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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.

    “It opened the door to big shows,” Zoglin told the New York Post. “All the modern residencies in Vegas, from Celine Dion to Lady Gaga — Elvis was the first of those kinds of shows.”

    “People used to make fun of the Las Vegas residency,” Panay noted. “But name an artist right now who doesn’t want a Las Vegas residency.”

    On top of that, why not enjoy Elvis as a cultural synthesist in the most cutting-edge sense? Granted, rock ‘n’ roll as a whole was a color-transcending enterprise, predicated on an unshakeable dialogue between Black and white cultures. But country, R&B, gospel, and blues were never more visibly fused than in Elvis.

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    And if one thinks whitewashing — or, worse, out-and-out racism — was the reason, consider that he never uttered the quote many like to skewer him with. As Elvis biographer Charles L. Ponce de Leon put it, “There is no question that in the early days of rock and roll, some whites cynically appropriated black culture for commercial purposes and deprived African-American artists of recognition and royalties.

    “But Elvis Presley was not among them,” Ponde de Leon continued. “And to identify him as one of the main culprits was bad history, a misperception of the facts.”

    Few other artists of Elvis’ caliber have fallen victim to so many misperceptions — chief among them that he’s a spent, forgotten entity in the music business. Forget that he was responsible for the rise of the Beatles, not to mention so many other household names; to open almost any rock bio is to hear about how “Heartbreak Hotel” lit a fire under many a budding star.

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    As Browne reported in his Rolling Stone story, one can appreciate Elvis not as a figment of the early rock ‘n’ roll era, but as an archetype for bootstrapping American success.

    “He’s the guy who was 18 and straight out of a not-great high school, trying to make something of himself,” John Jackson, a Sony Music VP who oversees Presley’s catalog, told Rolling Stone. That’s all that Drake and Justin Bieber wanted. You don’t present him as a rocker. You present him as this iconic American story.”

    That tracks with the trailers for Luhrmann’s Elvis, where his mugging and posing are soundtracked by blaring contemporary rock and hip-hop. Through the least charitable lens, perhaps the film will flail to position the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll as a cutting-edge figure, free of the trappings of the jumpsuits and the sequins and the drugs.

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    But even if there was no biopic, one has everything they need to position Elvis as a still-thrilling figure. If you’re a rock fan, just survey the landscape of the music that shaped you. And pay tribute to the King where it’s due.

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