"Elvis Presley is the greatest cultural force in the 20th century."

(Leonard Bernstein)


"If you're an Elvis fan, no explanation is necessary; If you're not an Elvis fan, no explanation is possible."

(George Klein)


"For a dead man, Elvis Presley is awfully noisy."

(Professor Gilbert B. Rodman)


"History has him as this good old country boy, Elvis is about as country as Bono!"

(Jerry Schilling)






Elvis continues to ‘sell out’ even after death

By DAVID SEGAL, The Washington Post Published: Friday, Dec. 31, 2004

It’s been two weeks since Elvis Presley was acquired in a cash and stock deal valued at $100 million, and still hardly anyone seems to have noticed, let alone gotten worked up about it. There were the obligatory mentions in the business pages. There were groans in the visitor forums of some Elvis Web sites - “the seven deadly sins come to mind,” sniped one fan. But not much more.

Sort of surprising, isn’t it? We’re talking about ownership of the pre-eminent icon of American pop culture, and like any icon, this one is in some important way our creation.

A businessman named Robert Sillerman, who made a fortune buying and selling radio stations and concert venues, now owns the King and he’s going to sell him - or his likeness, anyway - in markets he calls “under-Elvised.”

That means cities like Las Vegas and countries like Japan where, he said in interviews, images of Presley are surprisingly hard to find. Sillerman has gobs to invest in all sorts of ventures, and he could slap Elvis on mugs, T-shirts and souvenir mini-bowling balls from here to Okinawa. Lots of Presley partisans will salute this international product rollout, and anything else that raises the profile of their hero.

But that alone won’t explain the silence that greeted the size of the King’s ransom.

No, to understand that you need to know this: Elvis is the greatest sellout in American history. Not just in the history of rock ’n’ roll, mind you. He’s the greatest sellout, period. You’d be hard pressed to find someone who sold out more, sold out earlier, sold out with greater regularity.

Elvis started selling out almost as soon as he caught on, and he didn’t stop until - well, he never stopped actually. Which is why the Sillerman purchase never raised anyone’s dander. It makes perfect sense in the context of Elvis’s entire life. Actually, it makes perfect sense in the context of American history.

We’ve always been a little ambivalent about selling out; we do it more often and more grandly than any nation on Earth. The first recorded use of the phrase, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, referred to “the proposed sell-out of the State of North Dakota to the infamous Louisiana Lottery Company.”

We can only imagine what that must have been about. The year was 1890. The classic sellout, of course, involves trading your ideals for money, which Presley did. He was a celestial, once-in-a-century talent. Nonetheless, he ended up squandering his gifts singing cheesy bossa novas, acting in lousy movies and taking the easy money.

While Presley was occasionally disgusted by the dreck he was asked to sing in the studio, and while he resented hack scripts like “Harum Scarum,” perhaps the worst of his many movies, he was never bothered enough to make a fuss, at least not a fuss that would improve his material. If your only goal is to sell, quality be damned, you have lots to sell and nothing to sell out. That’s an ethos with legs, as it happens.

If you want to understand Snoop Dogg or 50 Cent or any number of rap stars, you need to understand Elvis. Those guys owe the man. Before we get to why, let’s be clear that Elvis can’t be entirely blamed - or credited, if you prefer - with his innumerable sellouts. Elvis was needled and psychologically badgered into nearly every deal that shaped his professional life by his manager, Col. Tom Parker.

A former carny whose quick-money philosophy shadowed every dotted line that Elvis signed, Parker was notorious for two-bit schemes. He once charged admission to see a horse, billed as the world’s smallest, that was actually just a pony, buried up to his knees. But leave that aside. At the time that Elvis started selling out the idea of a rock star selling out didn’t exist. Rock then was just a type of music that was huge with the kids.

The expectation was that something else would replace it, soon. Only later, when it was clear that rock wasn’t going away - when it took on the spiritual significance of a religion - was the idea of “selling out” your rock ’n’ roll roots even possible. By the mid-’60s, Elvis was basically a spectator at the revolution in pop. He spent most of his studio time on easy-listening soundtrack albums for a series of increasingly crummy films. He just couldn’t turn down a big check, even if some of those decisions were stupendously ill-advised.

In 1973, when they both were in need of a cash infusion, Elvis and Col. Parker sold to RCA the artist’s royalty rights to all of Presley’s back catalogue, for a measly $5 million. But for that notorious deal, the price tag on Elvis Presley Enterprises, which is the entity that Sillerman recently bought 85 percent of, would have been many times larger. “Elvis died when he went into the Army,” John Lennon said when Presley actually expired in 1977. It’s a sentiment you’ll hear from more than a few of his early and ardent fans. But the critics have always been outnumbered by the admirers.

“A handful of people wrote e-mails saying the sky is falling when the (Sillerman) deal was announced,” Jack Soden, the CEO of Elvis Presley Enterprises, said Tuesday. “But a significant majority understand that this is a good thing. That this will allow the legacy of Elvis to grow and prosper.”

Presley was rock music’s first franchise, and today he’s as close to a one-man Wal-Mart as any artist will ever get. This is his legacy to today’s performers.

Take Snoop Dogg. Right now, according to Rolling Stone magazine, the Dogg is getting paid by T-Mobile (for an ad) and Vital Toys (for an action figure), and XM Satellite Radio (for a monthly show), and Pony Sneakers (for the Doggy Biscuitz shoe line), by the makers of VSOP Passion Blend, a booze, and by the naughty lads behind “Girls Gone Wild” videos, who license his name for a “Doggy Style” line of tapes. You hear anyone calling Snoop a sellout? Nah.

Songs beget films, films beget endorsements and endorsements beget more songs. It’s the great shameless cycle of American commerce, and proof, if any were needed, that the King is gone but he’s not forgotten.












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Elvis Odd Spot (updated 16 Dec 2004)