Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley: A reflection of difference
June 29, 5:38 PMBy Doug Billings
Kansas City Christian Spirituality Examiner
The comparisons were being made before the body was cold: The King of Rock and Roll versus the King of Pop.
News articles examining the similarities between Jackson and Presley have been flowing readily during the past 96 hours. Billboard Magazine, who dubbed Presley as the “Entertainer of the Millennium” seemed confused as what to say about Jackson when its editorial director Bill Werde stated, “The world just lost the biggest pop star in history, no matter how you cut it.”
Jackson’s and Presley’s places in the panorama of popular culture are deserved but they are not identical.
There are similarities. Both were born poor and became gigantic global music icons. Keep in mind, however, that Presley never performed outside of North America – thus holds an advantage in his popularity because he didn’t play world tours to earn his international fame. Each sold millions of records and reached unimaginable status, fame and wealth before experiencing personal, public and musical declines.
But unlike Jackson – whose flashy sales numbers and personal excesses defined him – Presley’s influence and significance were part of a larger cultural experience.
Writer and music historian Alanna Nash says Presley’s was a trailblazing path. “Where Elvis co-created a musical art form, Michael largely built one. Where Elvis changed sexual mores in the conservative wake of World War II, Michael only made shocking crotch-grabbing movements. And where Elvis, expanding on James Dean’s work, harnessed a burgeoning youth culture, Michael only drew more attention to it. He did it brilliantly…but his cultural impact pales in comparison to Presley’s.”
It will be interesting to see if a cult will spring up around Jackson in his death like the one that grew around Presley. But given the nature of Jackson’s legal and personal troubles over the recent years, it is difficult to imagine millions of tourists visiting Jackson’s childhood home in Gary, Indiana or his former Neverland Ranch in California like the way Presley fans (young and old) make pilgrimages to Graceland every year.
“There will always be throngs of people who will mourn and revere Jackson,” says Nash. “But because his personal life was so outsized, peculiar and tainted with scandal far more lurid than Presley’s drug abuse, I can’t see him morphing into the Disney-zed figure that Elvis has become."
“It’s easier to overlook Elvis’s peccadilloes than Michael’s,” she adds. “Elvis was beautiful, sexy and fun. Michael was sweet, strange and sad. Who wants to see that on a lunchbox?”
While Jackson’s later years rarely saw him create or put out new music, Elvis continued recording up until his death, amassing a voluminous catalog of material touching on rock, pop, country and gospel – that could be released and repackaged for years to come. “
Elvis was openly spiritual in ways that the common person could understand. Michael invited children into his home and was accused of molesting them and stated that he was giving love to all children. No one could understand that.
Jackson was viewed as a freak and someone whose personal sadness caused him to change his face, hair, and skin color. Presley was viewed as an aging musical and cultural phenomenon that had weight issues. People can identify with Presley better than Jackson.
Jackson’s chance to be remembered will be more difficult due to his disordered family, child molestation charges (event though he was acquitted of them) and financial problems. Elvis had strong supporters in his wife Priscilla and manager Tom Parker as well as a business plan all eager to keep his fame alive. It’s difficult to say at this point who, if anyone, will do this for Jackson.
The only thing that’s obvious now is that the tragedy of Jackson’s life and death has only remote similarities to that of Presley’s. The manners in which they lived and impacted our culture are vastly different. The scales tip to Presley’s favor.