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Elvis at 80: more clown than hero

Why we should ignore the birthday celebrations

Hazel Sheffield | January 8th 2015

Elvis Presley would have been 80 today. A string of parties around the world are being held to celebrate. One travel agency has arranged an 11-night tour of Tupelo and Vegas, landing in Memphis in time to see his widow Priscilla Presley cut a birthday cake on Graceland’s front lawn—a snip at £1,899, or available to stream live from home. In Sydney, 18,000 people are expected to descend on an annual Elvis festival where the main attraction is 2010’s top Elvis impersonator. In London, his life is being celebrated with an exhibition at the O2 arena.

But Elvis hasn’t aged well. Those bejewelled white jumpsuits, that cartoon quiff: now they’re the preserve of Halloween costumes and retro-themed parties at nightclubs in provincial towns. New bands don’t namecheck him as an influence, listeners don’t brag about their love of him the way they might about Bob Dylan or Johnny Cash. Professional impersonators have reduced Elvis’s image to a curled lip, a jutting hip—more clown than hero.

If his image has been distilled, his influence has been diluted. Elvis was one of the first white artists to appropriate black culture by adopting the blues—paving the way for UB40’s reggae and Eminem’s hip-hop—but as a white bluesman he’s been eclipsed numerous times, starting with the Rolling Stones. He was also one of the first teenagers singing for teenagers, just 19 when he recorded his first single in an outtake at Sun Studios in Memphis. The rock critic Lester Bangs said Elvis was “the man who brought overt blatant vulgar sexual frenzy to the popular arts in America”. His modern equivalent is One Direction’s Harry Styles, whose vomit on the side of an LA freeway was made into a shrine by teenage pilgrims last year.

Behind the image were the songs—the tentative quiver of “That’s All Right”, those “Hound Dog” handclaps, the two chords that open “Jailhouse Rock”. Once these songs inspired epiphanies. Tennessee Williams chose “Love Me Tender” as one of his Desert Island Discs. Robert Plant said “Heartbreak Hotel” changed his life. Barry White is said to have chosen a career in music after he heard “It’s Now or Never” on the prison radio. It’s not easy to have a relationship with them now that an industry has reduced Elvis to an image as commercial as Campbell’s Soup. Perhaps the only way to attempt it is to ignore the birthday celebrations, and listen.

Read more Elvis has been reduced to iconography, but Ray Connolly remembers meeting the man

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