Children of Elton

Elton John wasn’t the first singer-pianist in rock. But he also wasn’t at all like his contemporaries — not Mr. Meat and Potatoes Billy Joel, not cupid-as-genius Stevie Wonder, not one-man Brecht and Weill Randy Newman. John had more in common with rock’s first generation of piano-pounders — over-the-top eccentrics such as Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis — but with a soft center that his predecessors lacked. He didn’t fit in any obvious category.

Only in retrospect is it obvious that John emerged at a point when gay culture was injected into the pop-music mainstream. The heightened theatricality of everything he did — from the weird glasses to the pumped falsetto, from the stage antics to the unabashed melodrama — came out of a culture where confession was often delivered via disguise. As a marginalized community, gay people had something different and valuable to offer mass culture, and John’s knack for Tin Pan Alley hooks made that cultural subversion irresistible.

The latest version of Elton John’s greatest hits is called Rocket Man: Number Ones (Rocket/Mercury). It includes all seven of his singles that hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts, six more that hit No. 1 elsewhere, four more fan favorites, five songs from a 2005 live show in Las Vegas, and five music videos. Most of it is glorious, but old fans will find it redundant and even newcomers would be better off with Greatest Hits: 1970-2002.

But any of John’s compilations reinforce the same point: He was unlike almost anyone else in the ’70s and ’80s. In recent years, however, a number of gifted singer-pianists have emerged to extend John’s genre — call it cabaret rock, or simply Eltonia — in new and exciting directions. Ben Folds, Rufus Wainwright, and Mika are all sons of Elton, and Nellie McKay is an obvious daughter.

The most original of John’s heirs is Wainwright, the son of folkies Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle. The younger Wainwright lacks John’s jones for R&B, but substitutes a passion for opera, which can easily be as outlandish and unbridled as Little Richard. Like John, Wainwright builds every song atop seductive piano melodies and gorgeous chord changes and then elaborates this ear candy with ornate embellishments. And because Wainwright is a better and braver lyricist than John’s longtime partner Bernie Taupin, the roots of this cabaret rock in gay culture are often explicit rather than implicit.

Wainwright traveled from New York to Berlin to record his new album, Release the Stars (Geffen), his first in three years and his first self-produced project. Surrounded by old-world romanticism, he abandoned plans for a bare-bones recording and wrapped his new songs in strings, horns, and voices. Which is fine: You wouldn’t want a minimalist confessional from Wainwright anymore than you would from John.

He describes his trip to Berlin on “Going to a Town,” which opens with naked, stabbing piano chords, as in John’s ballad “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” and unfolds into a melody that’s just as juicy. But rather than offering clichés about romantic abandonment, Wainwright, who grew up in Montreal, glances over his shoulder at the United States, his adopted home, and fires off shots at its homophobia (“Do you really think you go to hell for having loved?”) and post September 11 foreign policy (“You took advantage of a world that loved you well”). The song then turns personal, as Wainwright croons over swooning strings that he’s “Making my own way home/ ain’t gonna be alone.”

Throughout this wonderful album, Wainwright mixes the political and the personal, the high culture of chamber music and the low culture of Top-40 pop. “Between My Legs” begins with a noisy guitar lick and drum smack right out of John’s “Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting),” and backs up its infectious dance beat with this priceless couplet on the connection between sex and sentiment: “I’ll write about dancing without you, and I’ll shed a tear between my legs.”

On “Nobody’s Off the Hook,” he addresses the irony of a John-like gay man who attracts young female admirers: “Who would ever have thought/ hanging with a homo and a hairdresser/ you would become the one desired in every woman’s heart?”

During this year’s South by Southwest festival, Pete Townshend and his partner Rachel Fuller hosted a live edition of Attic Tapes, their internet showcase for new talent. Its most startling revelation was the one-named Mika, a tall, gangly Lebanese-British kid with a thick mop of unruly dark hair in a white T-shirt. He sat down at the upright piano by himself, created a pumping rhythm section with his left hand, ear-grabbing hooks in the right, and warbled a bouncy melody that jumped up into a falsetto, just like John’s “Bennie and the Jets.”

Mika’s lyrics were as sharp and witty as Wainwright’s, taunting a potential lover or music executive: “Why don’t you like me?/ why don’t you like yourself?/ should I bend over?/ should I look older?” Townshend came out to play guitar on “Love Today,” and Mika’s composition was so distinctive that the musicians could churn up a disco groove with just their acoustic instruments as Mika’s giddy high tenor described universal brotherhood as if it were an out-of-control orgy. Both of these songs are on Mika’s debut album, Life in Cartoon Motion,­ (Casablanca/Universal), one of the year’s strongest doses of pure pop pleasure so far. In the studio, Mika’s co-producer Greg Wells backed up the singer’s piano riffs and thrilling vocal melodies with fat, effective dance beats. And almost every song on the album works as an intoxicating disco-pop marriage of Elton John and Sylvester that would satisfy even with the dumbest of lyrics.

But the words are worth paying attention to, full of delicious double entendres (“Suckin’ too hard on your lollipop,” “Relax, take it easy”), fresh metaphors (“You play me like a kid with a crayon,” “My troops are bigger than yours”), and conflicted feelings. “Billy Brown” is a Ray Davies-like look at life in the London suburbs, a chirpy sing-along that describes a happily married husband who falls in love with another man.

John accidentally created a whole new genre with his unembarrassed exaggeration of the rock ‘n’ roll piano-man tradition. He had no idea where it might lead, if it led anywhere at all, but it turned into a smart, artsy variation that’s more comfortable on public radio than on the Top-40 airwaves. Mika’s now come along to merge the ambitions of Wainwright, Folds, and McKay with John’s universal commerciality. If Mika can make three or four more albums as good as his debut, he may become this genre’s giant. 

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