Does Elvis matter anymore?
The 40th anniversary of his death got me to thinking – Does Elvis Presley still matter in the 21st century? The answer is yes, but with a few caveats.
Elvis undoubtedly ushered in the rock ‘n’ roll revolution of the 1950s. Sure, there was already some amazing rock music before he wandered into Sun Studios back in ’53, but nothing gripped the mainstream and ignited a true cultural revolution the way Elvis did. Call it cultural appropriation (I certainly do), call it bold-faced racism (that too) or simply chalk it up to 1950s society only being able to accept a white dude singing this new music. Whatever the reasons, Elvis Presley was chosen by the cosmos to be the flag bearer for baby boomer freedom, and that in turn became the overarching idea of what rock ‘n’ roll was.
So what does that mean to young 21st century music fan? Should they care? Artistically, Elvis’s contributions all happened in a pretty short amount of time. He did all of the truly groundbreaking stuff between ’54 and ’58. That’s when he was forging the template of what we now call “rock star”. Charismatic, controversial, sexually compelling… Elvis had all of that stuff going on in the early days. Later on, not so much.
By 1958, he had been drafted into the army and would return to a career of goofy movies, glitzy live gigs, a posse of sycophants and fame that traded on his celebrity more than his artistry. It stayed that way until his death in 1977. With the exception of one shining moment in 1968, music fans can safely ignore all that stuff.
“Elvis is iconic. A lot of performers today look to that for inspiration”
It’s worth noting that Elvis didn’t write one note of the music he made famous – just like the vast majority of today’s pop stars. He was primarily the voice and charismatic face of music crafted by others – just like the vast majority of today’s pop stars. That’s not a value judgment, it’s just the way it is. Songwriting performers are a different thing from Elvis or modern pop stars and they should be judged differently. Elvis’s contemporaries like Chuck Berry and Little Richard were playing a wholly different game; much like Dave Grohl and Rihanna are playing different games today.
Elvis matters because every single performer who gets on stage or goes into the studio to perform pop music is standing in his shadow – even if they don’t realize it. That’s an undeniable fact and it should be both recognized and celebrated. He had many, many moments of utter badassery. Those moments may have gotten buried under the oversized, bedazzled jumpsuits of time, but they’re there nonetheless.
“When Elvis was there, they were stopping everything. Elvis had the moment for real. While I’m here, its not all about 50 Cent, but it was all about Elvis”
– 50 Cent
“I’m not the first king of controversy/ I am the worst thing since Elvis Presley/ To do black music so selfishly/ And use it to get myself wealthy”
– Eminem “Without Me”
“Nothing really affected me until I heard Elvis. If there hadn’t been an Elvis, there wouldn’t have been a Beatles”
– John Lennon
“It was like he came along and whispered some dream in everybody’s ear, and somehow we all dreamed it”
– Bruce Springsteen
The King has now been gone for 40 years. He’s just a black and white image that appears on screens when rock ‘n roll nostalgia is being discussed. He’s mythology. But like all good myths, there’s a thread of universality to Elvis. He’s the nexus of a rock ‘n’ roll revolution that is still going strong. Better recognize.