Cooking with Elvis

Elvis Presley Enterprises (“EPE”) has licensed a line of kitchen appliances to bear Elvis’ name. What kitchen appliances have to do with Elvis is beyond me, Elvis wasn’t known for popping into the kitchen and cooking up a mess of anything.

When Elvis first became famous, people just didn’t know what to make of him. He didn’t fit neatly in any established musical genre, he didn’t sing or perform like anyone else and he sold so many more records than anyone that the idea of presenting gold records for million selling albums became an industry standard.

Elvis was treated like a fad and the prevailing wisdom was to grab as much money as he could generate while he could generate – and for 23 years (from 1954 to 1977), Elvis Presley made money as fast as the American mint could produce it. Thirty four years after his death, Elvis is still generating more money than current day celebrities do.

The 2011 Forbes List of Dead Celebrity earnings places Elvis at number 2 with $55 million. Micheal Jackson gets his first number 1 spot with $170 million; Jackson missed the number 1 spot in his death year because of estate sales of Rogers and Hammerstein and Yves St. Laurent.

Elvis has been the number one earning dead celebrity in every year of the Forbes list, except for the last two years. However, it’s expected for him to retain his number one placement as Jackson is unlikely to continue “earning” at his present rate and will drop as time passes.

There’s a few things that are significant about the Forbes list calculations to consider:

On the Jackson side of the equation, besides the obvious that he’s a recently deceased celebrity, there’s the source of his earnings, which has a lot to do with his investment in The Beatles and other artist’s catalogs. Jackson’s earnings do not reflect the sales of his own work and related merchandise, but Elvis’ do – it’s all down to licensing the Elvis name and image, as well as Graceland tours and Elvis week events.

On the Elvis side, his earnings do not include any money from the sale of his catalog from 1954 to 1973, since Elvis had sold the catalog to RCA to refinance his divorce. This is the most valuable catalog that has proven repeatedly to have no upper limit for the number of times you can sell the same recordings and Elvis’ estate receives no royalties and so, the sales of the largest part of Elvis’ body of work, doesn’t get calculated into his earnings.

Elvis, in effect, is playing with a hand tied behind his back and he’s still coming out at the top of the list.

I think that this is a large part of his appeal, no matter how big and popular Elvis was and continues to be, there’s always a sense of him being the underdog – life was stacked against him and he succeeded despite all the impediments and improbabilities.

Parker selling Elvis photos to fans

Tom Parker, Elvis’ manager, was a consummate huckster and was creative with elaborate side deals to maximize profits – and EPE continues that tradition of Elvis as a money machine rather than Elvis as an artist and human being.

Elvis wanting nothing more than to make something of himself as a performer and to achieve the middle class American dream. In early interviews, he talked mostly of being able to take care of his parents and was always genuinely grateful to his fans for his success. When Elvis said “Thank you, thank you very much” it was a sincere utterance, not a stage blanditude.

The response of the youth was to embrace Elvis as one of their own writ epic, the conquering underdog who ushered in a new era by making social distinctions between black and white, north and south, poor or middle class or wealthy all null and void. Elvis embodied the American Dream.

But being a visionary, even an unintentional one, is a hard road.

While the establishment was more than happy to rake in the money, Elvis was denigrated for being vulgar and a fad in the 1950’s, undermining his revolutionary artistry.

The 1960’s movie decade began with honest efforts of serious acting – Wild in the Country and Flaming Star, but these were eclipsed at the box office by the lighter Blue Hawaii and GI Blues – so the Elvis Presley Movie was cast – a pretty location, a fight, pretty girls, and as many songs as could be crammed into the running time of the movie.

It’s impossible to argue with money, so Elvis made three movies plus soundtrack records almost every year of the 1960s – churning out so much product that Elvis became the establishment that the youth audience rebelled against and moved onto other artists – who, as much as they wanted to make the money Elvis did – they wanted to say something, to stand for something, with their music – the way that Elvis once did in the 1950’s.

Before the licensing deals, before the merchandise, before Parker….

It’s hard to argue with success and that’s the way that the establishment rolls.

Not on what ratified abstract or artistically could be, but what hard cash there is, while it’s there.

Which explains why the establishment is so resistant to any change – they want to milk what they can, for as long as they can, until they can’t anymore. Big Business doesn’t like to change it’s business model or practise until it’s forced to.

Which is why there is such resistance to climate change and environmental protection – it’s not because they really doubt the science, it’s because they haven’t finished squeezing out all the money – but, like for Elvis, by the time he was taken seriously as an artist this decade under Sony’s stewardship, he’d been dead for over 30 years.

Because it doesn’t matter how talented or smart or attractive or successful you are, if you are unfulfilled as a person, you just withdraw, wither and die – and no matter what successes Elvis had – he was unfulfilled as an artist and performer, his dreams of being a serious actor thwarted by his management and his own inability to be assertive, and RCA’s push for quantity over quality recordings, ultimately, he went unfilled as a singer for many years.

It may well be too late for humans en masse to change our behaviours to ensure that we continue on as we are. But survival is to the best adapted, not to the most established.

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