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Suspicious minds: why Elvis's posthumous popularity is plummeting

Suspicious minds: why Elvis's posthumous popularity is plummeting

With a third of young adults having never heard an Elvis song and the value of his merchandise sinking, is the king of rock’n’roll destined to be remembered as nothing more than a goofy tribute act?

 All shook up … Elvis Presley c.1955. Photograph: Hulton Getty

All shook up … Elvis Presley c.1955. Photograph: Hulton Getty

Forty years since his death, Elvis Presley’s image remains one of the most iconic in music history. The same cannot be said for his songs, however: according to a snap YouGov poll of 2,034 British adults, a hefty 29% of 18- to 24-year-olds said they had never listened to an Elvis song, with none of this age group listening to him daily and only 8% listening monthly. Asked what they thought of other veteran stars, about twice as many said they liked the Beatles (23%) and David Bowie (25%) “a lot” compared with the King (12%).

Even if there’s evidence of dwindling reverence among millennials, the YouGov data clearly shows Elvis’s popularity among older generations. Despite this, with the value of rare Elvis merchandise in freefall, his Graceland estate will be acutely aware of the financial repercussions of failing to connect with younger audiences, even as the 40th anniversary of his death approaches.

There’s no denying Elvis maintains posthumous popularity: Spotify reveals he achieved 382m streams in 2016. Yet compare this to other deceased stars such as Bowie (who clocked in at more than 600m), Michael Jackson (also more than 600m), or the long-disbanded Beatles (1.3bn), and these numbers look less impressive.

Elvis has fallen to the status of “novelty act”, according to David Hesmondhalgh, an author and professor of music at the University of Leeds, who says that any musician whose image transcends their music will ultimately fade away: “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. The music has become far less important than the caricature. His image has been cheapened.”

“Any fat bloke can throw on an Elvis costume and sing stupidly down the pub for £100,” agrees Lee Arthur, the founder of A1 Star Tributes, a firm that brands itself as Europe’s top tribute act agency. “I don’t know about America, but it’s really damaged demand over here.” Elvis tribute acts were once big business, but with so many cheap knock-offs, Arthur says punters are now more interested in Gary Barlow and Michael Bublé lookalikes.

The agency has 10 “professional” Elvis impersonators on its books, who will belt out a pitch-perfect Hound Dog and pose in wedding photos with your nana for £450. Arthur, however, says he can charge at least double that for his Michael Jackson impersonators. “With MJ, the audience can have more of a dance and a singalong.”

Elvis’s golden period was arguably between 1956 and 1960, when his televised “snake hip” dance routines induced a trance-like euphoria among American teenagers. During this period, he dominated the charts, clocking up 12 No 1s.

This dominance came before the emergence of the concept album in the mid-60s, when LPs such as Rubber Soul and Pet Sounds would evolve the idea of modern pop music. “Elvis was an excellent singles artist,” explains Hesmondhalgh. “He emerges before the formation of rock culture as we know it, so the mythology of the original rock album was lost on Elvis. He doesn’t have anything near a Sgt Pepper for young people to connect through.”

William Kaufman, professor of American literature and culture at the University of Central Lancashire, says Elvis’s image suffered from allegations of racism and cultural appropriation.

In 1989, Chuck D used Public Enemy’s political anthem Fight the Power to rap: “Elvis was a hero to most / But he never meant shit to me / Straight up racist, the sucker was / Simple and plain,” as Flavour Flav punctuates his verse with the ad-lib: “Muthafuck him and John Wayne!” It’s an insult that has endured.

“You could say the Beatles ripped off Chuck Berry or the Rolling Stones ripped off Howlin’ Wolf, but those allegations haven’t stuck around like the ones that have dogged Elvis,” says Kaufman. “Hound Dog was written by two white guys, yet Elvis is visibly still accused of having ‘whitened’ black culture.”

By the time Elvis attempted a comeback in the 70s, music had moved on. Looking back on footage of these performances, Elvis appears out of breath, bloated and his awkward banter with bandmates feels like the antithesis to rock’s emerging post-Vietnam counterculture. Led Zeppelin it wasn’t.

During one of his later shows, Elvis angrily calls out critics for calling him “strung out” on heroin. “If I find the individual who said that about me, I’m going to break your neck, you son of a bitch,” he barks, to almost sarcastic applause. “I will pull your goddamn tongue out!”

“For the Hawaii comeback show, Elvis looked great,” says Kaufman. “But too much of those late shows starred an Elvis who was prepared to parody himself and let old women throw underwear at him. The rawness had gone. With TV sets, those images left a lasting impression.”

Kaufman adds that Elvis’s early death prevented him from reinventing his image, in the manner of Johnny Cash’s darker late work with the producer Rick Rubin.

Mike Furnival (left) and friends Tim Fear and Conrad Clews, who joined over one hundred Elvis lookalikes at a Stoke City game. Photograph: Don McPhee for the Guardian

Mike Furnival (left) and friends Tim Fear and Conrad Clews, who joined over one hundred Elvis lookalikes at a Stoke City game. Photograph: Don McPhee for the Guardian

Over recent years there have been various embarrassing attempts to repackage the Elvis brand, the low point being a hologram duet with Celine Dion. But dig deeper through the Elvis catalogue and there are undeniable gems waiting to be rediscovered.

From Elvis in Memphis (1969) marked his return to non-movie soundtracks, with songs such as In the Ghetto retaining their gritty sense of social realism nearly 50 years later. During this period, a more mature Presley effortlessly tackled gospel, soul, country and pop, and was backed by such faultless studio musicians as bass guitarist Jerry Scheff, who was later pinched by the Doors to stamp his mark all over their blues masterpiece LA Woman.

Pointing to Father John Misty, whose ironic Elton John-esque sound has made it acceptable for hipsters to pick up represses of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Hesmondhalgh says we shouldn’t write Elvis off just yet.

“While I can’t see black culture ever embracing Elvis, there is certainly the potential for a hipster-led revival. In the era of Trump, the idea of Elvis as an absurd camp figure could also work well,” he adds. “But equally, maybe we should just accept that Elvis’s moment has passed.”

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