If Elton John Sings But Everyone Else Does Too, Does It Make a Sound?

I spent my adolescence doing musical theater. As teenagers, my friends and I went through life singing and dancing—in hallways, parking lots, cars, and kitchens. Our friend Nick was a harsh critic of this practice.

Whenever someone launched into a melody, he’d ask, “Hey, who sings that song?” And regardless of our enthusiastic answer, his grim punchline was always the same: “Yeah—let’s keep it that way.”

I thought of Nick this past Saturday night, as I sat in an unnervingly large crowd at the Allstate Arena to hear Elton John. Because the problem was, sometimes I couldn’t hear Sir Elton over the other eighteen thousand people in the room.

Scene from an Elton John concert in Cincinnati, Ohio, 2009

Scene from an Elton John concert in Cincinnati, Ohio, 2009
Photo by Sean Biehle on Flickr

As a performer myself, I found it deeply unsettling to see someone as legendary as Elton John get sonically engulfed by the voices of his adoring fans. These people had paid hard-earned money and traveled on a cold night to hear one of the great heroes of pop music perform live. That’s really him up there! It’s not your stereo this time! I argued silently. John sounds fantastic, and to hear the way he delivers these melodies as a man in his sixties is fascinating. Yet at the climactic moments of “Rocketman,” or “Your Song,” or “Yellow Brick Road,” it was their own unremarkable voices the audience apparently wanted to hear.

Today, I will put on the mantle of the classically trained elitist curmudgeon and inquire: what is it with people and singing along? No really, what is it? Here, I offer four possible explanations for a phenomenon that, for anyone who celebrates live performance, doesn’t make much sense.

1. Let’s start with the most compassionate explanation—the one that assumes that human beings are good people who don’t want to endlessly aggravate each other. This explanation goes as follows: audiences sing along at concert because singing is fun, and it feels good. Singing your favorite songs with a big group of people, being close to all those bodies breathing and resonating, can be a joyous expression of togetherness. Most adults haven’t been part of a singing community since they were thirteen years old. On some primal level, they miss it. They crave the experience of merging with and becoming part of their favorite music. And then one evening, they come face to face with one of the greatest songwriters of all time. They get excited. And when human beings get excited, they sing.

2. If we’re not feeling so generous towards our fellow human beings as they drink Miller Lite under a giant dome and drown out Sir Elton’s subtle melismas and timbre changes (seriously!), it may be time for a slightly less warm-and-fuzzy explanation: they’re blithely singing along because they do not acknowledge the humanity of the live performer. To these singers-along, what Elton John decides to do with this spontaneous vocal moment is irrelevant. What matters to them is the melody they’ve heard, memorized, and sung along with for the past three decades. Trying to convince them to pay attention to a live vocalist is like trying to present a homemade bechamel sauce to someone who loves Kraft macaroni and cheese too much to care. (I know—ouch.)

3. Still angry about the sing-along, but don’t want to hate everyone around you? Consider the possibility that, plain and simple, the hegemony of the recorded “hit” is to blame. It’s hard to imagine a piece of music whose recording feels more definitive, more final and complete, than “Tiny Dancer.” The way that a typical listener relates to these recordings—via some speakers, an iPhone, and the American open road—has obliterated the song’s possibility of existing as a live, changing, in-the-moment experience. I mean, even the cast of Almost Famous couldn’t resist singing.

4. Not convinced by any of the above? There’s one final, sobering possibility, which is that the singers-along aren’t the problemI am. Maybe there’s nothing offensive about belting along to music that, after all, seems custom-made for exactly that. “Bennie and the Jets” can survive the senile humming of the man next door in a way that a Mozart string quartet cannot. The massively powerful sound system of the Allstate Arena made it possible (most of the time) for me to hear Elton over the crowd. Instead of casting sidelong glances at my neighbor, perhaps I ought to have remembered the all-important adage for surviving a crowd: If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

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8 thoughts on “If Elton John Sings But Everyone Else Does Too, Does It Make a Sound?

  1. Michael Teager

    Good points, and I sympathize with ALL of them. No one answer, it seems. Although, there’s an interesting corollary of distraction in the other direction when attending a classical/contemporary performance in a staid environment. I’m often inspired to move, gesture, or “sound” along, but the sterile environment is often prohibitive. And yet, I find myself being quieter than most at big rock shows because I’m just taking it in (and loving it).

    The acoustics at Allstate Arena don’t quite help the cause, either… I’ve seen a few shows there and the sound is inconsistent.

    I saw Elton in Detroit on Friday. GREAT show. Fourth time seeing him and it’s the best he’s sounded live that I’ve seen. Too bad you had the noisy neighbors. :)

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  2. Aaron Holloway-Nahum

    Thanks for this post Ellen, it is interesting and thought-provoking…if slightly curmudgeonly!

    I think one reason it is slightly curmudgeonly is that your observations about why we might sing along are on point, but the reasons behind these observations don’t seem to connect to the way we experience recorded music or interact with celebrity.

    That person who listened to ‘Tiny Dancer’ during their formative years may have stopped thinking about these songs as belonging to Elton – or anyone for that matter – a long time ago. The song was presented to them not by a person, but by a stereo system that was interchangeable and ever-present through any number of important events and memories. It’s not a far step to see how the song – or even the entire oeuvre of an artist like Elton John – can become a sort of ‘soundtrack to my life’. So perhaps it’s not that we don’t acknowledge the humanity of the live performer, but that that humanity has been so divorced from our intimate and deeply personal experience of the music that we simply connect to the songs in another way.

    In the other direction, it may be the very fact that we do want to connect with (depending on your level of cynicism) either the humanity or celebrity of the performer. When you know so many of this artist’s songs so well, when those songs have seemed to speak so personally into your own experience of life – you can easily imagine Elton John as a close personal friend. So there are likely people who are literally imagining themselves to BE on the stage – or at least to be in a very personal relationship with the artist – while singing that song.

    One final possibility might be that the actual effect of being in a crowd simply subsumes the individual and that we act in unusual ways. It’s hard to imagine, for example, that the whole audience would sing along in such terrible ways if the audience only numbered in the 10s – or possibly even 100s. When there are 18,000 people there (and the sound system is cranking out the dBs) you can drop your normal behaviour, close your eyes, imagine yourself as the centre of the universe and sing at the very top of your lungs without having to worry that anybody is going to hear or pay much attention to you at all.

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  4. Anziano

    You are dealing in a civilized manner with civilized, if undesirable, behavior. And if audiences singing is the only problem you’ve encountered, you are extremely lucky. Or perhaps the crowd who during “Saturday Night’s all right for Fighting” used to do just that has mellowed with age. I was once at a Steve Winwood concert I walked out of not only because I couldn’t hear him but because I couldn’t even focus on watching him, as people kept streaming back and forth in front of me, returning to their places with bears for all their friends.
    The answer may be a sort of an extension to Aaron’s premise that people, after years of enjoying a song, cease to think of it as belonging to the musician; they also don’t think of the artist as a free agent. He or she also belongs to them – after all, their money made him or her a star.
    Worse yet, the interest in the artistry of music is disappearing. Witness the advent of mp3, streaming, etc. Music has value only as a backdrop to our lives, and a backdrop, or wallpaper, merely needs to have a broad pattern; small details are OK but we don’t have to care or notice: it provides moods, it fills us with energy or with melancholy, and, most of all, its duty is to be fun. How is a song fun? Why, if it’s made so that you can sing along, that’ll do it.

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  6. Holly

    If you were anywhere near row 7, seat 36 at Allstate Arena, I apologize :) But while I did sing my heart out, I also sat (ok, stood, sorry row 8 and beyond) in silent amazement from time to time as I clung to every note, every pronunciation that came out of that man, drinking it in. When he dismissed the band and sang The One solo, my whole world stopped.

    Ignoring the people checking their text messages half the time on my left and the drunk spilling beer and starting fights on my right, wondering why any of them bothered to pay that kind of money for row 7, it was an amazing show! You have to choose to enjoy it regardless of the people surrounding you – the singers, the drinkers – and then just scream loud enough that Elton points right at you and smiles!

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