Updated: Aug 16
It’s a difficult thing to judge, how much something matters. There’s an abstract sensibility, an intangible yet significant collection of lines, which blur and convalesce to varying degrees yet separate that which matters from the matters-not. This difficulty to ascertain relevance is only forced closer to the precipice of impossibility when the task is to outline how much a musician, an entertainer, can be said to matter. In this most subjective of subjective fields, judging whether anyone can objectively be said to “matter” at all can feel like a fool’s errand.
Even so; Elvis matters.
He remains arguably the most famous name of the 20th Century, at least in regards to popular culture. His impact and influence on music is incalculable.
His fusing of Country, White ballad singing, African-American Gospel and Rhythm and Blues music unleashed not only a musical revolution the likes of which the world had never seen, but also a cultural one, a shift in power, from the adult to the teenager, the old to the young, the past to the future. Presley gave teenagers an enduring idol, an all-conquering champion and an identity all their own, more so than even his hero James Dean had done. That so much of the music industry, so much of the entertainment industry as a whole, is aimed largely at the teenage/young adult market even today is very largely down to the seismic shift that Presley poured forth.
Much has been written about the man. Some fact, some myth, most a blending of the two. For a figure so incomparably famous, it is surprising just how much of his coverage has been negative, throughout the various stages of his fame. He was infamously advised to “stick to driving trucks” at the beginning of his career. The Catholic Church in the USA labelled him a “danger to national security”. They called him “vulgar”, they called him “lowest common denominator.” They likened his performances to “burlesque”, as if that was some sort of insult. They called it “animalism.” They said that pop music had reached “a new low”, and that he was “unfit for family viewing.”
All of which is fairly well known.
Much less mention is made of how this consistently stalked Presley. Upon returning from serving his time in the US Army, significant portions of the critical reaction seemed to regard the shift in tone (generally seen as moving from full-on rebellious hell-raiser to a more sophisticated and polished performer) in a negative light. The rebel label, in many ways as much a construct of the media as it was Presley’s, was criticised for existing in the first instance only for the “shedding” of it to be derided as a cynical image manipulation or even, preposterously, an abandonment of principal.
There was much derision for his movies, too (although some of those… yeah, some of those were pretty awful) and even in the build up to his 1968 Comeback Special, an event so staggeringly impressive that many must have been struggling valiantly with Humble Pie all the way into 1969.
Peculiarly, there has continued a trail of such sniping even to the now, over 40 years since his death. This is no sour-grapes of a loyal subject of The King. Rather, this is a genuine bafflement, particularly afforded by the hindsight which has unavoidably served as the prism through which generations such as mine have observed the phenomenon that was, and is still, Elvis Presley.
A bafflement at just how much some of it, throughout his career and long after his death, carries such distinct and tangible wafts of crowing, of baying for failure, of insistence upon muddying his legacy.
Any figure of fame will be subjected to similar assaults. The bigger the star the bigger the target, and, after all, there was, is and very possibly never will be a star quite as big as he. Even so, one can’t help but wonder if the resentment didn’t come in part from elsewhere. That this boy of low stock, this “hick” of little education, this figure of immense and immediate popularity could be the most famous person in the world by the age of 21 simply must have raised many a heckle.
After all, not everyone admires a wish fulfilment figure.
Much of the contemporary image of Elvis is dominated by the bloated, sagging, barely-contained-in-a-jumpsuit caricature that lives on in many a newspaper cartoon, many a pop culture reference and many an impersonator.
And yet in spite of all the baggage, objectively, he mattered. As soon as Presley was heard, there was no longer White music or Black music, no longer music to listen to or music to dance to, no longer mainstream music or club music. Instead, there was just music. That was one of his gifts to the world, to those who followed in his stead. Boy did they appreciate it.
“When I first heard Elvis' voice, I just knew that I wasn't going to work for anybody, and nobody was going to be my boss” said Bob Dylan. "When we were kids growing up in Liverpool, all we ever wanted to be was Elvis Presley", said Paul McCartney. “People like myself, Mick Jagger and all the others only followed in his footsteps”, said Rod Stewart. "There'll never be another, like that Soul Brother“, opined James Brown. "Without Elvis, none of us could have made it” said Buddy Holly. "Ask anyone. If it hadn't been for Elvis, I don't know where popular music would be" said Elton John."Elvis was the reason I picked up the guitar”, said Paul Simon. And Bruce Springsteen? The Boss said that "It was like he came along and whispered some dream in everybody's ear, and somehow we all dreamed it."
His influence on music is indelible, his cultural significance extraordinary. Leonard Bernstein labelled him the greatest cultural force of the 20th Century. Yet there is something other about Elvis, something more. All of those quotes are deeply personal, speaking to the unique impact Elvis had on the life of those quoted. For all of them, when it comes to Elvis, it’s personal.
It’s personal too for the tens of thousands who attend a candlelight vigil on the anniversary of his death each year, as well as for the members of over four hundred official Fan Clubs, for the 12 million people who have liked Elvis on Facebook, for the countless millions more around the world. It’s deeply, deeply personal.
As personal, indeed, as it is for a half dozen or so young people in Central Scotland who gather, sporadically, for Elvis nights, nights where these people born in the 1990’s celebrate and discover and sing along to the songs and performances of a performer who died at least fifteen years before any of them were born.
For my friends and I, it’s personal.
Elvis is still one of the highest grossing deceased celebrities according to Forbes, so long after his death, having posthumous chart success on more than one occasion. Graceland continues to serve as a monument to his enduring popularity, topping the USA Today poll of US tourist attractions and the second most visited private home in the USA, beaten only by the White House itself. Elvis weeks held around the anniversary of his death see thousands upon thousands of tourists, music lovers and, yes, even Presley pilgrims descend on Memphis in August each year.
It’s more than that, though.
It transcends so many of the glowing quotes from so many giants that can be unearthed with the simplest of internet searches because it isn’t about which people love him, or why, or what poetic phrasing is employed to communicate it.
It is that he was loved, and is loved still, by so many, throughout generations. It is through this that he endures.
The 21st Century is still new. More and more generations will be born further and further from the time that this man lived. 2036 will mark the 100th anniversary of his birth. 2077 will mark a Century since his death. It remains to be seen how the popularity of Elvis Presley will be faring then. Even so, his legacy is assured.
It was always assured, right from the very beginning. There was no way the genie was going back in the bottle. From the first curling of that lip, the first flail of those legs, the first thrust of those hips and pivot of that pelvis, it was assured. From that first stretch of the three octaves or so range, that first Presley hiccup, that first clearing of the throat, it was assured.
Forever, the world was changed.
That he matters in an objective sense, well, it simply doesn’t matter.
We don’t love Elvis because he matters. Elvis matters because we love him.