaganda.
This, I think, is why I’ve never been a fan of Elton John. His music seems to lack the grounding in the dirty and terrible that most of us recognise as reality. He’s the spinner of fluffy ballads that speak of idealised love and uncomplicated loss in ways that make as much sense as the pith helmets and purple Mozart wigs. It’s the difference between Elton John’s ‘Nikita’ and Billy Joel’s ‘Leningrad’. Billy Joel sings about a Soviet Union in lines that are flat, driven, punchy. They state facts. There is no elaboration. This is life in Leningrad:
‘Went off to school and learned to serve the state
Followed the rules and drank his vodka straight
The only way to live was drown the hate
A Russian life was very sad
And such was life in Leningrad’
Not only is that great song-writing, it’s simply great writing. In contrast, there’s no earthy dimension to Elton’s ‘Soviet Union’. It’s soft focus, fur coats, and individual choice. The ‘if’s are very big ‘ifs’.
‘And if there comes a time
Guns and gates no longer hold you in
And if you’re free to make a choice
Just look towards the west and find a friend’
That’s perhaps the sad part about all this. Maybe Elton looked at Putin and thought the President only needed a friend in the West.