Monday, September 10, 2007

Elvis and the King of Pop

Somtimes people forget how fantastic certain artists are. There's a reason why Elvis is "The King." I spent portions of the weekend listening to his 30 #1s album as well as the rightly praised '68 Comeback Special broadcast originally on NBC. A couple of things jump out from those records. Elvis' delivery is often imitated but never equalled; his charisma levels are matched by only a few performers.

The other is the criminal under-appreciation of his long-time guitarist Winfield "Scotty" Moore. If any three people could claim to have shaped the definitive sound of 50s style rock'n'roll they would be Chuck Berry, Scotty Moore and Elvis Presley. Moore's agile rhythm backing and dazzling leads generate as much excitement aurally as any of Elvis' vocal histrionics. Many young men picked up guitar to play like Elvis, blissfully unaware that those wonderful runs, fills and solos were played by Moore. If Moore ever felt he was shortchanged in terms of credit it's never something he aired publicly. No doubt he was appreciative of being able to hitch his wagon to Elvis' supernova, and being a highly introverted individual it's doubtful that any sort of real celebrity status would have been welcome.

Of course, in his final years Elvis became a parody of himself and although 50s Elvis is historically more important, for whatever reason 70s, Vegas Elvis seems to come up more in pop culture. I could be wrong on that one. Elvis' bizarre final years and life in general provided a perfect template for the next supernova of popular American music: Michael Jackson.

Where to begin with the King Of Pop? There's no need to recap his career, I'll just state some broad similarities with The King. Elvis's first successful record was cut and released when he was barely 19. Jackson was even more precocious and his youthful successes as lead the for the Jackson 5 are legion. The Jackson 5 were certainly a high point artistically and commercially with respect to the Motown sound. The King made his "important" music between 1955 and 1960. This was the music that helped define the sound of a generation and was one of a handful of major influences on the next decade's artists including the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Michael Jackson's landmark works were "Off The Wall" and "Thriller", both released in a 3 year timespan (1979 - 1982). "Bad" came out in 1986 and were it not for the comparisons to Thriller would have been deemed a major success. Of course, "Bad" can be just as easily remembered as the cover where Michael Jackson's appearance took a turn into the strange. His descent into the utterly baffling had started years before but now the signs and symptoms of his madness were writ clearly on his face. After "Bad" his albums have had mixed sales but were uniformly musically irrelevant. The increasing litany of strange incidents and surrounding ugly innuendo mirror the downward spiral that Elvis fell into his final years.

Elvis died in 1977 and as details have surfaced over the past three decades they tell a cliched tale of a man in freefall. Michael Jackson will be 50 (!) next year. He is synonymous with oddity and eccentricity. It's almost impossible to explain to Gen Y'ers and younger how much of a megastar he was in his prime. Jackson, like Elvis at the end of his career is no better than a walking punchline. Could their unmatched megastardom have been a key to their falls from grace.

One final parallel between the two Kings. Elvis was by all accounts a sex symbol. He was, however, almost asexual in his drive according to biographers, rumored paramours and "acknowledged" lovers. Many early girlfriends assert that no true physical relations ever occurred. His multiple public relationships were often stated to be for benefit of the press and the thought that Elvis sought to and did bed every single female co-star of his movies seems to be less credible as time goes on.

Michael Jackson's sexual proclivities have been well documented and discussed. If there are any pointers to his sexual behavior one would uncharitably state that they skew toward pre-pubescent males. Throughout the 80s when pedophilia was not associated with Jackson, the country was tireless in its speculation of whether he had or hadn't. Think about that. A male pop/rock icon in the 80s whose very sexuality was in question. Not whether he was hetero or homosexual but whether he was sexual at all. Elvis and Jackson - asexual? A definite maybe.

To recap for Elvis and Michael Jackson
- Biggest (by far) star of their era (check)
- Important work completed in the first few years despite a 20+ year career (check)
- Bizarre and public descent into madness (check)
- Increasing body of evidence that they might have been asexual (check)
- Hypochondria (check, haven't mentioned above, but you can find evidence of this very easily)
- Created some of the best music ever recorded in the popular western music genre? Music that has not lost its sheen despite what we now know about them? (check, their work really is transcendent)

One last note. Michael Jackson is obsessed with Elvis. This too is well documented. My guessis that he more than anyone appreciates the multiple parallels, even the ones he wouldn't admit to himself.

In a bit.

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