McMINNVILLE, Ore. (BP)–Aug. 16, 1977, Elvis Presley died. Twenty-five years later and the King of rock ‘n’ roll is as popular as ever. Fortune magazine estimates that Presley’s estate earned $37 million from June 2001 to June 2002. As many observe the anniversary of Elvis’ death, one question lingers: Why is Elvis Presley worth remembering?
As a song stylist and showman, Elvis was royally endowed with talent. Emotion poured forth from a Presley performance. From his frantic on-stage gyrations that Time magazine once observed made him look “as if he had swallowed a jackhammer,” to his strong and flexible voice, Elvis connected emotionally with his audiences like few ever have.
But talent-wise, was Elvis head and shoulders above all who came before and after him? Is he “the King” because of his musical genius? After all, he wrote none of the songs he recorded. Make no mistake about it you who worship at the altar of Elvis, once he sang a song it was “his.” But though he is credited as a “co-writer” on a fist-full of songs, no rock ‘n’ roll historian seriously believes Elvis had anything to do with the creation of any of his music.
Talent alone cannot explain Elvis’ strong appeal a quarter century after his death. Nor can another element that gave rise to his career, which was innovation.
What Elvis managed to do, that no other performer before was able to do, was synthesize rock, country and the blues. Elvis integrated music before integration was cool. Some historians have observed that Presley expressed himself musically like the Negro singers of his era. Because he was white, the “black” music of the times became palatable to white teens. Many legends of the recording industry believe Elvis’ greatest gift to popular music, and to society, was this innovation.
Elvis’ talent and innovative instincts, along with a carefully crafted naughty-but-nice image — Presley was packaged as rebellion with manners — helped him to be crowned the King of rock. However, it was not these attributes that enabled him to remain upon his royal throne. What is it that makes people continue to buy his music and wait in line for hours to tour his home, Graceland? In a word, it is nostalgia.
Johannes Hofer coined the word nostalgia in the late 17th century. The Swiss physician thought it to be a disease, whose symptoms included a profound state of melancholy and loss of appetite, which particularly plagued Swiss mercenary soldiers serving away from home. The word has come to mean a longing for things, persons or situations of the past.
Elvis’ rise to the top of popular music was meteoric. His definitive years came between 1954 and 1960. With the ’60s came tumultuous societal upheaval. The huge demographic segment known as the baby boomers — whose sheer size was enough to fuel Presley’s fame — experienced, and reacted to, the Vietnam war, the civil rights movement, the birth control pill and a myriad of other cultural changes. Added to all the change were the assassinations of three of the generation’s most respected leaders. The ’60s are not looked upon as a time of serenity and stability. Far from it, they were a series of social earthquakes with aftershocks that are still shaking decades later.
Elvis’ fame after 1960 was fueled, as I see it, by the nostalgia of the largest generation in the history of the United States. Whenever Elvis performed, it was like being transported to a kinder and gentler era. Elvis was, and still is, an escape of sorts. His songs connect to distant memories that are always more pleasant when relived in the mind.
That Elvis died when he was beginning to fade as a performer only strengthens his nostalgic allure. Few choose to remember the overweight Presley. When his smooth voice is heard, it is the svelte singer the memory conjures.
Like an anchor in a storm-tossed sea, nostalgia provides a feeling of stability in changing times. Elvis is nostalgia personified. Does that make him worth remembering? Obviously to many it does. However, an anchor is only as good as that to which it is attached. Only that which is anchored in the Prince of Peace, Jesus Christ, provides true stability in changing times. All other ground is shifting sand.
Boggs, whose column appears in Baptist Press each week, is pastor of Valley Baptist Church, McMinnville, Ore.