New Delhi: “Those people went crazy,” US President Donald Trump said on the sidelines of 74th summit of United Nations General Assembly in the US in late September. Trump was referring to the thunderous applause and chanting that greeted Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the Howdy, Modi! event in Houston, Texas, on 22 September.
A reference to the ‘King of Rock-n-Roll,’ that All-American performer marked by swagger and overstated hip gyrations, wasn’t missed by anyone — even the large number of Indians completely unaware of who the man was.
For Trump, 73 years of age this June, Presley’s Hound Dog (1956), Blue Suede Shoes (1956) and Suspicious Minds (1969) still have great recall — his chart-topping numbers and experimental fusion of jazz, rhythm and blues in a white man’s voice “permanently chang(ing) the face of American popular culture”, in the words of former US president Jimmy Carter.
But today, young Indians have to Google Elvis Presley to know who he is — Trump’s comment sparked a nationwide interest in the fading American star, with Google trends reporting that the search term was one of the top trending queries since the Trump-Modi press meet.
Even in terms of sheer numbers, PM Modi has matched, and is close to defeating, Presley’s fame in the US at his peak, when 60,000 fans packed the Pontiac Silverdome, Michigan, in 1976. Modi, on the other hand, managed to fill Wembley Stadium in London with 60,000 enthusiastic Indian-Americans four years ago, and just last month, at least 50,000 others reached Houston to say Howdy.
But millennials, that elusive demographic born between 1981 and 1996, don’t really care about, or relate to, the legacy of Presley in America.
According to a snap YouGov poll of 2,034 British adults, as reported by The Guardian in 2017, “29% of 18 to 24-year-olds said they had never listened to an Elvis Presley song, with none of this age group listening to him daily and only 8% listening monthly. Asked what they thought of other veteran stars, about twice as many said they liked The Beatles (23%) and David Bowie (25%) “a lot” compared with the King (12%), the story says.
What’s more, as the generation of Presley fans enters its twilight years, the price value of his memorabilia has taken a sharp nose-dive in the West, with collections being relegated to second-hand stores and vintage Presley records having “never been cheaper.”
So what is it about Elvis that makes him so forgettable?
Significantly, Presley isn’t the sole by-product of an era marked by cult-of-personality fandoms. When Michael Jackson landed in Mumbai on 30 October 1996, “Bollywood actor Sonali Bendre, draped in a nine-yard saree, greeted him with an aarti and teeka,” while “a dhol and lejhim troupe was whipping up a frenzy” amidst the “over 5,000 fans (that) had showed up for a glimpse of the pop-star,” Condé Nast Traveller reported.
“It seemed like the entire city had turned up to welcome Jackson. From rickshawallahs to industrialists, his celebrity cut across all barriers.”
The legacy of MJ, still widely called The King of Pop, is proved by the vociferous disagreements surrounding the allegations of paedophilia levelled against him, even to this day.
The impact of The Beatles’ on the subcontinent’s palate regarding western music is also alive today — from tribute concerts to expensive merchandising and fans planning trips to Rishikesh to visit the famed ashram of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi where the band ‘transcendentally meditated’ in 1968, the pop icons continue to thrive. Even globally, Spotify research shows that of the 1.7 billion streams so far in 2019, “18- to 24-year-olds account for more than 30% of Beatles listening this year, the largest share among all demographics”, Forbes reports.
But Presley’s numbers are far fewer in comparison — almost half of Jackson and Bowie’s total streams in 2016. Professional musician and music producer Amar Pandey of Ghar ka Records in Delhi, believes that in these exceptionally polarised times, Presley’s declining relevance can, in part, be attributed to his decision to remain largely apolitical.
“The Beatles changed world history and culture in terms of what a pop star is and what pop music is,” Pandey tells ThePrint.
“They moved from saying ‘I’m just a musician’ to ‘I’m someone’ that stands for a particular political issue and engages with the youth. But Elvis and his other contemporaries like Dean Martin — their only role was to be an entertainer and not to engage in anything other than the music. He didn’t really play the same in society that other artists did,” Pandey says.
“And he’s just too American for India,” he says, “making music very specific to American country rock.”
MJ’s appeal as a pop musician also sustains “because people can still dance to his music, but Elvis’ music, was well, older and grown-up, almost like he’s frozen in a black-and-white era, distant from the present, and not multicultural enough to transcend genres and time-periods.”
Social media killed the pop star
But Presley isn’t the singular cause for his own decline. While his lack of universality can be said to have kept him out of step with changing times, there’s something to be said for the nature of the 21st century itself — fast-moving, bored, overstimulated and less prone to worshipping its heroes.
With the steady infiltration of the internet into every corner of our lives, the larger-than-life mysticism that surrounded pop stars of the past has been pierced by an ease of access through developments in technology. Now, we knew exactly when Britney Spears got her head shaved, when Cardi B had an opinion about the US government shutdown or when Beyonce was about to have another child.
“More pertinently, pop music is inextricably linked to the pop star, a brand of musical supernova usually associated with ’80s titans like Michael Jackson and Madonna,” DJ Louie XIV wrote in Vanity Fair in 2018.
But now, not only is the popstar your everyday Snapchatter, they also have to compete to remain interesting on an ever-expanding number of platforms.
“The kind of huge album sales, which once served as the benchmark for pop stardom, have been steadily disintegrating since the explosion of MP3s in the early 2000s,” Louie XIV wrote.
“Additionally the public, as opposed to record labels, now has an unprecedented ability to choose hits by simply streaming them or creating a viral meme. And radio play, while still a huge factor in chart position, is just a piece of a bigger pie that includes downloads, social-media buzz, and, increasingly, streaming numbers.”
“This egalitarian environment allows a longer tail of artists to sustain careers, but it’s also a reactive one where it’s hard for any single act not named Drake to maintain the omnipresence critical to stars like Jackson,” Louie XIV wrote.