Last week, Elton John and British-Japanese musician Rina Sawayama collaborated on a remix of the track “Chosen Family,” a queer anthem released in April of last year on Sawayama’s debut album, SAWAYAMA.
The two pop powerhouses became unlikely friends following Sawayama’s album release last spring, when John named the project his “favorite of the year” on his Apple Music radio show, “Elton John’s Rocket Hour.” Since then, John has been supportive of Sawayama’s efforts to broaden the participation of non-British citizens in the Brit Awards and Mercury Prize competition, so it’s unsurprising that the two have finally collaborated musically.
The pairing may seem unexpected, yet despite their existence in two different eras of pop, Sawayama and John mesh surprisingly well. Both have taken on a chameleon-like role in the pop industry, successfully fusing elements of R&B and rock into their work, and earning critical acclaim. Most importantly on “Chosen Family,” both artists also share a passion for supporting LGBTQ+ causes. Sawayama, who identifies as both bisexual and pansexual, and John, who is openly gay and often been labeled a “queer icon,” both have a considerable following in the LGBTQ+ community. The track’s focus on the topic of “chosen families” feels especially intimate given their tightly-knit queer fanbases.
The term “chosen family” signifies a group of friends and non-blood relatives who act as a makeshift family for those with unaccepting biological families. It’s a concept prevalent in the queer community and highlighted on TV shows like “Pose,” which centers on drag ball culture among the Black and Latinx LGBTQ+ communities in 1980s New York. In essence, the idea of a chosen family pivots on the notion that, while traditional family members may not always be supportive of their queer relatives, the queer community is more than willing to step into the role if need be.
With the constant passage of anti-trans and anti-gay legislation in the United States — in particular, a bill allowing schools to inspect the genitalia of student-athletes in Florida last week — it’s clear that just existing as a queer person is an emotionally taxing experience. When describing the purpose of “Chosen Family,” Sawayama states, “The concept of chosen family has been long-standing in the queer community because a lot of people get kicked out of their homes and get ostracized from their family for coming out or just living true to themselves. I wanted to write a song literally for them, and it’s just a message and this idea of a safe space — an actual physical space.”
The track does just that, promising the listener that they “don’t need to share genes or a surname” or “be related to relate.” It’s sincere and uplifting, giving the overall effect of a warm hug in a world that is consistently hostile toward queer people.
“Chosen Family” sounds like it could be on a Disney soundtrack, something I wouldn’t usually consider merit. Yet Sawayama and John are so genuine on the track, it’s hard to bear any ill will toward it. In fact, the new recording feels just as heartfelt as the original.
Instead of the spare techno pulses of the album version, soft piano accompaniment comes to the forefront on the new release. John’s vocals never rival Sawayama’s in clarity and strength, but the pair’s voices blend in such triumphant harmony by the track’s conclusion. It’s not a revolutionary reimagining of the song, but with emotional violin swells and tender lyricism, “Chosen Family” is an important life mantra wrapped in a honeyed pop exterior.
“Chosen Family” doesn’t feel gimmicky or cloying, likely because it’s the collaboration of two artists that actually belong to the queer community (I love Taylor, but “You Need to Calm Down” felt a little self-serving).
In a New York Times interview last week, Sawayama stated, “… queering a space, that’s kind of what I’m trying to do with music by injecting a bit of an interest in areas other than heterosexual love.” There’s a sense of queer autonomy on the track, which makes it all the more empowering.
Sawayama and John bridge two generations of queer pop on “Chosen Family,” while reminding us to surround ourselves with people willing to give us unconditional love and support no matter our identity.
Daily Arts Writer Nora Lewis can be reached at email@example.com.