Who Wanted To Leave The Yellow Brick Road, Elton or Bernie?

Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” from his album with the same name is an allusion to The Wizard of Oz. In the novel, Dorothy is lifted away from her drab life on a farm to a fantastical land. There’s magic, a seemingly reality-defying city, and a road made of yellow bricks. Regardless, Dorothy still prefers her own home, humdrum as it may be. The speaker of this song feels similarly. They are enveloped in a life quite different from the one they had when they were growing up on a back road farm. The yellow brick road they’re on is enticing and luxurious. It induces a kind of high, a disconnect from reality. The speaker is riding that high, and has only recently realized that living on the yellow brick road is no way to live.

So goodbye yellow brick road
Where the dogs of society howl
You can’t plant me in your penthouse
I’m going back to my plough

The word “dogs” has multiple levels of meaning. First, it straight out insults the members of this golden bricked society. It implies they are inhumane and dirty. Second, dogs are widely known as being incredibly obedient creatures, who love nothing more than pleasing their owners. Similarly, these golden society members will do anything to obey the whims of the media, and go to great lengths to please it. Another meaning stems from the word “dogging”. The people who share this brick road with the speaker are incessant. They are unrelenting in their criticisms and pursuits. “Plant” is another multi-level word from this passage. The speaker is being planted against their will in a fancy home, in a yellow brick lifestyle. They didn’t choose to be there, but they were forcibly placed. This line also brings the lavish plants that are tended to in extravagant penthouse homes to mind. These plants are inanimate, unable to speak or think. They exist only for background decoration, and are easily ignored in favor of gaudier centerpieces. The speaker feels dogged and ignored, and all around tired of this yellow brick road life. They want to go home.

Although his name is on the album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Elton John didn’t write the lyrics to its title song. The words were written by Bernie Taupin, John’s lyricist and co-songwriter. John was extravagant and campy, while Taupin preferred staying out of the limelight. This arrangement along with the usage of both first and second person pronouns in the lyrics creates the question: who is the speaker of this poem? Is this a message John wanted to send, and he asked Taupin to write it out? Or, is this a letter from Taupin to John, that John has been given to deliver to himself.

“Maybe you’ll get a replacement
There’s plenty like me to be found
Mongrels who ain’t got a penny
Sniffing for tidbits like you on the ground”

If Elton John were the first person subject here, the mongrels could be the record labels, searching for young artists to exploit and make money off of. John could be upset at how he was taken advantage of at such a young age, an idea reflected in the line, “this boy’s too young to be singing/The blues” The speaker’s objection might be that the boy singing is too young to be exploited by a record company, shown through the specific choice of the word “boy”. It could also be that this boy is too young to have anything upsetting to be singing about, as “singing the blues” usually means singing about struggle and hardships. The speaker might be upset that a boy at such a young age has enough emotional fodder to sing about it.

If Taupin is interpreted to be the first person subject, this is a message to John relating how John barely needs him anyways. The speaker feels like he’s nothing special, like he would be easy to replace. His “mongrels” are all the dirt poor artists hoping for a jumpstart to their career. John is the tidbits, the songwriters are desperately searching for anyone to work for, for any chance. Sniffing has connotations of desperation. It brings to mind rodents twitching their whiskers. It also means searching something out, following the wispiest trails. No matter how secretive they’d try to keep their potential split, people would sniff around and find out, and the news would be widely spread. The speaker also resents the fact that his leaving would barely have an effect on John. Maybe John would be upset by it, “It’ll take you a couple of vodka and tonics/To set you on your feet again” but he would soon get over it. After only a couple of drinks, John would be right back in the game, still able to follow his dreams and chase his success.

What do you think you’ll do, then?
I bet they’ll shoot down the plane

This description of shooting down the plane is an interesting action to include. It could be an expression of extreme pessimism. A feeling that the speaker will finally get on the plane, finally be on their way home, and their plane gets shot down before they can make it there. Another perspective could be that the other members of the yellow bricked society could be so desperate to keep the speaker within their reality-defying world, that they’d rather the speaker die than leave. The society members could also be shooting down the plane to create more miserable content for the gossip columns, another tear jerker that could produce clickbait and therefore more profit.

No matter who the truly intended speaker was of this song, it’s a highly interesting poem. A person living the high life, the life that so many yearn for and work towards, tries hard to get away from it. The first person and second person roles are never disclosed, leaving a deep layer of mystery over the song’s meaning. If the speaker is truly Taupin, that creates a kind of crazy dynamic. He might have written this song directed at John, then given it to him, making him sing another’s criticisms of himself to crowds of thousands. Through the different lenses and levels you can view this poem from, it is full of meaning and interesting considerations.

5 thoughts on “Who Wanted To Leave The Yellow Brick Road, Elton or Bernie?

  1. Elijah J

    Ha! I get first comment! Anyways I love how your title works perfectly with your whole post. It’s a very thoughtful question with a lot of implications either way it goes. I really liked your analysis of certain words, they show your understanding of the song as well as the context it was created in. I like how it sort of tells a story of the relationship between Elton John and Bernie Taupin. There’s a power dynamic in this song, and whether it’s between Elton John and the Golden Brick Society or Elton John and Bernie, it’s not one of mutual recognition.

    Like

  2. cassie m

    honestly, this post was disappointing to me 😦 I thought the title was gonna be about Mr. Heidkamp and I got really excited for you to make the Worst Titles List and then this post was actually a well written literary analysis. Very misleading, 4/10, i wanted to see you get roasted in class

    Liked by 2 people

  3. ABIGAIL G

    This is really cool, I think it is quite interesting the idea that Bernie’s lyrics seem so fit so well with Elton Johns Life. I think that before Rocketman came out I think many people did not even realize who Bernie Taupin was. And with that the movie itself is confusing because it matches its scenes with specific songs of theirs. I think it is so creative that instead of simply wondering about what the words mean, you really did focus on who the speaker and the audience is. Something that we do automatically of a regular poem but not so often for songs.

    Liked by 1 person

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