What do you do if you have just a single catchphrase — like, say, “You’re fired!” — and you need something fresh, something resonant, to hold the public’s interest? If you are President Trump, you borrow a song title from Elton John — “Rocket Man” — and start using it as a nickname for North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un even though it doesn’t make any sense at all and makes you sound like someone’s awkward dad trying to be cool.
Trump first tried out Rocket Man on Twitter, announcing, “I spoke with President Moon of South Korea last night. Asked him how Rocket Man is doing. Long gas lines forming in North Korea. Too bad!” Then he used the nickname in his first-ever address to the United Nations, saying “Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself.”
Branding expert that he is, the President understood that his first use required a bit of elaboration. He made sure we knew his Rocket Man is North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un, and inferred that good ol’ President Moon was happy to chuckle about a situation that finds his country between two erratic leaders who could enter a conflict that could kill huge numbers of his people.
The fact that Trump’s the nuclear face-off with Kim Jong Un is no laughing matter is not serious enough to persuade the President to forego his theft of a snappy title. Neither does Trump seem bothered by the fact that his use of it is a non sequitur and, perhaps, a little bit complimentary.
Elton John’s Rocket Man was an intrepid space explorer. Kim Jong Un is a murderous tyrant. And he is so power-obsessed that he might enjoy being associated, in President Trump’s mind, with the phallic might of a missile. Couldn’t Trump have found more demeaning way to reference Kim? If he wanted to stick with Elton John, he could have called him Tiny Dancer.
Besides it being nonsense, the President’s use of Rocket Man infringes on the singer’s intellectual property (one would think a real estate man would expect property rights) and probably irritates John politically. When the infamous Anthony Scaramucci said John might perform at Trump’s inaugural, Sir Elton said there was “no f–ing way” he would play for Trump.
At one time, the two were on better terms, according to W Magazine: John played at Trump’s wedding to Melania, and Trump congratulated the singer and his partner on entering into a civil partnership when the UK made that option available.
Renowned for his activism on behalf of gay rights, John is no doubt distressed by President Trump’s intention to oust transgender service people from the military and his opposition to protections for gay Americans under the Civil Rights Act. John had previously said that Trump will “marginalize people; he’s already doing it” and demanded Trump stop using his music at campaign rallies
However, if you think that Trump’s interest in John’s music is new, you are mistaken. Years ago, according to a BBC piece that tagged some of Trump’s writing, he said John, Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett were his favorite singers. (Paul McCartney qualified as “a schmuck” in Trump’s estimation because he didn’t demand a prenuptial agreement when he got married.) Among others he has praised are Eminem, Lady Gaga, and the reggae group Toots and the Maytals. None of them performed at the inauguration either — but he did manage to snag, not the Rocket Man, but the Rockettes of Radio City Music Hall.
Trump also appears to like the Rolling Stones, or at least their song, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” Although the Stones objected, and the lyrics seem completely wrong for someone in pursuit of any goal, Trump played it at his campaign rallies.
For the diplomats at the United Nations, the Rocket Man speech offered a glimpse of Trump as Americans know him. He claimed credit for things he had little to do with, like the economic recovery begun years ago under President Obama, and bragged about the nation’s military might in a way that would embarrass anyone who believes a truly powerful nation can walk softly while carrying a big stick.
For those who know both Trump’s record and Elton John’s song writing, there was also a sweet irony hidden in the President’s clumsy appropriation of Sir Elton’s work. As a man who steadfastly denies the facts of climate change — and this imperils the world — he does have something in common with the character Elton John sent hurtling toward Mars while declaring, “And all this science, I don’t understand.”