Dead Elvis turns 30 on August 16, and what else is there to say about the man? Incredibly, quite a lot. Despite all the books, newspaper and magazine articles, cheapo TV documentaries, and websites devoted to The King, his legacy still hasn't been pinned down and kept safe encased behind glass. It's still being sorted out. In many ways Elvis is more popular and polarizing than ever. Along with The Beatles and '60s Motown, he's at least familiar to practically everybody, and most of us have something to say about his music or (more likely) his image and myth. In death as in life, Elvis embodies the chasm in this country between white and black, old and young, liberals and conservatives, north and south, snobs and slobs, high and low culture, the church and the crotch—and the allegiances are constantly changing.
As an Elvis fan, I'm not going to bother addressing the usual slams against him–that he stole the black man's music, that he's a dumb redneck, that he peaked early with his Sun Records period, that he died an overweight joke and is best remembered as a fat guy in a white jumpsuit. (Head to the comments section for more, where I'm sure the same tired litany is already underway.) I'd rather direct Elvis detractors to Peter Guralnick's terrific two-part biography–Last Train To Memphis and Careless Love–or Greil Marcus' essay "Presliad" from Mystery Train for a far more eloquent defense than I could ever muster. Or just listen to the music, which is too broad and ambitious in scope to be minimized by a few dismissive words. I've been digging deep lately into the King Of Rock 'n' Roll box set, which collects all of Elvis' '50s material, and I'm amazed by how, from the very beginning, he freely indulged in country, gospel, saccharine pop ballads, throwaway novelty numbers, and jazzy New Orleans R&B; along with the blues and rockabilly songs he's most commonly associated with during that period. It's maddening, at times, to listen to Elvis, because his openness to singing any kind of music that appealed to him makes him inherently inconsistent. Or maybe he just underscores your own prejudices against certain genres, which is your problem, not his. At any rate, while Elvis' place in the pantheon might still be up for debate, the breadth of his discography makes him one of the most contradictory, inclusive and (not coincidently) fascinating artists in all of pop music. As Marcus wrote in "Presliad"–the single greatest piece of rock criticism ever written, published two years before Presley's death–Elvis is "a great artist, a great rocker, a great purveyor of schlock, a great heart throb, a great bore, a great symbol of potency, a great ham, a great nice person, and, yes, a great American." Like America, Elvis is everything you could ever want and not want in a single package.
I would like to dismiss one of the most common (and ignorant) knocks on Elvis—that because he didn't write his own songs, he is somehow less important as an artist. It's funny, because Elvis at times was as much an R&B; or country singer as a rock 'n' roller, and those genres are much kinder to artists who can skillfully interpret somebody else's song–like an actor with a script—and make you believe and feel every word. But rock fans have long been biased in favor of singer-songwriters, which is pretty dumb, because writing your own material by no means automatically makes your music better. Scott Stapp writes his own songs; does that make him a better artist than Elvis? Pop isn't supposed to be a composer-dominated medium like classical music. Great songs are essential, but only as vessels that equally great singers and musicians use to connect emotionally with listeners. And, clearly, few singers have connected with listeners like Elvis.
It's silly to suggest that simply because Elvis wasn't a songwriter he wasn't in command of his music. He took a singular path marked by myriad stylistic turns both inspired and plain crazy. He picked songs from all corners of the musical universe, and ferreted out the core emotional elements he returned to again and again–the comfort and confinement of tradition, the operatic push and pull of romantic relationships, the inevitability of loneliness–to make it all fit together. And he was adventurous to an unprecedented degree–imagine a singer covering Toby Keith, Amy Grant, Josh Groban, The White Stripes, and R. Kelly on his next album, and we'll talk about a rock singer approximating Elvis' range. He is the great performer-auteur of rock music, and 30 years on, we're still trying to make sense of what he left behind.