How do you know when something has become bigger than life? My answer is 'when it continues on, long after it has ended.' Marketing plays a large role in the life span of a concept. After all, popular culture is just a collection of successfully marketed elements that are accepted for a time by society at large. Often, the marketing cycle dictates that oversaturation of a product will eventually lead to its demise. Keeping something afloat for as long as possible takes a skillful amount of manipulation and speculation. The investment must pay out before opportunities have evaporated.
When it comes to celebrities, it is crucial to detect early on the potential that exists for capturing the hearts and minds (and wallets) of the public. A prime example is Elvis Aaron Presley. Starting off his career as a singer, Elvis also became a Hollywood star before finally returning to live musical performances. Born into poverty during the 1930s Depression in Tupelo, Mississippi, raised in a shotgun house (a structure in which you could shoot a bullet straight through an open front door, and it could exit unobstructed right out the back), he would later note that the the humble home could easily fit in one room of his Graceland mansion in Memphis, Tennessee. His rise exemplifies the American Rags to Riches story. What catapulted Elvis to superstar status and beyond?
Elvis had the "It" factor." Even if people have a hard time describing what "it" is, they can sense it from the get-go. He was already extremely handsome, very charismatic and he grew into a dedicated performer that gave his fans "a hundred and ten percent." He had an astonishing effect on the youth of the late Fifties. Adults couldn't understand what made the teens scream and pull out their hair. With the combination of his looks and voice, he was stimulating preteens who had never experienced these kinds of feelings and had no idea how to handle them.
From the beginning, Elvis stood out. There was nothing like him at the time. He was a white guy with rhythm and the "black" sound. When people heard his records before actually seeing him, they assumed the singer was black. Rhythm and blues had been oozing out from black culture and eventually ended up on the airwaves. Played for white kids who liked the different sound, they in turn went out and bought the records. Previously, race music was limited to black audiences and a few adventurous whites. It was gambled that a good looking, black-sounding white singer could be marketed to the masses of white kids whose parents were threatened by the luring appeal of black culture. This was a direct act of rebellion, as there was a hunger for something different from the music the grownups were enjoying: crooners like Dean Martin and Perry Como. Up until Elvis hit the scene, singers delivered rather conservative performances, with the occasional finger snapping being the only eyebrow-raising action they might slip in. Elvis "The Pelvis" would gyrate and shake with feeling as he sang. This was overtly sexual and wicked for sheltered white society, who attributed this behavior to the perceived oversexed nature of blacks. Trying to shield their children from "utter degeneration," they only managed to increase Elvis' appeal. This was the first step to setting his career soaring.
One of the most popular entertainers by the late Fifties, Elvis was still drafted to serve in the United States Army. Because he was famous, he could have enlisted in the Special Forces, where he would entertain the troops and have special housing privileges. Instead, Elvis just wanted to be a regular soldier. Back home, the parents, teachers and religious leaders rallying against him thought that his being away would help quell the nationwide mania. Elvis himself worried about loosing his appeal and the popularity of rock and roll music waning. While serving alongside his fellow soldiers, he gained their utmost respect. He soon won over his naysayers back in the States. The media was saturated with pictures of him in uniform, and this would change his public image from a rebel to a patriotic young man that every mother could love and every father could be proud of. When he finished his military duties and went back to music, Elvis would include ballads that the older generation could enjoy. This expanding fan base was the second phase in his career success.
Elvis transitioned from singing to acting and eventually cranked out a total of 31 films. He worked well enough on screen, but the movies were primarily vehicles to increase record sales and further the demand for his music. The movie critics were relentless, but the fans couldn't get enough. These panoramic musicals allowed the fans to project themselves into the stories: the girls could imagine themselves as the one Elvis was singing to, while the guys could strive to emulate his suave and romantic style. These films were made quickly and cheaply to keep profits high, a formula that made Elvis' films the surest moneymakers in Hollywood.
Elvis grew tired of the film industry, longing to get back to his strongest suit, the live stage performance. This is when he felt the most alive, pleasing the crowd, so grateful to them for keeping him in demand. He even talked and joked with the audience between songs during his sold-out sets. He really enjoyed playing to the crowd and absorbing their adoration during a concert. He kept the format and song order loose, but his band was "tight," as they could anticipate a last-minute change or instant song request. He wouldn't take breaks or make costume changes, completing a whole show in a sopping wet jumpsuit. His performance schedule was very grueling, with several shows a day and seven days a week at a time. His staff would have to keep him on a strict schedule, as he loved to stop and take pictures, give out autographs and talk for hours with his fans that would be anxiously waiting outside the venues. Even with a large audience, Elvis still managed to connect. There was a sense of intimacy created, as each person in the crowd felt like he was singing for them exclusively. Throwing out scarves or capes to waving, grabbing hands help add a personal touch and show that he really appreciated his celebrity.
Elvis was a shy hillbilly from Tupelo, Mississippi that became a cultural phenomenon. Through aggressive marketing, he was exposed to an ever-expanding consumer base: first with the teen market, then finally the adults. Along the way, he shifted his image from rebel to boy next door. Not to be contained to just music, he branched out into film, making a lot of money for a lot of people in Hollywood. When one of his songs was remixed and released many years after his death, it went to the top of the Billboard charts. He truly earned the title "King of Rock and Roll." A rise to such stardom, where fans continue to claim public sightings long after you're dead, is bigger than life.
Copyright © 2002-2017 Aaron P. Brown. All rights reserved.