Elvis 40 Years On: The King Is Dead—Long Live What’s His Name
Forty years after Elvis's death, his cult of personality is lost on a new generation.
I say Elvis. You say Elvis who?
Has it really come to that? Has Elvis Aaron Presley, who died 40 years ago this week, so faded from popular consciousness that some people don’t even know who you’re talking about anymore?
Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. The corporation that runs Graceland, Elvis’ Memphis home that’s now a tourist site, claims that 500,000 people still pour through the doors each year. His record company still pumps out deluxe repackagings of his catalog. Sirius radio has a channel dedicated solely to Elvis. So it’s not like the King is altogether forgotten.
Still, I’m willing to wager that Elvis’ fan base gets pretty skimpy among Gen X crowds and fades to almost nothing among millennials. Those generations have no trouble embracing the Beatles, Prince, David Bowie, or even the Ramones. I don’t see Elvis getting that kind of love.
Before long we may have more Elvis imitators than Elvis fans.
Unlike, say, Johnny Cash, his fellow Sun Records alumnus, Elvis never caught on in a big way with the generations born after he died. But then, Cash was perennially cool in a way Elvis was not.
Elvis’ appeal was more mysterious. First of all, it wasn’t merely about his music, at least not after the first few years. After he left the army and went to Hollywood and Vegas, the music became just another facet of the empire that his manager, Col. Tom Parker, built and ran off Elvis’ back for more than two decades. There would be more good songs (“Suspicious Minds,” “Burnin’ Love,” best jukebox song ever), but long before he died nobody thought of Elvis as anything but this weird cat in a class all his own.
The photographer William Eggleston captured the essence of “Why Elvis” when he said, “He just fit that hole there had never been a hero for.”
Eggleston should know: Like Elvis he was born in Mississippi and lived his adult life in Memphis. He, too, knows the bruising indifference any artist faces in the South, and about the bland affection that later accompanies success.
Eggleston is right. There was no one like Elvis before he came on the scene. There has been no one like him since. He is sui generis. Elvis imitators are so endearing because the whole act is an inside joke with the audience. He can be parodied but never truly imitated.
It is easier to say what he was not. Not a musical star nor a movie star in any conventional sense. He was a celebrity on a first-name basis with the whole world, but tagging him as just another celebrity is like saying the pope is a preacher. And still, while he will always get props for being the first through the door, after that Elvis didn’t influence musical culture very much. Instead, he became a presence that you might joke about or even mock, at least during that era when he seemed ready to burst out of that white, rhinestone-encrusted onesie. But you could never ignore him altogether because he was always, unavoidably, inevitably there. And then he died and here comes this avalanche of grief from fans who didn’t just love his music or his movies—they bought the whole package. Their houses were and are shrines to the King.
I wonder, though, if that adulation has caught on much with people born since he died. That kind of charisma doesn’t travel well past the grave. It has so little to do with art, or accomplishment of any kind, really. So there’s no trail of evidence. I’m reasonably sure I could play Buddy Holly or Chuck Berry records for a millennial, and while they might not dig it, they could understand why their ancestors thought it was hot stuff. I’m not at all sure I could sell that same audience on Elvis, based solely on his music. As for the rest of what made him an icon to so many, well, kids, you had to be there.
I toured Graceland a couple of years ago on damp, gray day that made the Christmas decorations look forlorn. It was like walking through a morgue with a lot of expensive drapes—and for the record, there were not many young people in my tour group.
Upstairs was all white upholstery and white shag carpet. Downstairs, with its wet bar and pool table and white and yellow leather wraparound couch, just looked like a kid’s idea of a bachelor pad.
The most interesting room in the house is the kitchen, because it’s so plain. There are no expensive appliances or fancy gizmos. You could find that kitchen in almost any middle class home from the ’60s, and I’m willing to bet it was built to order for Gladys Presley, Elvis’ mother. Whoever ordered it up certainly knew what they wanted.
Otherwise Graceland looks merely like the home of somebody with more money than imagination. Everywhere curtains blot out the daylight, and downstairs, where the King hung out, there are no windows at all. There are lots of mirrors. Everywhere. But not even the Jungle Room, hoot that it is, can dispel the pall that hangs over the place. All in all, it’s a gloomy, claustrophobic tour, a dour reminder of things past that seem to be fading before your eyes. Maybe it was animated in its heyday, but believe me, if he was ever there, Elvis has long since left the building.