Study Guide

Rocket Man Technique

  • Music

    As with the lyrical content of the song, which combines the futuristic feel of space with a cowboy everyman narrator, the sound of "Rocket Man" is both spacey and grounded by a sentimental melodic quality.

    The key to writing a song about space in the 1970s required two crucial elements: atmospheric synthesizers and slide guitars. The best example (perhaps part of John and Taupin's inspiration for "Rocket Man") is David Bowie's 1969 single "Space Odditiy." Check out how clear the use of those effects is. When Major Tom, the astronaut in the song, lifts off, a slide guitar effect comes in, perhaps as a sort of "sonic boom" effect. After that, when Major Tom is actually in space, the song contains a synthesized string effect. The "synth" adds a sort of airy quality to the atmosphere of the song; you might even call it a floating or flying quality.

    "Rocket Man" uses the same key sonic elements. The synth effect that leads into, "And all the science..." conveys a futurism with its processed artificial quality. "Rocket Man" really deploys the slide guitar to the best effect, though, using the instrument mainly to mimic atmospheric sounds. With the words, "I'm a rocket man," the slide guitar rolls on up the neck of the guitar, creating a soaring "lift off" effect. In the second verse, a guitar slide, nestled between the lines "In fact [Mars is] as cold as hell, / And there's no one there to raise them if you did," mimics the howling of the wind in a desolate, empty place.

    At the same time, the slide guitar creates a more earthly vibe. If you've heard the slide guitar before, it's probably been in country or blues songs. The Allman Brothers, a country rock band of Elton John's era, made legendary use of the slide guitar, for example. So you can also connect the slide guitar effect to a country quality (this is on Honky Château after all) in the music.

    That country quality makes sense when you think about the lyrics, which are spoken by a cowboy of a character. But an everyman feel shows up melodically as well. The melody—the way that Elton John sings the lines—has an almost spoken quality in the verses. That spoken quality is a dramatized mimicry of the natural cadence of English-speaking people. You think of this cadence as the meter when you study poetry. Some lines, like the opening "She packed my bags last night preflight," are sung in iambs. An iamb is a metrical foot that consists of a short syllable followed by a long syllable (as in "she packed"). John exaggerates this natural speech pattern in his singing, voicing the longer syllable at a higher pitch in addition to singing it two to three times as long. It's an almost Shakespearian way of singing… but it's important to remember that while we think of Shakespearian verse as ornate and fancy, the iambic meter in which Shakespeare wrote most of his dialogue was intended to mimic natural speech. That same spoken quality is clearly in the melody in "Rocket Man."
  • Songwriting

    Lyrically speaking, "Rocket Man" is not an especially original composition. The song, written by Elton John's longtime collaborator Bernie Taupin, was inspired by both Ray Bradbury's novel Fahrenheit 451 and by Bradbury's sci fi short story, "The Rocket Man." Bradbury's "The Rocket Man" is the simple tale of an astronaut father who comes home to his wife and son for only three days at a time between his three-month-long space trips. For ten years he has been living this way, and it has strained his relationship with his wife to the point that he's essentially dead to her. During his visit home in the story, the astronaut speaks to his son, telling him never to become a rocket man: "When you're out there you want to be here, and when you're here you want to be out there. Don't start that. Don't let it get hold of you."

    Elton John's Rocket Man is a conflicted cowboy kind of character, torn between his love of the frontierlike realm of space and his home down on the range. When he's at home on Earth, he yearns to be "high as a kite," soaring from Mars to Venus to Mercury. But when he's in space, he misses the Earth: the blue sky, the warm sun, the salt wind, his wife. Space is both "lonely" and "timeless." And yet while he never seems at ease with his lot in life, he is totally accepting of it for all of its flaws; it is his very identity: "I'm a rocket man."

    What is with that repeated declaration, though? It seems a little ridiculous in a way. Sure, space is probably really cool, but this guy is resigned to spending the rest of his life as a space cowboy, "burning out his fuse up here alone." In the literary canon of the Western world, the Rocket Man fits the archetype of the idealized masculine man. Perhaps best represented by the cliché, "a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do," the masculine man is defined by "courage" (according to Cicero), self-reliance, and adherence to the law. You might find another similar example of a man caught between worlds in Tennyson's "Ulysses." In that poem, Ulysses (a.k.a. Odysseus) has returned home from a ten-year adventure (think The Odyssey) only to find himself wanting to keep on moving. He makes a very macho speech at the end of the poem, vowing "to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield." Ulysses, as an adventurer, defines the macho man of the ancient world.

    The Rocket Man—like many other iconic characters of the atomic age—embodies this courageous, lonely explorer type of character. Like Ulysses, he puts his duties before his family. He simply justifies his career as an astronaut by describing space as "timeless" and by implying that he does it because it his "his job five days a week." That is, he is a Rocket Man because it's his job, and he (like other men) does his job whether or not it really brings any satisfaction. Like Ulysses (as Tennyson wrote him), the Rocket Man explores only "to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield"… and that's it. He might die, sure, but that's part of the grandeur of "being a man." In the same way, the rocket man, while he has his reservations about his job, revels in the fact that "it's gonna be a long, long time" before he touches down again; these sacrifices somehow enrich the idea of being a rocket man, sticking it out alone in the name of essential masculine ideals.

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