Millennials, it turns out, aren’t all shook up about Elvis. (Most of them wouldn’t even get the reference.)
According to a news story that drew on the results of a poll of 2,034 Britons by YouGov, an Internet-based market research firm, 29 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds had never listened to an Elvis song. A mere 8 percent of those in the age group listened to Elvis monthly, while no one listened to him daily. Only 12 percent of these respondents said they liked Elvis “a lot,” whereas The Beatles (23 percent) and David Bowie (25 percent) seemed to appeal significantly more to the under-24 set.
According to Spotify, Elvis was streamed 382 million times in 2016; a number that was implied to be woeful compared to those of David Bowie (600 million), Michael Jackson (600 million) and The Beatles (1.3 billion).
The story arrived hot on the heels of reports of Elvis memorabilia plummeting in value. Taken together, it seemed to spell disaster for Presley’s legacy and future record sales.
It shouldn’t really be surprising that Presley, who once triggered something like mass teenage hysteria but last set foot in a studio in 1975, no longer resonates with younger generations the way he once did. It’s way more anomalous and surprising that someone like ex-Beatle Paul McCartney, who turned 75 in June, has anything resembling an active millennial fan base, judging by his many, many, many adoring young female fans on social media.
“Do we worry about Picasso appealing to millennials?” asks Kim Adelman, author of The Girls’ Guide to Elvis: The Clothes, The Hair, The Women, and More! “How many other performers are we still talking about that hit it big in 1956, or died in 1977?”
Indeed, in the 50s, Presley was widely expected to be little more than a flash in the pan. Presley’s popularity and legacy has endured in a way than no one would have imagined was possible—including Presley himself, as he made clear in a 1961 interview:
“When you released that first record, did you think you would have such a successful career as you have?”
“No, I don’t think anyone did, did we, Mr. Philips? [laughter] I don’t think so. Nobody had any idea, really.”
Of course, there are certain elements of the Elvis legacy that a younger generation might smirk or balk at. The swaggering, jumpsuited Elvis impersonators—with a little help from The Simpsons—have arguably turned the iconic image into something of a cartoon. And there’s no escaping the embarrassment of Presley’s physical decline in his later years, with one New York City restaurant offering free fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches to commemorate his death anniversary.
More seriously damaging to Presley’s reputation is the belief that he usurped the sound of black artists. It’s a charge that has persisted despite an older generation of black artists who defended Presley against it: “A lot of people have accused Elvis of stealing the black man’s music,” noted soul singer Jackie Wilson, “when in fact, almost every black solo entertainer copied his stage mannerisms from Elvis.” Perhaps even more unsavory today is Presley’s predilection for minors, including his wife, Priscilla, who was 14—10 years his junior—when they first met.
As a musical artist, there is a kind of historical divide between Elvis Presley, who introduced a multitude of young people to the concept of white rock’n’roll, and The Beatles, who—inspired by Presley’s example—went on to elevate the form. Presley, whose principal iconic moment is gyratingly performing “Hound Dog” on television in 1956 with a double-bassist plucking away and grinning behind him, has the patina of a far more distant age about him, when the world was in unrelatable black-and-white; The Beatles’ relentless musical experiments, innovative production techniques and technicolor outfits, from 1966 onwards, feel sonically audacious even today.
But, by John Lennon’s own account, “Nothing affected me until I heard Elvis. Without Elvis, there would be no Beatles.” For George Harrison, hearing “Heartbreak Hotel” was a “rock’n’roll epiphany”—he became guitar-obsessed after encountering it.
In the end, Presley’s resonance with 21st-century teens and twenty-somethings as a whole may be limited to a select few, but does that matter? His impact on the equivalent demographic in the 1950s, The Beatles included, was nothing short of revelatory, and music has never been the same. In 2015, Spotify launched a tool called the “The Elvis Influence,” which algorithmically charts the musical degrees of separation between Presley and any other artist you’d care to enter into the search bar. This allows one to trace the influences of Justin Bieber back to Michael Jackson, who was in turn inspired by Paul McCartney, who took cues from Presley. Ed Sheeran, on the other hand, was influenced by Nina Nesbitt, who was inspired by Nirvana, who looked to Neil Young, who was influenced by Presley.
And, for the younger people who are so inclined—such as that aforementioned 12 percent who like The King “a lot”—Presley’s music and movies are still out there to be discovered. (It’s probably also relevant to point out that a 2012 poll by the same firm found that 95 percent of Britons thought Elvis Presley was dead, while 12 percent of them believed the moon landing never happened.)
While today’s young people might not be streaming Elvis’ music with abandon, reports of The King’s irrelevance appear to be greatly exaggerated. In 2016, Presley’s The Wonder of You, a collaboration with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, was the fifth bestselling album in the UK, with Bowie’s Blackstar coming in sixth.
The fact remains that, 60 years after his heyday, “Elvis” is still a household name, and ready to be discovered by anyone who cares to seek him out in all his hip-swiveling glory.
“If you’ve never been exposed to Elvis, all it takes is seeing a clip of him in action,” says Adelman. “‘What is that? I want more!’” was the reaction of young people in 1956 seeing him on The Ed Sullivan Show. It continues to be the reaction whenever young people stumble across Elvis in his prime for the first time.”