It would be easy to forget – given the two Vegas residencies, hundreds of millions of records sold, and general cosmic level of fame – that Elton John was once a radical. But the world was not always a place waiting with open arms to embrace strange male pianists in feather boas and sequins.
Much has changed since the 1970s. And when we think of him now – headlining Glastonbury for his last show on English soil – it’s clear that he has now become synonymous with a particular notion of Britishness.
The most unrelenting idea – myth, perhaps – about Great Britain is that it is a place naturally tailored to house eccentrics. Christopher Hitchens contended that eccentricity is written into the very landscape of the country, thanks to strange placenames like Slaughter and Wittering. In fact, many suggest that to be English is to be an oddball: off-piste in matters of opinion, quirky in behaviour and independently minded. Being a misfit is an unavoidable facet of the national character.
There is a whiff of exceptionalism here. Of course, it is not a universal truth that all English people are weird. There are – as far as I can tell – as many normal people here as anywhere else. But it is a place uniquely accommodating of the strange and the renegade. What better way to be reminded of that than with an old man in a reflective gold suit, orange sunglasses, singing a tribute to Princess Diana to a crowd of 120,000 people on Sunday night? There was nothing conventional about it.
The world is full of casually destructive assumptions about other nations. One I hear all too often is that there is something rotten and small-minded at the core of Englishness. Brexit, they say, is evidence that Britain is an insular place, inherently conservative in nature, distrustful of difference. It patently isn’t true.
Elton John, like David Bowie, was a trailblazer. They paved the way for the other renegades and oddities that followed in their wake, never particularly concerned with following social convention. In turn, they were introducing unorthodox music and ideas into the charts and the United States. But before that, both were not just accepted but embraced in Great Britain. In fact, in that sense England has claimed to be a pioneering force in culture open-mindedness, welcoming the weird and not quite yet socially acceptable.
And so Brexit, far from destroying British eccentricity, was instead a manifestation of it. The character of a nation will always inform its politics in direct and indirect ways, for good or bad.
But about 10 years ago Henry Hemming wrote in In Search of the English Eccentric that “the English eccentric was about to become an endangered species”. He suggested that the irregularities that defined society in England were being slowly eroded as the world drifted towards monoculture. And with that, the great tradition of the eccentric was going to die too. It is a needlessly pessimistic book that obviously lacked the ability to see into the future. Glastonbury on Sunday night was evidence enough alone to undermine Hemming’s proposal. If British eccentricity has a single standard bearer, Elton John has a strong claim to the title.
Hemming may have been wrong in exaggerating the demise of the eccentric. But he is right to be cautious about the tradition, to be mindful of its fortitude. The world can feel terribly one-note at the moment. Global Western politics is primarily driven by interchangeable men in monotone sharp suits, all rather presidential in nature. Justin Trudeau, Emmanuel Macron and Leo Varadkar share a central quality.
Meanwhile, groupthink has settled in on university campuses in Britain, the United States and, to an extent, Ireland. It punishes deviation from the norm with social ostracisation and in some cases public humiliation. Independent-mindedness is treated as a scourge.
And there is a cultural landscape that demands homogeneity too. Novelists and production studios feel pressure to adhere to the right kind of values, careful about what they commit to writing lest they are exiled for not being aware of contemporary political mores. Take, for example, the glut of novels published at the moment that seek to tell classical myths from a feminist perspective. Or, the new Barbie movie set to be released next month. It’s a story about a doll, but also about female empowerment. All of this caters to the same sensitivities, answers the same questions, nothing challenges the status quo.
In light of all of this, preserving and celebrating any instinct for individuality is not just a social good but a social necessity. If the longevity of Elton John’s fame and adoration is anything to go by, the public desire for the strange and unusual has not gone away. This seems true, even despite creeping homogeneity across the publishing and TV industries.
When I watched Elton John on Sunday night, and when we all look across to Great Britain, we should see not an inward-looking island – it is an easy stereotype to reach for – but a nation that has long celebrated difference and long been committed to doing its own thing.