At first glance, "Rocket Man" might not seem like a song worthy of very close critical attention. Catchy and fun, yes, groundbreaking and original… maybe not so much. "Space Oddity" by David Bowie, after all, had already had done the whole space opera thing (and done it quite well) nearly three years before Elton John's ditty came along in 1972.
And in terms of Elton John's career, the song was less a radical turning point than an incremental advance on previous work. John's hit "Your Song" was already on the radio. Though he was only in his early twenties when he released "Rocket Man" on the album Honky Château, Elton John had already released half a dozen albums and had had a couple of successful tours. He would have still been a star, even if "Rocket Man" had never come along.
In fact, "Rocket Man" might seem most significant as an artifact of pop culture, thanks to William Shatner's hilarious spoken-word cover at the 1978 Science Fiction Awards. (Shatner's epic performance was more recently spoofed on Famiy Guy.) So then, what is so special about "Rocket Man?"
"Rocket Man," more than anything, marked a shift—generational, cultural, stylistic—from the 1960s to the 1970s.
People often speak of generations and musical styles in terms of decades. The '60s, it's easy to imagine, were The Beatles, and the '70s were all about disco. Vital to any discussion of music (or history), though, is an understanding that these are fuzzy, inaccurate boundaries. For pop music, "the Sixties" as we think of them began not on January 1, 1960, but more likely with the rise of Bob Dylan and Beatlemania several years later. The early Seventies might even be thought of as "the Sixties" culturally. Dylan, McCartney, and Lennon were still around, and, more importantly, they were still the teen idols. Even new and rising stars, like Elton John, tended to be discussed in relation to their musical predecessors. "Dylan Digs Elton" read the headline of one magazine, for example. But Dylan was the voice of a generation already grown up. Where did the Sixties get off telling the Seventies how to be?
The story of "Rocket Man" is the story of a power shift between these generations. Earth tones, long hair, collarless jackets, and pointed shoes started to give way to artificial colors, huge collars and lapels, and squared-off shoes. Gone were the Age of Aquarius, Hair, and campus activism, replaced by a decade of decadence, sequins, and Bugs Bunny. We'll take your Beatle and raise you a David Bowie.
Where the music of the mid-to-late Sixties was defined by themes of political activism, the Seventies were defined by loud, flamboyant, meaningless pop. Perhaps best illustrated by the comeback of Elvis, this generation was one that possessed a deep nostalgia for recycling the pop styles of the 1950s. Musician biographer and writer Philip Norman put it best: "The dominant mood of hit recordings became one of pastiche and parody ... The Seventies generation wished only for escapism. Their greatest idols would be those most adept in turning music into froth, fantasy, glitter, and pantomime."
With Americans landing an astronaut on the moon for the first time in 1969, the Seventies saw a resurgence of science fiction. It should be no surprise that one of the biggest stars of the time, David Bowie, made his name singing pop songs as Ziggy Stardust, the androgynous space alien from Mars (and that his first bona-fide hit was "Space Oddity"). The theme of space connects all the dots here. The science fiction rebirth of the 1970s was a sign that the younger generation was interpreting the lunar landings (their lunar landings) with a certain nostalgia for the freaky science fiction of the 1950s. This new space age, though, was sexier. No longer were space and aliens scary metaphors for communism. Spacesuits became flashier as they hugged the hips ever so tighter. Space was a place to chill and have exotic adventures.
Into this space moonwalked Elton John's "Rocket Man." The title character brought a kind of Fifties "man's man" sensibility, and the soaring piano melody and theatrical rocket ship sound effects brought a little bit of Seventies camp. "Rocket Man" was the new (if undeniably nostalgic) sound of a new decade, and the single quickly soared to chart success, peaking at #2 in the UK and #6 in the US. Elton John, previously dismissed by many as a bit of a clown despite (or maybe because of?) his ability to do piano handstands, suddenly became an iconic figure in Seventies pop.
Elton John had always been good; now he was finally fashionable. (Given the stuff the guy was actually wearing at the time, that's pretty remarkable.) The studded overalls and giant sunglasses, the extravagance of the space cowboy in "Rocket Man," the wild Jerry Lee Lewis-esque stage presence (another '50s throw-back)—all these things suddenly worked with audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. Elton John found success because the music and fashion worlds caught up with his extravagant style. As the Rock N' Roll Hall of Fame put it: "John and longtime lyricist and partner Bernie Taupin identified and shaped the mood of the Seventies from its inception." It might be even more accurate to say that John and Taupin heralded the mood of the Seventies. The Rocket Man was the iconic figure of the age.