Both familiar and strange: Elton John’s “Your Song” and the elusive art of hit-making

The B-side that sparked Elton John's rise to global fame uncovers the paradox at the heart of audience taste and the power of the "almost normal".

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What is the best Elton John song? Inspired by the film Rocketman I recently lobbed this question to Twitter and was taken aback by the deluge of answers. It wasn’t just the number but the variety; contenders ranged from “Skyline Pigeon”, on John’s first album, to his late-period gem, “I Want Love”. But the winner, the people’s choice, was his very first hit. I had dismissed it as too obvious, but then, the interesting thing about “Your Song” is how far from obvious it was at the time.

By the autumn of 1970, John had released three albums and several singles and none of them had been hits. His American record company had high hopes for his new single, “Take Me to the Pilot”, but it went nowhere. Then something unexpected happened. A few radio DJs began playing the single’s B-side, a sweetly dolorous track from his second album called “Your Song”. Slowly, a buzz began to build around the song. By early 1971, John had a monster hit on his hands, and his reign as a global pop phenomenon had begun. “Your Song” is now one of the most played radio singles of all time, a staple at weddings and in karaoke booths and late-night taxis.

It’s fascinating to me that experienced music industry people failed to spot this song’s potential. That it could be a hit does not seem obviously non-obvious, if you see what I mean; “Your Song” is a conventionally structured pop ballad with a pleasing melody and catchy chorus. But actually, it is unusual, in subtle ways. The premise is an odd one: a singer writing a song about writing a song. The lyrics (“If I was a sculptor…”), are eccentric, and strangely introspective for a love song. There is a dissonance between the rather formal, piano-and-strings arrangement and the soulfully naive delivery of the singer. To the executives and marketers, “Your Song” must have sounded familiar and yet slightly… off.

Some surprise hits put their innovation front and centre; they’re just obviously, aggressively weird. Record executives tried to dissuade Queen from releasing “Bohemian Rhapsody”, and you can understand why. The commercial success of Radiohead’s Kid A album was entirely unexpected. Francis Coppola was convinced that Apocalypse Now would crash at the box office, and most critics were confused by it. How many people believed Lin-Manuel Miranda when he told them a hip-hop musical about America’s founding fathers featuring a rap battle about government debt would be a smash? In all such cases, it’s hardly a mystery that the experts didn’t foresee success. They didn’t believe anything so radically original would sell, which is reasonable enough, because more often than not, radical originality is radically unpopular.

“Your Song” belongs to another class of surprises: the ones that escape the attention of industry gatekeepers because they aren’t weird enough. This species of sleeper hit is conventional on the surface, but quirky underneath. It is often full of clichés, tweaked or combined in deceptively original ways. It is what you might call “almost normal”. To the 12 publishers who rejected Harry Potter the first time around, the book must have read like a pleasant but slightly baffling jumble of tropes borrowed from popular children’s stories. To the NBC bosses who wanted to cancel Seinfeld after its pilot, everything about the show would have been familiar except for certain elements – such as the absence of romantic tension between the male and female principals. Twentieth Century Fox executives watched Star Wars and saw a decent enough pastiche of motifs from science fiction and Westerns, but they were happy to give George Lucas the rights to the sequels, because they didn’t think there would be any.

In 1967, the Beatles released a single with two A-sides: “Strawberry Fields” and “Penny Lane” (Lennon mainly responsible for the first, McCartney for the second). It offers a neat juxtaposition of our two categories, the radically original and the almost normal. Lennon’s woozy journey through his subconscious is majestically strange. Nobody had heard anything like that before. McCartney’s companion song seems so conventional by contrast, a simple exercise in pop nostalgia. But listen more closely and you notice that the nurse feels as if she is in a play and is anyway, that rain is pouring from blue suburban skies, and that, at the very moment the chorus takes us upwards, the key moves unexpectedly down, infusing celebration with loss. Very strange.

In Hit Makers, Derek Thompson’s 2017 book about the secrets of pop culture success, he explores the fundamental paradox of audience taste: people like the familiar and they like the novel, at the same time. They want their expectations satisfied, which draws them to storylines and key changes they have heard before; but they get bored easily, which draws them to surprises. In short, the audience is impossible.

A Hollywood producer tells Thompson: “You want to know what I think is the secret of it all? You take 25 things that are in any successful genre, and you reverse one of them.” But the real secret is there is no secret. It remains infuriatingly hard to predict what precise combination of the novel and the familiar audiences will love, which is why the most successful artists are often those who give very little thought to the people they are meant to be pleasing; they please themselves and see what happens.

All of which means we ought to sympathise with the much maligned executive whose job depends on predicting what will succeed and what will fail. Anything different risks revolting the audience, anything normal risks being ignored. Nothing works until it does. Perhaps by being more alert to the potential of the almost normal – the dart that lands one millimetre from the bulls-eye – you can solve this dilemma, and call every hit in advance. But then again, no. 

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article appears in the 05 July 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Corbyn delusion