The once and future king
He's the darling of the Disney set for his soundtrack contributions to the animated film, "Lilo & Stitch." A techno remix of an old song has made him the toast of the dance club scene, not to mention giving him his latest No. 1 hit. His former wife is turning the story of their romance into a Broadway musical.
Even Eminem name-checks him in a comparison of their controversial careers on the rapper's latest album, "The Eminem Show."
Clearly, Elvis Presley's death hasn't slowed down his career. In fact, the largest-selling recording artist in history may be bigger now than when he lived. Having earned $35 million in 2000, Elvis holds the Guinness world record for the richest deceased celebrity. And, with the 25th anniversary of his passing next Friday, the full-court press of commemorative-related marketing is just starting.
Random House has just published two titles: "The Elvis Treasures" by Robert Gordon, a lush 3-D coffee-table book containing pockets full of pull-out Graceland artifact reproductions; and "The Girls' Guide to Elvis" by Kim Adelman, a dishy paperback that includes low-fat versions of his favorite recipes.
RCA's compilation, "Elvis 30 # 1 Hits," will reach store shelves this fall, just in time for holiday giving. (DJ Junkie XL's remix of "A Little Less Conversation," a No. 1 hit in more than a dozen countries, also will be included.) A four-disc box of alternate takes, "Elvis: Today, Tomorrow & Forever," came out in June.
There's a TV documentary in the works, modeled after the Beatles "Anthology" series, that examines Elvis's cultural impact. VH1 is planning several hours of special Elvis programming on Aug. 16. There's even a play about what might go on if Elvis were to show up alive today. (Insert sighting joke here.) We also have the new line of furniture "inspired by" Elvis's Graceland homestead in Memphis and his Bel Air manse (it includes the Burning Love mirror and Love Me Tender bed) and a 25th-anniversary Monopoly edition.
Kitsch aside, milestone anniversaries provide perfect opportunities to reexamine the lives of our biggest legends, though trying to define what turns an artist like Elvis into a universal icon is about as easy as trying to take the calories out of a fried peanut-butter and banana sandwich. But theories abound regarding why the man whose life could have filled a whole season of "Behind the Music" episodes is still such a towering figure in popular culture.
Despite what Graceland visitors might expect to see in the days ahead during an extra-big-deal "Elvis Week," his popularity extends far beyond jump-suited imitators and chubby ladies of a certain age, insists Ernst Jorgensen. He's an in-house Elvis historian at RCA Records, which owns all rights to Presley's music. (Elvis Presley Enterprises owns rights to everything else, including his name and likeness.)
"What you see at the anniversaries ... as a very visible thing that always ends up on TV stations all over the world, is just the top of the iceberg," says Mr. Jorgensen. "There is a tendency to not want to look at the full scope of who is it, actually, who likes Elvis. Tom Hanks likes Elvis, and Bruce Springsteen likes Elvis." Britney Spears even did an Elvis homage in Vegas. The elvisly-yours.com Web site contains several pages of mainly younger fans seeking Elvis-loving pen pals, like Emma, 16, of Sweden, who pleads, "Write to me if you love Elvis as much as I do!!"
Bobby Davis, media coordinator for Graceland/Elvis Presley Enterprises (EPE), reports that half of the 600,000 or so visitors Graceland gets each year are 35 or under, and several fan clubs cater to younger fans.
Jorgensen says some people still reject Elvis based on a cultural image superimposed on him, but he notes that RCA's expensive boxed sets sell very well; that guys in their 40s shelve them right next to their Springsteen and Rolling Stones boxes, "which shows that people want to look at Elvis the musician and can look beyond both his mistakes and what the media has created since."
But even at the beginning, Elvis was more than a musician. A Baptist-raised Southern boy with a highly sexualized image, he blurred the lines between outrageousness and Puritanism, says Rosemary Welsch, program director at Pittsburgh radio station WYEP-FM. "He epitomizes the split personality of the American psyche."
According to Howard Kramer, associate curator at Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, "Elvis has endured because, like any great artist, his music continues to touch people. ... He was the right man at the right time."
His rags-to-riches life was also inspiring, says Ms. Welsch. "Our royalty always comes from the poorer classes. At the same time, we love his trashiness," she says. "He is our Kmart star."
A harsher assessment comes from a station colleague who prefers to remain anonymous.
"Elvis endures because people are afraid of new, innovative music," he says.
Peter Finney, a Nashville-based musician, agrees. "People lock in on the glory years of their lives," explains Mr. Finney. While playing Elvis tunes in country bars in the early 1970s, in precosmopolitan Washington, D.C., Finney saw plenty of country music fans styling themselves after the young Elvis.
"The '50s cultural signifiers and dress, they pretty much got stuck there," he says. "[These people] became country fans by default because they didn't buy into the rock 'n' roll culture." The irony was that, by then, Elvis was the epitome of unhip.
"Elvis's slide into irrelevance, or worse," Finney says, "mirrored his fans' slide into middle age and Southern, working-class culture."
His last years and tabloid-story death further separated his diehard supporters from post-Beatles rock 'n' rollers.
But projects like the "Conversation" remix and "Lilo & Stitch" are drawing in fans who have no previous frame of reference for Elvis. They just like what they hear, not unlike his earliest radio fans.
Mr. Gordon says he pondered the popularity question carefully while compiling the "Treasures" book.
"Part of the reason he became so popular so fast was [that] his ascent coincided with the advent of television. So you have this very visual image of a guy doing a very visual performance coming into black and white living rooms all over America. That sort of lightning bolt created the initial ardent fan base," Gordon observes.
Then there's the image, which he says, "drips with feeling."
Looking at photos of the young Elvis, Gordon notes, "You sense both the innocent boyishness and the starry eyes of fame, and the longing for privacy."
That allure and sensitivity were a powerful combination, and quickly helped build his icon status.
Combined with the fascinating triumph and ultimate tragedy of his 42-year life, Elvis was destined for mythological status. But Gordon also observes, "There's art in some of those records that will forever live. A Martian could hear those Sun recordings and be a fan."
That's what Richard Sanders, executive vice president and general manager of RCA, loves to hear. The label has formed a special committee to come up with ways to "revitalize Elvis and reach new audiences" for which the remix and "Lilo & Stitch" provided perfect opportunities.
"What we're trying to do," Sanders says, "is bring the focus back to the music of Elvis as opposed to the caricature, and perhaps the image of Elvis coming out of the '70s that had nothing really to do with the masterful music he created."
In other words, they'd really like to get away from the flashy, "middle-aged clown" Elvis imitators, the shtick figures that are as much cartoons as the caped-crusader comic-book superheroes Elvis tried to model himself after.
Finally, after years of mistreatment, Sanders says, RCA has recognized what a treasure the Elvis catalog really is.
"And now that treasure is being shined and polished and being presented ... (with) a dignity attached to it. We feel there's an obligation. And we need to preserve it. This is a cultural jewel," he says, "... and it needs to shine brightly for quite some time."