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Elton John – Sacrifice (Lyrics Review and Song Meaning)

Sir Elton Hercules John is a musician of impeccable talent. However, it comes as a surprise to hear that this British legend endured 22 studio albums to produce his first #1 hit in the UK-“Sacrifice.”

Released as the second single off of his 22nd studio album ‘Sleeping with the Past,’ “Sacrifice” became one of Elton John’s most notable songs. The song also reached #18 on US Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1990. The single was released twice; first time in Octobe 1989 and second time in May 1990. Each time the disc had two different songs, “Love Is A Cannibal” and “Healing Hands,” on the flip sides.

Elton John’s long-time collaborator and lyricist for “Sacrifice,” Bernie Taupin spoke with Music Connection magazine about the meaning behind the song. According to him, the song is about the “rigors” of love in a marriage. According to Elton John, the inspiration for the song was drawn from the American singer Aretha Franklin’s hit “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man,” which touched topics of infidelty and gender equality.

This soulful ballad by the maestro has sparked many cover versions, most notably by Sinéad O’Connor, and Don Henley and Vince Gill.

Watch the Music Video for “Sacrifice” by Elton John


Download “Sacrifice” Single on iTunes and Amazon
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The music video, directed by Alek Keshishian, starrs Canadian model Yasmeen Ghauri and actor Chris Isaak. The video shows the turmoils of a marriage life ending in a split and the husband taking care of their daughter.

The song talks about the fall of a marriage and how it is “no sacrifice.” It is the common conception of the world that love and marriage takes some ‘sacrifice’ from both parties, and how lack of it would be disastrous. Elton John sings that divorce or separation is not a sacrifice either of them are making. The only sacrifice they would be making is on their child’s psychology.

Lyrics Review and Song Meaning of “Sacrifice”

Verse 1

The first verse of the song starts off with a clue as to why this marriage is falling apart. Elton John builds on the human nature that when a relationship gets tough, each of them would turn towards comfort in other people. For him; “When the scent of her lingers/And temptation’s strong,” and for her; “Into the boundary/Of each married man,” comes the feelings of infidelity. And that is where everything starts to go south.

Chorus

In these lyrics, Elton John sings how his heart has been turned cold or ‘dead’ by the actions of this other person. Often we have turn our emotions off to prevent us from getting hurt. ‘Things that look better’ could be other men and women, whom Elton pleads to be just be by-gones.

‘Giving up’ is not a sacrifice. It’s a temporary fix to a series of temporary problems. They loved each other at one point and something is causing them to forget that. The simple word Elton refers to here could be ‘love.’ Or is it ‘sacrifice’ itself? Or could it be ‘loneliness’ which is the feeling that they could be going through being stuck in “two separate worlds”?

Verse 2

‘Mutual understanding’ is a strong pillar of a successful marriage. On the flipside ‘mitual misunderstanding’ is not. When misunderstanding sets in, it eats up the relationship. Being hurt continuously is something no one can endure forever. Either they break or turn cold. In the song, we learn that being hurt too much makes one build a prison around themselves; not necessarily to restrict them, but to prevent them from dealing with things that hurt them.

Watch Elton John Perform “Sacrifice” Live in Rome in 2005

In the final act, as in the last stage of their marriage, they find themselves in a situation where there is nothing left to be done to salvage it. Every possible opportunities and possibilites are tried and failed. All the tears are shed and all curses are thrown out.

The stronger you hold on to something/someone the harder it will be to let them go. The stronger the bond, the more jealousy it results and the more pain it causes.

Elton Jon might be suggesting that even in the final act, it is important to have a clear vision of the ‘direction’ that the couple is taking on. There is “no sacrifice” in giving up on a marriage, except for the trauma endured by the child. There is also no purpose in grinning through it “for the child,” but it is important to re-evaluate their choices and decisions and find their sense of direction.

The song concludes with an almost-wail of Elton John saying that their decision was “no sacrifice.”

What do you think this song and lyrics mean? What are your fond memories of this song? Drop a comment below.

Full Lyrics to “Sacrifice” by Elton John

41 thoughts on “Elton John – Sacrifice (Lyrics Review and Song Meaning)

  1. Simple word is “Yes”

    “Yes” to the divorce. “Yes” and it’ll be two hearts living in two separate worlds.

  2. SUCH a great song… and I love all of the thoughtful and insightful comments above. Thank you for sharing!

    Meanwhile, I’ve spent the past three days obsessing about the lyric, and the meaning has finally come clear – at least, for me. Of course, a great lyric will have different meanings to different people. But, after reading everything I could find about this song on various sites- and looking at the evidence from the primary sources – I feel like I finally figured it out. For what it’s worth, here’s my take:

    The primary-source evidence includes A) the interviews with Bernie Taupin discussing the song B) What Taupin was experiencing -or lamenting- when he wrote the song (per those interviews) C) The music video, and D) The lyric itself (of course).

    Taupin is quoted as saying that this song was very different from Your Song – that it’s a love song for adults. In other words, it’s not a straightforward, first-person “I love you” narrative. He describes it as a “lament” – an expression of regret and grief. This, in my opinion, is the key to the song. Taupin has been quoted as having tremendous regret for failed romantic relationships in his past, which is what I believe he is lamenting in the lyric. The verses artfully describe the various problems, challenges and inevitable outcomes we see “when things go wrong”- and the chorus beautifully describes the lesson – or truth – that the singer has since learned.

    What is that truth? With the benefit of hindsight, he sees that true love is the result of sacrifice. Some might argue that this is Biblical in its truth, or point out that true love is a verb – not a state of being. Staying together, overcoming the tremendous hurt caused by a loved one, sacrificing your pride or your desire for vengeance, overcoming the temptation to cheat with an attractive person? THOSE are the difficult sacrifices that lead to true love and happiness. Leaving, walking away, getting a divorce, cheating on your spouse with an attractive person whose “scent lingers”? Those things require “no sacrifice at all”. They represent the easy way out. And, as Taupin masterfully describes in all of the verses, those paths are all too common (and understandable!).

    Simply put: The chorus of “It’s no sacrifice at all” is a lament (or better yet, an expression of the blues) for a man’s failure to realize those truths until later in life. Again, much different than Your Song, as Taupin has noted.

    As for the music video: many commenters on various sites (who have different interpretations) have overlooked the video, arguing that it shouldn’t be taken as a literal interpretation of the song lyric. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that Elton John and Taupin had to sign off on the video before it was released. While it is an interpretation, the video does fall in line with the broad theme I have outlined above. I can’t see how the songwriters would greenlight a video that totally misses the essence of the song or describes an opposite theme.

    Finally, I now see why Taupin reqards the song as one of the best he ever wrote. You could argue that it encapsulates the secret to life – or the secret to love – more than any other Elton John/Bernie Taupin composition.

    Again, everyone can derive different meanings from a great lyric. But, this one finally clicked for me. Thanks for bearing with me. I love this song!!!

  3. It’s a song. What makes it so powerful is the way that it is written leaves it open to mean many things to many different people. Your own experiences will dictate the meaning you take from it. That’s what makes it great.

  4. By Elton John suggesting “there’s no sacrifice at all” at the end of the song implies that the couple decided to separate as the sacrifice for them being together for the sake of the child was no longer just a sacrifice but more of a perpetuating emotional problem for everyone involved.

  5. I think it talks about marriage ending with infidelity.. she’s singing it to her husband that her heart is hardened by his betrayal the simiple word is ” unforgiveness”.

  6. Great responses by all. It took me 3 years, 3 months, and 9 days for me to forgive my ex-wife this past weekend. I heard this song 3 years ago while we were going thru the worst and then I heard it on the drive up to visit my son this past weekend. It helped my process.

    To me marriage is a sacrifice and in this song Elton is speaking to how the husband and wife stopped sacrificing for each other. Hence their marriage, their sacrifice…..became just “a simple word” and all the other descriptions he provided in the song. Marriage=Sacrifice. When someone in the relationship stops being willing to sacrifice (time, money, being with someone else, etc.) it stops being a marriage.

    1. I think in the song the couple gave up on marriage both.. The man cheated on his wife and she didn’t forgive him , left him and her daughter forever.. I can be wrong though about the story.

  7. Great answers from all.. I see him looking back on a failed relationship and trying to put the puzzle together on just what went wrong .. all the different things that one is aware of and the other isn’t that causes grief in the end .. I’ve listened to this song since it was first released but now because of my situation it has so much more significance to me .. the words cold heart from his remix songs of his lockdown release turned on a light switch and here I am .. cheers all ..

  8. Fantastic break down of the song. I’m grateful for the author and Steve Wright for popularizing the wonderful track. If you go by the music video:

    Husband is alone with baby, he’s sad, thinking of his wife. “When the scent of her lingers”

    He tries to get back with her but fails.

    He’s hurt, she’s with another man. “Hard done by you”

    The final shot is him bringing up the child alone. “It’s no sacrifice” to bring up the child alone because he loves the kid.

    The Aretha Franklin song is a song that says “treat me right and I’ll treat you right, or I might be tempted by someone else. Bernie/Elton’s song is about what happens when that woman is tempted by someone else.

    It’s no sacrifice when someone leaves. You sacrifice to stay together.

    1. Your post really helped me just now. This song tried hard to kill me in March of ’89 during a break up. Life’s perfect now and that weird phase is long gone. But I’ve avoided that song like the plague for 30 years now as I never fully examined the hurt and the lyrical significance to of it properly. I did so just now. Those lyrics now better be a good day for understood and processed, should have been an anthem to the jilted, not the excruciating reliving of something that should never have been a sacrifice at all. Thank you.

  9. Love all the comments. Elton opens this topic for us all. Breakup of holy matrimony. His mum & dad also went thru that. And the child suffers it.

  10. It’s not just a song but a story to remember and understand the matters related to the relationships. A masterpiece then & now n forever .

  11. No that’s not it the sacrifice meanings leaving your marriage or divorce is not a sacrifice rather it’s a sacrifice to your child’s phycology

  12. What is the simple word Elton John is referring to?

    It’s a simple word. I think it could be any of the 4 words listed below.

    Inevitable – The breakup was inevitable. The couple had to go their separate ways.

    Peace – By eventually splitting up they BOTH finally found a sense of peace but the memories and the hurt will not be forgotten.

    Gratitude – At least for the husband he gets custody of his daughter which is often rare but I am positive that he is grateful to not only stay in his daughters life but to be able to raise her.

    Goodbye – “To leave no stone unturned” the couple has done everything to find a solution to their problems and the only thing left to do is say goodbye!

    1. I guess it’s true..but what I did not understand was what exactly was their problem? Was it that he or she cheated? or what exactly?

  13. This is certainly my divorce song.
    I think the simple word is “Goodbye”
    It certainly was mine and it changed my whole life for better

  14. I think we all find it’s meaning based on our perspective and on the experiences we’ve been through, either way its a beautiful song. I love it!

  15. Could the sacrifice be that it’s not hard to say “I’m Sorry. Just something someone suggested to me once. To say sorry after an infidelity.

  16. This song to me as a single dad makes me feel he’s saying that the difficulty of raising his daughter while being without his woman isn’t a sacrifice because he gets to see her grow up and develop a bond with her. Woman may be cold hearted, but her role was meant to just be a passing one.

    1. Todd, I believe you are way off base with the meeting. I am sorry but I don’t believe you are correct. I believe the song is saying there is no sacrifice in saying you are sorry after an affair. When he says cold cold heart, I believe he is meaning after an affair, heart stone cold. Especially the one that was cheated on in order to protect themselves from the pain. Often times they act like it didn’t happen out of love for their spouse and their family. My take on the pain and hold it in therefore they turn hardened. There’s no sacrifice and saying you are sorry. There is no sacrificing anything and admitting you made a mistake. You are not sacrificing your ego admitting you’re wrong for the love of your family and your children. Some peoples egos get in the way and they rip their families apart for no reason other than their libido and their ego and it is sad. Especially ones that have worked years of being together and have years of history and love and memories and family. You cannot replace that.

  17. I have fallen in love with it more and more after knowing the meaning of the song. I can’t get enough of it for sure.

  18. Bull.shit!! Are you his PA whatever the song represents to an individual is the best remedy….get a job.

  19. Wow, I always love hearing this song, but after reading the true meaning of it I was like, OMG… the song was like written for my relationship with my sons father.

    1. Thanks so much Lisa, you commented based on experience which i think will help most of our younger ones… 🤷‍♂️
      Wish knowing you…

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