Elton John & Rufus Wainwright – Brief Article

Barry Walters


When Elton John came out as a gay man in the early ’90s, his social contributions soon grew even more dependable and laudable than his music. Initially known for his high-spirited piano-plunking performances and monumental eyeglass collection, this 53-year-old British knight has become arguably the world’s most famous gay person and certainly one of its most vocal spokespeople and fund-raisers. The man behind the Elton John AIDS Foundation of Los Angeles and London–organizations that have distributed more than $21 million in grants–is as gay as any homo next door (maybe even gayer). Yet with at least one Top 40 hit on the charts every year since his 1970 breakthrough, John remains the essence of mainstream music, the enduring Disney favorite of 8-year-olds and 80-year-olds alike.

John’s accomplishments are making things easier for those who’ve followed in his path — particularly another piano player, Rufus Wainwright. Whereas John discussed his bisexuality years after becoming a superstar, briefly married in 1984, then proclaimed himself a gay man a decade later, the former Canadian child star and son of folksingers Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle came out years before his album did. There’s little chance that anyone within earshot of his campy stage patter could mistake this 26-year-old singer-songwriter for hetero. Whereas John’s presentation has mellowed over the years as his voice as a gay man has grown more public, Wainwright creates music suffused with the gay sensibility of yesteryear–witty wordplay, operatic emotions, outsider attitude–that reads as sensitive rock renegade to the hipster crowd and as old-school homo to us. With only one album to his credit (released in 1998), Wainwright is considered among the most promising songwriters of his generation, a critical and cult favorite as likely to become the next Stephen Sondheim as the next Harry Nilsson.

Unlike the glam rockers of John’s generation or the closet cases of both yesterday and today, Wainwright can focus his creativity on his music without fretting over how to construct a palatable sexual image. He’s coming of age at a time when the public is beginning to honor those with the courage to come out and mistrust those who don’t. Sir Elton’s long and sometimes painful coming-out process helped make this evolution possible. He first spoke about his bisexuality in 1976 just as his sales started slipping. The conventional wisdom of the day was that his admission worked against him. The truth is that John had begun drinking and drugging seriously, his artistry was starting to suffer, and chart-topping-record streaks don’t last forever. When his addiction problems were at their worst in the late ’80s, John battled his demons in earnest, and his eventual coming-out in the early ’90s as gay–not bi–was part of a larger effort to heal himself. The public sensed the difference and supported him. John did his part by bouncing back with some of his career’s most commercially successful material, particularly “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” from The Lion King and a Princess Diana-inspired rewrite of “Candle in the Wind,” the biggest-selling single of all time. Along the way he also settled down into a long-term relationship with filmmaker David Furnish. This time around, John’s comeback is clearly linked to his coming-out.

It’s too early to tell how Wainwright’s sexuality may affect his popularity, but it’s not likely to become an issue. His effete chamber pop is an acquired taste, inspired not by current chart trends but by musical theater of a bygone era–Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Gilbert and Sullivan. He may never achieve John’s success in the pop world, but it’s likely that he’ll one day follow his elder’s recent Tony-winning Broadway foray and create his own Aida. Although Wainwright’s following includes young queers, it also includes straights old enough to remember David Bowie’s and Lou Reed’s queer identification three decades ago. John normalized the homo element that’s been in rock and roll ever since Little Richard first squealed “Good Golly Miss Molly,” and this homo pop generation is a benefactor. Thanks to John and cultural changes as a whole, Wainwright can sing love songs about boys that your mom would like, and boys can get a little inspiration to come out themselves.

Walters is a frequent contributor to Rolling Stone and Spin.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Liberation Publications, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group

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