WASHINGTON — For anyone who was listening, Elton John’s music was the unofficial soundtrack to Donald Trump’s presidency. The songs “Tiny Dancer” and “Rocket Man” were pumped into the background of his political rallies at earsplitting decibels. A copy of John’s 1972 album, “Honky Château,” became a diplomatic gift for North Korea’s dictator. The singer’s crowd sizes were both a presidential fixation and an aspiration.
Which is why it was so interesting that John, a superstar and longtime activist, played at the White House on Friday as a guest of President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden, years after sidestepping Trump’s overtures.
“I just wish America could be more bipartisan,” John said as he sat at his piano, during a set that lasted about 45 minutes.
John is on a lengthy farewell tour in the United States, and his appearance was part of a larger celebration that was meant to honor people whom the White House called “everyday history makers”: teachers, nurses, emergency and mental health workers, students and activists.
There were boldface names, too, including education activist Malala Yousafzai; tennis legend and activist Billie Jean King; and Jeanne White-Ginder, the mother of Ryan White, who died of AIDS-related complications in 1990.
With a round of applause, Jill Biden also welcomed former first lady Laura Bush, the wife of former President George W. Bush — a tacit acknowledgment that a prominent Republican and her family were in the audience. Jill Biden introduced her husband as an Elton John fan and the president of the United States, in that order.
“On his final tour in Washington, Jill and I invited Elton to the White House to thank him on behalf of the American people,” Joe Biden said to a crowd of some 2,000 people gathered on the South Lawn. “Like many Americans, our family loves his music.”
After John finished playing a set that included “Tiny Dancer” and “Rocket Man,” the president announced that he would award the singer the National Humanities Medal, which is meant to honor people or groups whose work deepens American access to cultural experiences in fields including the performing arts.
“I’m never flabbergasted but I’m flabbergasted,” John told the president, with tears in his eyes.
Given that the White House was trying to spotlight a variety of causes taken up by the Biden administration, several people involved with the planning insist that nothing about the event had anything to do with the fact that Biden’s predecessor really, really likes Elton John. They say that the singer was simply interested in performing at the White House. (And, they wonder, does everything have to be about Trump?)
Still, Biden has managed to pull off an A-list invitation that his predecessor had sought but never accomplished. In fact, mainstream celebrities are returning to the White House after years of avoiding the area. In an email, a White House official helpfully pointed out that more than two dozen entertainers, ranging from the Jonas Brothers to Andrea Bocelli, have performed at White House events since the beginning of the Biden presidency.
Bocelli, like John, publicly dodged invitations to perform at the Trump inauguration. But no entertainer’s music — except maybe for that of Lee Greenwood — is more solidly (or unwillingly) linked to Trump than John’s.
Biden does have his own personal relationship to the singer’s music. The president wrote in a memoir that he and his sons, Beau and Hunter, would sing “Crocodile Rock” at the top of their lungs when Biden drove them to school.
The name for Friday’s event, called “A Night When Hope and History Rhyme,” is borrowed from a work by Seamus Heaney, one of Biden’s favorite poets.
If Biden’s relationship to the music has been poignant, the relationship between the former president and John has been slightly more volatile.
For starters, a former Trump campaign official said that John was so displeased with the use of his songs at Trump rallies that campaign officials received a cease-and-desist request. The former official said that the music was briefly pulled but that Trump, who personally oversaw the rally music playlists, eventually ordered “Tiny Dancer” and “Rocket Man” back into the mix.
In late 2016, an aide to Trump said that John would play his inauguration, a claim that was quickly squashed. “Incorrect. He will NOT be performing,” Fran Curtis, John’s longtime publicist, wrote in an email to The New York Times. John eventually sent an email to Trump politely declining the gig but suggesting that he might play a state dinner sometime.
“I was honoured to perform at a White House State Dinner for the U.K. during the Clinton presidency and I would be delighted to do the same for you if the opportunity arises,” John wrote in that email. “I also want to wish you every success with your presidency. I love America deeply, a country that has always welcomed me and my music with kind, tolerant and open arms.”
No plans were made for John to play such a dinner, according to Stephanie Grisham, a former Trump press secretary. The Trump White House never welcomed Britain to the White House, and such an invitation to John was “definitely never an effort because we knew he wouldn’t,” she said.
The two men enjoyed friendlier relations before the Trump presidency: John sang at the wedding of Trump and Melania Knauss in 2005. And when John wed his longtime partner, David Furnish, in a civil ceremony, Trump offered public congratulations: “If two people dig each other, they dig each other. Good luck, Elton. Good luck, David. Have a great life,” Trump wrote in a blog post, which has since been taken offline.
But as Trump grew more involved in politics, the singer he was so personally fond of began to publicly declare his support for Democrats. John, who played at a fundraiser for Hillary Rodham Clinton, Trump’s Democratic rival for the presidency, said that he had “fear for the world” if Trump were to win.
“He’ll marginalize people,” John told news site Mic in summer 2016. “He’s already doing it.” The warning was prescient: After Trump’s election victory, his administration aggressively moved to strip away the rights of people in the LGBT community.
“I’m not a Republican in a million years,” John told The Guardian in early 2016 regarding the use of his music at Trump rallies. “Why not ask Ted Nugent?” he said of the far-right musician, adding an expletive.
Yet somehow, John was one of few celebrities able to publicly reject Trump and not get a nuclear-grade Twitter insult in response. Although he was spurned, Trump remained a fan, to the point that John’s music was awkwardly laced through one of the most geopolitically volatile situations facing the Trump administration.
Trump called Kim Jong Un, the North Korean ruler, “Little Rocket Man.” To prove to Kim that it was really more of a pet name than an insult, Trump directed his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, to personally deliver a “Honky Château” CD to the dictator.
“Getting this CD to Kim remained a high priority for several months,” John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser, wrote in his memoir.