As the 40th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death approaches, Getintothis’ Cath Bore ponders why younger audiences are failing to pick up on his work.
Elvis Presley has been dead for nearly forty years. In those four decades since 1977 the world has changed beyond all recognition.
While one showbiz cynic, on hearing of Elvis Presley’s death, quipped the singer had made a “good career move”, and sure enough his income skyrocketed, for years afterwards, the Elvis brand in modern times finds itself in a complicated and frustrating position.
Elvis was the first truly global star, influencer and game changer both as an icon and music maker on a mass scale never seen before, and his death at the age of 42 in 1977 set off another wave of firsts – how do you market a dead pop star, keep him alive in the public’s heart, and carry on milking the cash cow for its full worth?
Over the past forty years, Elvis’ monetary value has shrunk. Although he’s the fourth biggest earning dead popstar, earning $27 million in 2016, his estate suffered a 50% drop of income from 2015, and a recent YouGov poll found 29% of 2000 18- to 24-year-olds had never listened to an Elvis song. Only 12% said they liked Elvis ‘a lot‘.
In 2016, he racked up 382m streams on Spotify. Sound good until we compare him to others. Bowie boasted 600m (though his own demise in the January stimulated and boosted interest), or The Beatles, at an eye watering 1.3bn, our boy from Tupelo, Mississippi starts to look small fry.
There’s been a flooding of the market of second hand records and merchandise in recent times, as his original fans, now in their 70s and 80s, start to die off, and collections slapped on eBay. Elvis merchandise is cheap to buy, ironic really because it’s the shiny baubles element that holds an appeal.
Elvis merch is in two categories.
We have the Elvis mirrors, clocks that have his legs swinging underneath as a pendulum, comically simulating the onstage 1950s Elvis The Pelvis, ashtrays, wall hangings, button badges, Elvis annuals and Elvis Monthly magazine with its fanfiction and fan fantasies; and at the other end is the more arty, the tasteful and understated, the Andy Warhol prints printed on designer bags.
Elvis means different things to different people. For life long fans, embracing the plastic full technicolour tackiness of the first group is part of the experience. There’s a sense of naivite and joy connected with not trying to be trendy. Mainstream Elvis merchandise is childlike, sweet and funny, frivolous. A recollection of more innocent times, maybe. It’s a cheap hobby at pocket money prices. That’s always been the deal.
And yet, that cheapness overspills into something else, something not so cute.
Elvis, from his notorious manager Colonel Tom Parker onwards, has been flogged on a pile ‘em high and sell ‘em cheap basis. Ironic really; because Elvis’ life story is akin to a heartbreaking Greek tragedy or the plot of an intense literary novel.
From beginning to end, it challenges the myth of the American dream. It’s as dark as hell.
In the mid-1950s, teenage girls and boys stopped being miniature versions of their parents in neutral dresses and formal suits, and started to wear their own clothes and listen to music made by artists just a couple of years older than them. No wonder that Elvis, the skinny kid in flashy clothes with the face of an angel, such a physical performer, with songs about sex and the body, and the weird name, appealed.
Nice girls in US schools were required swear on the Bible they wouldn’t go and see him in concert when he came to town. Meaning lots of fingers crossed behind backs, and creased party dresses on the night itself.
The sexual element was one thing, social class another. Elvis, from a poor family, his father an ex-con, the family homeless more than once, attended black church; he was essentially white trash from the projects, or social housing as we call it in the UK.
We can’t have teen girls looking at boys like that and think them a good prospect. That simply won’t do.
There is a believable theory that the Beverly Hillbillies TV show, about a family from the hills who strike it rich go and live in a mansion alongside respectable society, was based on Elvis and his family when they moved out of the projects and into Memphis proper in 1956 and then Graceland the following year. While her son became the most famous man in America, Gladys Presley continued her Southern ways in the new family home, keeping chickens and hanging her washing out back, holding on to a sense of normality. The old money around her twitched their net curtains in horror.
The neutering of Elvis, and his conversion into the milk-drinking God-fearing all America boy – which he was all along, on the quiet – was deemed necessary. Into the army he went, footage of his mighty quiff shaven down to the scalp meant to humiliate, proof the bad boy had been brought to heel.
And it kind of worked, but at the same time it didn’t.
He shared personal views on few things, apart from jazz (‘I don’t understand it,’ he said, with a refreshing honesty) because he was instructed not to, so the image of a simple boy who knew no better than to work from the gut and instinct rather than knowledge and forethought was built up. He didn’t write songs, his skills as an interpreter downplayed. The false construct as Elvis Presley the thick hick, endures and continues today.
The two years of him away in the army gave Tom Parker, former carnival shyster, control and Elvis came home to a treadmill of acting in a stream of not very good films, in which he burst into relentlessly chirpy song each ten to fifteen minutes.
Not all the films are bad, and neither is it the case they get worse as they go on; indeed, his final motion picture Change of Habit (1969) is more sophisticated than the title suggests; Elvis’ character is a doctor – he’d never before played someone in a professional occupation before, but rally drivers, hustlers, one night stand singers, carny folk or playboys – and deals with heavyweight issues like abortion and religion. In the end it’s even uncertain he gets the girl – he ALWAYS got the girl – and in the closing minutes the nun (played by Mary Tyler Moore) he’s in love with is praying, uncertain whether to go with him or stay with God.
Nevertheless, Elvis seemed old fashioned and out of touch for the bulk of the 1960s, because for the most part that’s exactly he was. On his under par records he sounds bored. They were recorded quickly and packaged cheaply and printed in primary coloured packaging, leading to the mysterious bootlegger Richard releasing Elvis’ Greatest Shit (50, 000, 000 Elvis Fans Can be Wrong) in 1982, an album of 1960s shockers including There’s No Room To Rhumba In A Sports Car, He’s Your Uncle Not Your Dad, and Dominic (The Impotent Bull).
Elvis developed eating and sleeping disorders and prescription drug addictions, crash dieting so severely his weight went up and down during the length of a single movie. It’s increasingly ok for men and public figures to have mental health problems in 2017, but in the 1960s no one talked about it, despite the very obvious nature of this particular man’s distress.
The ‘68 Comeback Special happened, Elvis’ idea, with Parker doing everything he could to stop it and make him sing Christmas carols instead. The Special gave everyone a beautiful shock, If I Can Dream was stunning, him in front of a live audience for the first time since 1961. In the show, he went back to basics. It was classy. And it worked.
Live work became what Elvis did next, from 1969 until the year of his death, yet the twice daily grind of performing show after show as part of a residency in Las Vegas wore him down, Parker turning him into a performing seal took its toll, the fat white jumpsuit Elvis taking over. In 1973 he divorced wife Priscilla and suffered from increasingly bad health but Aloha from Hawaii showed him in fine form, and broadcasting via satellite to between 1 and 1.5 billion viewers across the globe.
As Elvis hit his mid-30s and entered his early 40s, something wonderful happened. His voice took on a fullness and richness only hinted at earlier and he found his groove, releasing the most remarkable recordings. And there are lots of them.
The songs from 1970s, recorded at studios like Stax and in Nashville, and in his own home, are confident and mature. He is comfortable, commanding, authoritative. Elvis masculine but in a more grown up way. If there was one place he was in control, it was in the studio. And it shows. He explores country, gospel, and sings quality ballads. They give us a glimpse at what was to come. But, we don’t get to know what might have been.
Elvis died. Drug addiction is a fucker.
There’s nothing cheesy about Elvis Presley’s life story, or his quality work. And yet, it’s all we are presented with.
In his book of essays Dead Elvis: A Chronicle of a Cultural Obsession (1991), music critic Greil Marcus sketches out the image of the corpse of Elvis wheeled around as a grotesque sideshow, slices of his flesh hacked off and sold as burgers, each part of him slapped with a price tag. Marcus is not far from the truth. If there is money to be made out of Elvis, it is coined in. And it doesn’t seem to matter how.
The message around Elvis right now is confusing. For those millennials in the YouGov poll, it’s a minefield. Who is Elvis? What is he for? Who is he for?
The tackiness is there full throttle, but carries none of the humour and fun of the merchandise.
Hologram Elvis dueting with Celine Dion on American idol in 2007 was an all time low. Or so we thought at the time; the hologram with band and orchestra for concerts on top of that since are cynical, vacuous exercises. In one report, organisers of the most recent tour said their intention is for people to ‘go to the show and say, Wow, oh my God! I saw Elvis 50, 60 years ago, and this is exactly the same thing.’
If the audience did say that, they were drunk. And that age group isn’t exactly expanding, is it? On the contrary. It is shrinking, so hardly one to focus on if longevity and legacy is the aim. And yet, bizarrely, that seems to be the intent.
In 2015, came the If I Can Dream: Elvis Presley With The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra album, the emotional high point of the 68 Comeback Special and other songs, recreated with orchestra and choir. The attempt to pass this exercise off as a way to keep him current and contemporary, dropping in notions of authenticity and ‘it’s what he would have wanted’ is laughable. The choir and orchestra are lobbed in there with all the grace of a clumsy plasterer flinging wet cement against a wall, smothering every nuance.
In If I can Dream, Elvis is drowned out by the bellowing choir and all the tiny flaws making the recording perfect have been smothered and killed off. It is cultural vandalism. But the album sold loads, to that loyal older fanbase, so The Wonder Of You: Elvis Presley With The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra followed last year.
It’s even got a posthumous duet with Michael Buble on it.
Contemporary artists who suddenly appear with orchestras seek to reassure an audience as it gets older and slap an extra tenner on a concert ticket while they’re at it, as if adding a hint of classical music makes them legitimate, the real deal. But instead it – depressingly- adds nostalgia before their time. Doing this to Elvis might steady older fans and give them a reassuring hug, but picking up fresh younger ones? Not so much.
No wonder those under 25s don’t want to know.
Scottish craft brewer and pub operator BrewDog, who created Elvis Juice, Grapefruit and blood orange IPA, were taken to court by Elvis Presley Enterprises this year to protect the Presley brand, citing copyright infringement.
A cheeky but clever publicity stunt by BrewDog, and a predictable but daft one move by EPE, putting up roadblocks for a young male audience out there to learn his name via the medium of craft ale. Missing out on fresh meat for those burgers, if you like.
A recent campaign by American Crew hair products added a further twist to the Elvis PR machine, and although he resembles a Thunderbird puppet in some of the images – God help us all if we live in a world where Elvis Presley isn’t good looking enough and needs a little filter help – he does come across somehow as cool and sexy, and relevant.
Last summer Legacy Recordings, who deal with the archives of Sony Music put out a Way Down In the Jungle Room, a quality compilation of 1970s recordings. In it, John Jackson writes fine sleeve notes about Elvis’ satisfaction and success in 1970s, specifically the 18 months leading to his death which offer a positive refreshing perspective. The cover is the strange thing about it. It does not have Elvis on it, instead a photograph of the Jungle Room, Elvis’ man cave in effect, a chair with a guitar placed on it taking centre stage.
Elvis, proper musician is the message. A quality product, with precise recording dates. But in the world of Way Down in the Jungle Room, he’s not a sex symbol anymore. Let’s whitewash that, it’s not part of the package.
The public is getting a blast of very mixed messages. Elvis the sex symbol, the object of desire and aspiration, is out there alongside the portly Elvis impersonators in white polyester jumpsuits.
That image of the opinionless thick hick can’t compete with the witty pithy instant social media responses from today’s popstars. And whilst there’s a big chunk still who will buy anything with his face on – and yes, I am one of those people – it’s not cutting through in 2017, 40 years dead anniversary or not.