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da INTERVIEW agosto 2007
intervista di Ingrid Sischy

INGRID SISCHY: So. Elton, this time we'll be talking for our August music issue. I wanted to speak with you about the role that music plays in the culture. There was a moment when rock 'n' roll was new. There was a moment when pop was new. Going back, there were moments when classical music and jazz were new too. But since hip hop came along more than two decades ago, that shock of the new in music hasn't really been felt. What has to happen now for something truly new to come along and shake things up again?

ELTON JOHN: Hip-hop is really the only thing over the last couple of decades that could possibly be called a new thing that had an impact on music. It was a huge movement. But after a while, like everything, it leavened and became part of the mainstream. So what's the next thing around the corner? God, I wish I knew. One of the greatest things about music is that you can never know what's going to happen. I remember being at school and somebody giving me a Beatles single and saying, "Listen to this. Listen to this." It was "Love Me Do." I listen to it, and it did sound incredible. But I had no idea of the sort of impact it would have on my life. It was a single that came out, and it was mildly successful - then everything exploded. So you never know what talent is lurking out there that's going to have a huge impact. It always happens - although a phenomenon like the Beatles will probably never happen again.

INGRID SISCHY: Why do you think that is?

ELTON JOHN: Because back then we had records and we had the radio, but when it came to where you would get your music, that was basically it. The Beatles, Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan - they all broke through that way. Today people can get music from so many different sources.

INGRID SISCHY: So what you're saying is that part of what made those acts so powerful is that the distribution system was much more monolithic. There weren't a thousand alternatives.

ELTON JOHN: Yes, exactly. Look at television back then. When the Beatles were on The Ed Sullivan Show, we all tuned in. It was an event. There were three channels in total on American television; to see a band like the Beatles on one of them was a very big deal. Now, though, there are hundreds of channels, not to mention all the video channels and on-demand services and satellite networks. The choices are infinite. People can see clips of virtually anybody anytime they want. Then you factor radio and the Internet into the equation. We live in an extremely fractured world today, so it's much more difficult to galvanize an audience now than when the Beatles first broke through.

INGRID SISCHY: One of the great things about experiencing art is when you look at something, and it pisses you off to the point where you go, "That's not art!" That's the moment when something really happens. When you think of moments like that in music, like when people first heard jazz or rock or pop or punk or hip-hop –

ELTON JOHN: The older generation was outraged.

INGRID SISCHY: And part of that fury was fueled by the idea of "That's not music!"

ELTON JOHN: Because they'd never heard anything like it before. The one thing that all of those movements that you mentioned have in common is that they really challenged popular notions of what music could be. Improvising in jazz - that was a radical act. So was scratching records on a turntable. Part of the problem is that people just don't leave enough to the imagination anymore, and imagination is what allows artists to do original work. In order to read a book, you have to use your imagination to piece together what s going on. Everyone has a different idea of what's happening when they read Moby Dick. Everyone has their own vision of it because that's what reading a book demands. But processing all of the information we have access to today is different. There is television and the Internet, but then there are also computers and cell phones and e-mail and iPods and handheld video devices. There are huge amounts of information that we are constantly being bombarded with from every angle. I think that you need to be able to be alone in order to be imaginative, and in order to do that today, you really have to work to cut yourself off from everything. You cannot possibly create something new by channeling all that is available to you, because you're going to be subconsciously influenced by what you see in a million different ways. Plus, I'm a firm believer that if you see rubbish, you're going to make rubbish. Of course, there are people doing great work out there; it's just harder now to avoid the mediocre stuff. For example, in the early '70s, there were at least 10 albums released every week that you could buy that were fantastic. Now you're lucky to find 10 albums a year of that quality—and there are exponentially more albums released each week now than there were back then.

INGRID SISCHY: I wanted to touch on something you said about people needing to be alone in order to be imaginative. In a crazy way, music is interesting because it's one of the few art forms in which the greatness doesn't have to come out of being alone - it can be a group of girls and guys working together as a band. It's a form where great things can come out of the collective. So, in fact, music is a very important medium for the times that we live in now, because it is a group form. But also, great explosions in art and music cannot happen in isolation. There needs to be the right social atmosphere for them to occur. In the '60s, when the Beatles came along, the world was in revolution.

ELTON JOHN: It was a time when people were willing to stand up and take a chance. They were ready to voice their opinions, baby. They were experimenting with sounds and fusion in music, and they were willing to embrace all sorts of ideas. But even more than that, it was a time when people were using their minds collectively to create things. When I wrote songs in the old days, I studied. I listened to so many different things - I studied records, I studied sounds. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Animals, and all of those bands that came out of England in the '60's were so stoked on their knowledge of American music, which was really the fundamental inspiration for their music. The music that inspired them had basically been undiscovered even in America, and there was an incredible amount of quality material to draw upon.

INGRID SISCHY: Also, there was an audience out there that hungered to hear something new. The same cultural atmosphere that was producing those 10 fantastic records a week was doing the same thing in all of the arts - in painting and film and dance and literature. It was the same in the 1920s and 1930s, with the advent of jazz and everything else that was going on in art and interior design and fashion. So those kinds of sea changes happen in multiple ways on multiple fronts.

ELTON JOHN: You can't create those moments. They happen on their own - and you have to thank God when they do.
There will be someone amazing who comes along with something new to say.

INGRID SISCHY: And there will be a cultural moment where people hunger for artists to shock and surprise them.

ELTON JOHN: Maybe it will come with a change of government in America. People have been browbeaten to death and censored by the current administration - this administration is probably one of the most suppressive in modern American history. For example, Joan Baez was going to sing for the troops, and she was apparently told by the Army that she wasn't wanted. This is Joan Baez - one of the biggest patriots that America has ever had. And she was told by the Army that she wasn't welcome to sing. Out of this kind of suppression, some rebellion must come, surely. Music needs revolutions. It needed punk. It needed hip-hop. It needs different points of view to stir things up and get some vitality and energy into it. Pop music is all about delivering messages. In the '60s it was the political voices that came to the front, but there have been hardly any for this war in Iraq. There have been some protest songs and concerts and things, but none of it has really caught on. The Internet has stopped people from going out and being with each other, creating stuff. Instead, they sit at home and make their own records which is sometimes okay, but it doesn't bode well for long-term artistic I vision. It's just a means to an end. Here, we're talking about things that are going to change the world and change the way people listen to music, and that's not going to happen with people blogging on the Internet. I mean, get out there. Communicate. Go be with people and talk to people. Go read a book, even. Hip-hop, as we said earlier, was born out of anger - and caused outrage. Hopefully the next movement in music will tear down the Internet. Let's get out in the streets and march and protest instead of sitting at home blogging.

INGRID SISCHY: So you don't have your own blog?


ELTON JOHN: I think people should be shot if they blog. [ride]

INGRID SISCHY: There's a new social movement: Stamp out blogging. You're a riot. But seriously, art does need to embrace new technologies - otherwise the only people using the new technologies are technocrats. For instance, computers have ratcheted up animation in a great way. People like the Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki, who did Spirited Away [2002], really understand how much humanism and the human soul matters in working with technology.

ELTON JOHN: I know, but there's too much technology available. I do think it would be an incredible experiment to shut the whole Internet down for five years and see what sort of art is produced over that span - I'm sure, as far as music goes, it would be much more interesting than it is today. We need something like jazz or hip-hop or punk to come along and shake things up. Punk had everything to do with people's lot in life. It wasn't just a movement in music - it was a movement in fashion, in attitude. Of course, there were a lot of bad things that came out of it, but there were a lot of great things as well, like the Clash. It was a whole sweeping movement of disenchantment. I think the disenchantment of this moment has got to come out. I hope whatever it produces will be even fiercer than punk. We need something to do that -and we need it quickly