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Jewish World Review August 16, 2002 / 8 Elul, 5762

Diana West

Diana West
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Elvis shall rise again | Brace yourself for a whole lotta shakin' today for the 25th anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley. Americans may not be a deeply reflective people, but that doesn't mean they don't take matters of celebrity life and death very seriously -- particularly celebrity death, particularly at nice, round five-year intervals and particularly when given unsubtle hints from the corporate world.

Take Elvis, for example. According to a New York Post article outlining an elaborate business plan "to resuscitate a legend," the pending outbreak of Elvis worship is about as natural as his cause of death by drug overdose at age 42. Indeed, Presley record sales have lately "plummeted," while the path to Graceland has become noticeably less beaten. But rather than let "the King of Rock 'n' Roll" and his music sales die off, RCA and the Presley estate came up with a plan to link Elvis tracks to everything from Disney's "Lilo and Stitch" to the World Cup.

The 25th death-day campaign has paid off: Elvis' rendition of "A Little Less Conversation," remixed for a Nike spot, topped European and American pop charts this summer. As further testament to the Presley people's media muscle, NBC this weekend will air its "restored" version of "Loving You," that veritable movie classic in which Elvis is promoted to stardom. It used to be that life imitated art; now, it seems, afterlife imitates art, too.

Having groomed the late singer for posthumous success, RCA will get down to business: stocking music stores with "best-of" Elvis sets for the kids and "unreleased" material for older audiences. There are even plans -- what the heck -- to remaster and rerelease the entire Presley songbook. And won't we all know it: RCA is shelling out $10 million to sell the King this time -- "more than it has spent on advertising for the work of any other artist in its history," reports the Post.

Which means exactly what -- besides the fact that anniversary outpourings of affection (and cash) for a late pop star take an awful lot of orchestration? Before answering, it's worth noting that shortly after Presley's demise in 1977, Bing Crosby, a pop star of even greater stature, also passed away. With more No. 1 hits to his name (38) than any singer to this day -- the Beatles have 24, and Elvis has 18 -- Crosby's achievements as a multimedia entertainer remain unrivaled: A radio star for 30 years, Bing made more recordings and charted records than any singer (dead or alive), and was the only movie star to rank as the No. 1 box-office attraction five times between 1915 and 1980, garnering four Academy Award nominations, including one Oscar, along the way. As biographer Gary Giddens has noted, when Crosby died of a heart attack after walking off the 18th green (famous last words: "That was a great game of golf, fellas"), that "stature seemed especially secure: His obituaries triggered so many record sales" -- more than a million discs a day -- "that MCA (Decca) could not handle the orders and farmed them out to other plants."

That, of course, was then. Not only does Crosby no longer rate the star treatment, he's vanished into a black hole. Why? The dominance of rock 'n' roll provides a partial answer; its surprising endurance has all but obliterated everything that came before Elvis.

But near-sighted hindsight isn't the complete explanation. The emergence and entrenchment of "youth" culture adds to it, but the preponderance of AARP members among Presley fans today fails to explain his cultural currency and Crosby's obsolescence.

Another reason why Bing, not to mention the culture he may have epitomized, are today viewed as antiquities has something to do with the complex legacy of some of his most famous fans, the "Greatest Generation." Its collective heroism surely won World War II, but its members ended up having the tar beaten out of them in the culture wars that took them unawares on their return. (And I say this as a devoted daughter of a Normandy invasion veteran.) While those Greatest guys may have gone on to sell more insurance, build more buildings, buy more cars, and raise bigger families than generations preceding them, for a tangle of reasons -- "booming" demographics and unprecedented affluence across age and class, to name two -- they ended up failing to make an enduring mark on the culture they sacrificed so much to preserve. Weirdly enough, they have left few indelible tracks through the rock culture that arose after the war they won. In giving the world a new start, they seem to have ruled themselves out of the race.

No wonder Elvis Presley's death anniversary is such a big deal. It takes us back to what amounts to the dawn of our times. What better reason to buy a few records?

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JWR contributor Diana West is a columnist and editorial writer for the Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2001, Diana West