By W&Y writer/cartoonist David Waywell –
In the name of full disclosure I begin by saying that I’m not 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 Sir Elton.
Because I’m immune to his charm/venom, it would be easy for me to mock him for falling for the scam arranged by two pranksters who convinced Elton that he was speaking with the Russian President, Vladimir Putin. It would be particularly easy because, full disclosure number two, I’ve been a prankster myself and I generally admire pranksterism.
Yet what happened to Elton wasn’t a prank. Not even close. A prank should contain within it some element of absurdity that should give the game away. There should always be the moment when you cry ‘how can they not see through this?’ This ‘prank’ had none of that. Elton was speaking to somebody he assumed was the interpreter about to translate Putin’s words. Those words as they came back were utterly banal. There was no attempt to mix absurd facts in with the banality because, to be a prank, you must risk discovery in order to produce something that is both absurd, believable but funny.
‘Ah, Sir Elton… The President can only spare five minutes,’ they might have said. ‘He’s about to go releasing swans trapped on the frozen Volga’. Cue the sound of Putin asking somebody where they’ve put his ice pick.
‘The President wants to let you know that he’s a very big fan of your music… especially the early heterosexual songs.’
‘The President asks if you could write a version of Candle in the Wind to commemorate our late President Brezhnev…’
The opportunities are many yet not one was taken.
So, Elton John shouldn’t feel embarrassed for falling for a prank which wasn’t a prank. It was a feeble attempt to make him look stupid and the only thing we can take from it is that Stolyarov and Krasnov are a couple of sneering bullies who don’t know the first thing about satire.
Yet that’s not the reason I write this. I actually wanted to talk about perceptions.
The most telling aspect of this story has nothing to do with the prank. It has to do with the world view of a hugely successful musician, respected across the globe for his art and his actions. The story makes me feel a little sorry for Elton. It saddens me that he’s not wiser about the world he sings about. 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 that for a moment. Sir Elton John hoped to have a face to face with Putin and convince the President of Russia to stop being hostile to the gay community in Russia.
Putin. Ex-KGB spook Putin. Putin the man suspected to have ordered the murder of his political opponents.
Putin the man who orchestrated events in the Ukraine which led to the shooting down of a civilian passenger plane.
Putin who has firmly squashed the democratic movement in Russia, and controls the media which he fills with anti-Western, anti-democracy, and deeply homophobic propaganda.
Perhaps, that’s why I’ve never been much of a fan of Elton John’s music. It lacks 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 little sense. It’s the difference between Elton John’s ‘Nikita’ and Billy Joel’s ‘Leningrad’. 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 political dimension to Elton’s Soviet Union. It’s about choices the individual can make. The ‘if’s here are very big ‘ifs’, as though making friends in the West is a simple choice.
‘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. The story is filled with such naive optimism. Maybe Elton looked at Putin and thought the President only needed a friend.
David Waywell writes and draws The Spine blog.