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da INTERVIEW luglio 2004
intervista di Ingrid Sischy

Elton John's tip sheet: where have all the flowers gone?

INGRID SISCHY: So, Elton, it's July, and we're four months away from the presidential election in America. But amazingly, given what's going on in the world right now, there don't seem to be many protest or political songs that really address the moment. People like Nina Simone and John Lennon matter so much to every generation because when events like the civil fights movement and the war in Vietnam were happening, they went out on a limb for what they believed, in both their lives and in their music; and it resonated all over the country. Why aren't we seeing that sort of collective response now?

ELTON JOHN: Surprisingly, it seems to be a very apathetic age in America. You know, during Vietnam I played Kent State University, shortly after the shootings and subsequent riots there in 1970. People were taking to the streets. With the war in Iraq and all that's gone on with it, that's not happening--yet. I don't know why.

IS: It was during the Vietnam War that popular music really began to take on political issues in an explicit way, with people like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez emerging as voices for that era. A few albums have come out recently by artists who have always spoken out, but where are the new ones? Is there not a space in the zeitgeist right now for new voices to come forward?

EJ: Of course. But hardly any are doing it, and one reason might be that they are frightened by the current administration's bullying tactics when it comes to free speech. There was a moment about a year ago when you couldn't say a word about anything in this country for fear of your career being shot down by people saying that you are un-American. On the one hand, you have someone like Toby Keith, who has come out and been very supportive of the Bush administration and the war in Iraq--which is okay because America is a democracy and Toby Keith is entitled to say what he thinks and feels. But on the other hand, the Dixie Chicks got shot down in flames last year for criticizing the president. They were treated like they were being un-American, when in fact they have every right to say whatever they want about him because he's freely elected, and therefore accountable. There's an atmosphere of fear in America right now that is deadly. Everyone is too career-conscious. They're all too scared. As for the FCC, its watchdogging has already begun a new era of censorship in the country. Things have changed. I don't know if there's been a time when the fear factor has played such an important role in America since McCarthyism in the 1950s as it does right now. But you don't have people stepping up to the plate. Look at the 1960s and all the talent that came out of that era. People like Bob Dylan, Nina Simone, the Beatles, and Pete Seeger were constantly writing and talking about what was going on. That's not happening right now. As of this spring, there have been virtually no anti-war concerts--or anti-war songs that catch on, for that matter.

Is: Being a musician in America at the moment seems to he more about having a career than about making a difference. Is that fight?

EJ: Well, if you plan on having a career, then you won't end up having one. You know, there are great musicians around. You've got someone like Joss Stone who is so young and so talented and has the world at her feet. That's exciting. But there are so many middle managers involved who are all afraid for their jobs. When I was younger, I never had a publicist. Now there are not only publicists, but lawyers and managers and agents, and often they're all reporting to the record company instead of the artist. When I first came to America, I had a great relationship with my record company. They knew everything about what I was up to, and I knew all the people who ran the company. They were like friends who would go to bat for you. I still have that with my record company in Europe, but now, in America, they've just sort of become faceless. I find that disheartening, because it would be nice to have some sort of dialogue.

IS: If we're not yet hearing new protest songs that connect, then what are you hearing?

EJ: Strangely enough, I'm hearing a lot of joy. My favorite album of the moment is by the Scissor Sisters [Scissor Sisters, Universal], and it is the most joyous record from start to finish that I've heard in a while. It's a great pop record, a real 1970s-influenced album--David Bowie, Pink Floyd, the Bee Gees, myself, it's all in there. I put it on first thing in the morning because it just makes me smile. And then there's Diana Krall's latest album, The Girl in the Other Room [Verve]. It's the best album she's ever made, because she's started to write her own material and is diverting from the standards she did on her previous albums. And by choosing to record songs by Joni Mitchell and Tom Waits--which she also does on this album, in her own inimitable way--she showcases her prowess on the piano and her ability to make a lyric her own. Another incredibly joyous record is by the Scottish rock band Franz Ferdinand [Franz Ferdinand, Epic]. It reminds me of mid-'70s stuff, very melodic and upbeat. JC Chasez's album, Schizophrenic [Jive], is another terrific pop record, sort of like an old Prince or George Michael album. He was going to launch Schizophrenic back in February with a performance at the Pro Bowl in Hawaii, but because of Justin Timberlake's involvement with the whole Janet Jackson fiasco, his slot was canceled. He was very angry about it, and he had every right to be.

IS: Last question: In this time when we so desperately need artists to step up to the plate, who do you think, among the younger artists, can rouse the collective?

EJ: Anyone of any generation, really. But I would be interested to hear someone like Jack White or Ryan Adams do a protest song, or something that addresses the moment. Jack is so clever and really has his finger on the pulse, and I'm excited whenever Ryan does anything. But wherever it comes from, we need to hear it now.