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Long live the King

Friday, August 16, marks a quarter-century since Elvis Aaron Presley headed off to that great fried peanut-butter-and-banana sandwich in the sky (or didnít, depending on whom you ask). But Elvis remains a looming specter in the larger cultural consciousness. This summer, Eminem name-checks the King on his hit single " Without Me. " The Disney cartoon Lilo & Stitch features no fewer than six Presley chestnuts on its soundtrack. So kids these days ó little ones and big ones ó are hearing the King of Rock and Roll. But are they listening? A recent issue of Rolling Stone asked some adolescents, " Who was this Elvis dude, and what does he mean to you? " One response, fairly representative of the others, was: " He was skinny, he got fat, and somehow he died. Means nothing to me. " We called Jeffrey Melnick ó editor of the Journal of Popular Music Studies and an assistant professor of American studies at Babson College, where he teaches academic courses on Elvis ó to see whatís up with the sheen on the Kingís crown.

Q: Does Elvis still matter?

A: His estate is doing a really good job of keeping him relevant. But itís a hard sell to convince college students he matters. I taught a course on him, and students were interested in him only as a freak show. They understood he was someone it might be fun to laugh about, but they didnít have any sense that he mattered as a musical or cultural figure. People between age 45 and 60 might still have a strong primary connection to Elvis, but younger than that, itís all mediated through other peopleís memories.

Q: So they donít get him? Donít care?

A: These students grew up in the post-Beatles landscape, where a performer doesnít matter unless he writes his own music. Heís just some guy who had a decent voice. Thatís not real talent, right? Why would you study someone who just sang?

Q: Does it disappoint you that heís not as admired as he once was?

A: No, not at all! I donít think he should be, and I donít see why he would be.

Q: Are you a fan?

A: Absolutely. But I donít think anyone else necessarily should be. Thereís this sort of Elvis industry, where itís considered a natural fact that Elvis is undeniably great. Depending on what your criteria are, he is or he isnít. Heís not undeniably great if youíre into rave culture or hip-hop. Thereís no reason why people whoíve grown up on Eminem should ... well, Eminem does find him interesting, and thatís one way I think a lot of kids will discover the whole Elvis phenomenon, that Eminem mentions him twice in his single.

Q: Have you heard about the guy in the news whoís talking about cloning Elvis from a piece of his hair?

A: There would be a cultural logic to it. Heís been reproduced in almost every other way.

Q: What would you think if you saw Elvis return to earth in 2002?

A: No big surprise. Weíve been playing with that idea for 25 years. You can go to these shows now where his old backing band plays live with a holographic image of him. There are all kinds of ways that people have tried to bring him back.

Q: Even Lisa Marie just married Nicolas Cage, who played an Elvis impersonator in Honeymoon in Vegas!

A: She also married Michael Jackson, who calls himself the King of Pop in a sort of obvious homage to Elvis.

Q: Is Elvis alive?

A: No.

Issue Date: August 15 - 22, 2002
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