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Elvis’ Cultural Cachet Has Gone Up and Down Over the Years, But He’s Still Way More Relevant Than You Think

We're taking a new look at the King's legacy

elvis relevant essay
Elvis Presley, photo by RB/Redferns
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    Go ahead: Google “Beatles are irrelevant” and “Rolling Stones are irrelevant.” The former will net you about half a million results — the latter, a hair under two million. Now, Google “Elvis is irrelevant.” You’ll get more than twice the results of both those queries — combined.

    At first thought, this is understandable. The Stones remain a titanic concert draw despite losing a key member. The Beatles’ Get Back didn’t just lift us out of Turkey Day doldrums; it bestowed on us a rare case of almost universal common ground. Recent deluxe editions of both beloved bands’ classic albums do gangbusters on Spotify. Speaking of: at press time, the Beatles command 26 million monthly listeners; the Stones, 21 mil. Elvis Presley? A paltry 13.

    Granted, there are many potential reasons for the above — are Elvis fans more likely to use Spotify, or pull out their LPs and jewel cases? Plus, on that service, Elvis remains far more listened-to than early contemporaries Chuck Berry (5 million monthly listeners), Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly (2 million each), Little Richard (1 million), and the rest. Still, do those numbers befit the man who set a Guinness World Record for best-selling solo music artist?

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    Which brings us back to that Google search: Is Elvis Presley irrelevant? The topic has been examined and reexamined; just why Elvis’s modern-day cultural cachet seems disproportionate to his global impact is a matter of journalistic interest.

    In 2017, The Guardian ran an article addressing the King’s “plummeting” popularity, citing a poll of 18- to 24-year-olds that revealed that 29% of them had never listened to an Elvis song. Therein, a University of Leeds music professor stated, “If you ask a small child about Elvis, the fact he died on a toilet through overeating or wore a silly suit is all that registers.” (He went on to call Elvis a “novelty act” in the eyes of youngsters.)

    History followed it up with a shocking observation: in 2016, Elvis was streamed on Spotify only 382 million times. (For context, David Bowie and Michael Jackson each doubled him; the Beatles, by contrast, were streamed 1.3 billion times.) “[Elvis] no longer resonates with younger generations the way he once did,” they declared.

    In 2020, Rolling Stone’s David Browne reported on the Elvis business’s diminishing returns in the 21st century — and the effort to overhaul his image, especially with a younger demo. Which is exactly what director Baz Luhrmann seems to want to do with Elvis, his new biopic starring Austin Butler and Tom Hanks (out June 24th).

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    “[He’s become] like a Halloween costume or wallpaper,” Luhrmann told The New York Times in May, illustrating how Elvis’s ubiquity has become a double-edged sword. “He’s so there, he’s not there anymore.” But aside from colossal media extravaganzas like Elvis, how can we make the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll there again? Maybe the answer doesn’t lie in the marketplace. Maybe it comes from certain mental frameworks.

    For instance, what if we consider Elvis to be not a hopelessly distant anachronism, but an archetype for the modern multimedia-spanning pop star? Think about it: Elvis rose from nothing to become a hydra-headed media figure, straddling TV, film, records and the stage.

    “If you want to know the future of the business, man, look at Elvis Presley,” Panos A. Panay, the co-founder of the Recording Academy, told GRAMMY.com in 2021. “He set the mold for what a prototypical superstar is — a multi-faceted superstar, that’s engaged in music, that sets fashion trends, that activates different media.”

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    And for Elvis, being a multimedia activator didn’t just entail showing up in those various spaces; he pioneered several of them. Specifically, he helped pioneer the music video and the Las Vegas residency. To the point of the former, Elvis crystallized the point of the music video — making a visual statement while selling a record — in his many films. (However well-received they were, or not.)

    To the latter, Elvis was instrumental in the establishment of the Las Vegas residency as a desirable career high-watermark. As Richard Zoglin laid out in his 2019 book Elvis in Vegas: How the King Reinvented the Las Vegas Show, Presley’s first Vegas run in 1969 (and more than 600 shows in the city afterward) set the stage for others to follow suit.

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