Is Elvis Presley overrated?
August 16th marks the 25th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death — a fact that legions of Presley fans no doubt view as highly significant, an excuse for everything from memorial barbecues to day-long blocks of Elvis music. Me, I couldn’t care less. As Public Enemy’s Chuck D once remarked, ”Elvis was a hero to most, but he never meant s— to me.”
Let me explain. Sure, I understand Elvis’ historical significance. He came along at a time when popular music meant Patti Page and Perry Como, and his (then) new-fangled fusion of country and R&B effectively introduced what would become known as rock & roll to mainstream America. A lot of his early records are still exciting (thanks largely to the great sidemen he had playing with him). Props are due.
But my problem with Elvis has always been the absurd degree to which this guy — the bulk of whose post-’50s career was, by most yardsticks, an extended embarrassment — has been lionized. Jeez, the cat didn’t even write his own songs, and he barely played guitar, pioneering the use of that instrumnent as pure prop. Stacked up against his contemporaries — Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis — Elvis falls short in terms of both artistry and creativity.
Of course, I wasn’t around in the mid-’50s when Elvis made his first impact. I’ve been told it was one of those you-had-to-be-there experiences. People whose adolescence coincided with Presley’s rise swear that seeing and hearing him was a heavier, more profound epiphany than those afforded by the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, Jimi at Monterey, the Ramones at CBGB, or Nirvana on Top Forty radio. More to the point, they argue, there was no precedent for Presley, so the shock of the new was all that much more more dramatic and life-changing.
Again, I understand the argument. But my exposure to Presley was mostly seeing him ”act” in a series of REALLY bad movies, or catching snatches of his Vegas-styled performances on the tube. By the time I fell in love with rock & roll in the late ’60s, Elvis seemed like a joke — a relic from another era who inexplicably still held onto the title of ”the King.” Occasionally, he’d come up with a halfway decent song — ”In the Ghetto,” say, or ”Suspicious Minds” — but they seemed to have almost no link to rock music as I understood it.
I always wanted to give Elvis the benefit of the doubt, mostly because lots of musicians I admired sang his praises. But I remain resolutely unconvinced of his putative status as the Be All and End All of Rock & Roll Cool. In my book, anyone who waltzed around in a sequinned leisure suit was uncool by definition. Eventually, my feelings hardened into… well, distaste is the only word. It got so bad that I remember silently cheering the Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten when he responded to news of Presley’s death with the words, ”Good riddance to bad rubbish.”
Okay, now I’ve gone and done it: I’ve earned myself a permanent spot on the Elvis Presley Appreciation Society’s S-List. Yet I suspect I’m not alone in my feelings. I’ve talked to others who agree with my contention that Chuck Berry has far more right to claim the title of ”King of Rock & Roll” than Elvis the Pelvis.
Of course, this is just one man’s opinion. Now I’d like to hear yours. What do you say? Was Elvis overrated?