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Is it just a payday, or brilliant politics by Elton John?

When did the small, portly, fright-wigged Elton John - a knighted balladeer no less - get so electrified?

Last week, with the fallout still settling from his performance at the Palm Beach, Fla., wedding of prominently anti-gay-marriage radio commentator Rush Limbaugh earlier this month, the singer and pianist did a very contentious show in Tel Aviv, Israel.

While other artists have backed away because of the deadly boarding of the Gaza-bound ship recently, John not only appeared, he yelled, uproariously to the crowd, "Ain't nothing gonna stop me from coming here, baby!"

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You better believe the fists were pumping that night, as they did when he showed up, against enraged Islamic conservatives' wishes, in Morocco in May, emboldening many gay fans in the process. (It remains to be seen if, as his detractors warned, he "increased homosexuality" in the process.)

"Musicians," John argues, "spread love and peace, and bring people together. That's what we do. We don't cherry-pick our conscience."

There was a time, when John was producing such nightmarish fare as Island Girl and pretty well all of his collaborations with Bernie Taupin - songs with high-end melodies and wannabe-American pop psycho lyrics - that I would have seen him the way his innumerable detractors do these days.

He is (largely for the Limbaugh wedding) being called by gay activists a "sell-out," a "hypocrite" and a maker of "blood money." "Oh Elton," sighs an online fan on the gossip site Celebitchy, "I really thought better of you!"

There was a time I also would have conjectured that the man with a well-documented, financially perilous addiction to fresh flowers might do gigs for cash and could not care less where he plays.

But for some time I have been watching him perform with younger, far wilder artists, and now wonder if he is, as he and his Canadian husband David Furnish often state, a builder of bridges, not a maker of walls.

In 2001, not long after counselling Marilyn Manson about how to handle the flak around his highly sinister musical persona, John appeared at the Grammys to sing Stan with Eminem.

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At the time, Eminem's fairly playful, yet stinging lyrics about gays ("And there's no reason why a man and another man can't elope ... Ewww," he groans in The Real Slim Shady) had begun to draw the ire of lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgendered communities - or more precisely, of thinking people not inclined to see gay marriage as a gross occasion, in the manner of a hostile 12-year-old.

Eminem has since become a vocal proponent of gay marriage and has always been pellucid on this point: Slim Shady is a persona, who happens to walk, talk and dress like him.

But the persona argument never quite sails: Are we to assume legions of fans understand the complexity of the represented self? They are more likely to groan along.

That is where John came in with his ingenious approach to pop bigotry. By appearing with, and sharing a kiss with Eminem, John united them as artists. He accepted Eminem's work and his artistic freedom, but mildly and implicitly rebuked him simply by being there. It was far more effective than hissing criticism from the corners, unheard and filled with hate.

Something similar may be going on with John performing at Limbaugh's wedding reception (populated by, among 400 others, Karl Rove, Sean Hannity, Rudolph Giuliani, Fred Thompson and James Carville).

When John appeared, the crowd gave him a standing ovation, and continued to rise to their feet for each song. Commenting on the event, the happiest day of his life, Limbaugh could not help noting that both he and former president Bill Clinton, while supporters of civil partnerships, do not believe - because of their religion - in gay marriage. I cannot think of a conservative religious group that supports gay marriage, and while I do not agree with or affiliate myself with any of these doctrines, I understand, without agreeing, why respect is afforded to their beliefs and values.

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There is a large sector of the left lobbing homophobic softballs and vile derision at Limbaugh and John. Limbaugh is routinely insulted among the left for being a closeted homosexual. Insulted! There he is with his new BFFs Elton and David, pumped about visiting their mansion in London soon, his friends having acted only ecstatically in John's presence. John has been sharply criticized by the left for hypocrisy over the wedding performance, for which it's reported he was paid $1-million.

"It reveals a lot about the left,' Limbaugh remarked about the "cruel" comments still being directed at John, and there I am, nodding along with Rush. Non-partisan in the main, I ally myself with the truth and with wisdom, regardless of the source.

If the man on my street who screams all day about social workers eating costly pastries on his dime also, one day, yells a striking remark about the current mayoral race, I will pause to pat his newspaper megaphone, respectfully.

"Maybe if I can make a great impression, people might change their perspective on life," John argued.

What a dent he has been making lately.

By staying abreast of current affairs, politics and pop (this year, he played at the Grammys with an almost kittenish, star-struck Lady Gaga), by mingling among the best and the worst, he impresses us all with the sense that his kind of queer truly is here, there and everywhere.

So we are getting used to it.

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