Parallels in lives, deaths of Michael Jackson and Elvis - But Presley's path was trailblazing

By: Bob Mehr
Source: Memphis Commercial Appeal
June 29, 2009

The passing of Michael Jackson on Thursday afternoon reignited the occasional debate between Michael Jackson, the 'King of Pop' and Elvis Presley, 'The King' of rock and roll'. In the hours after Jackson's passing, Canadian songbird Celine Dion claimed it felt 'like when (President John) Kennedy died, when Elvis Presley died. We are not only talking about a talented person dying, it's an amazing loss'.

The articles analyzing the similarities between Jackson and Presley have been ubiquitous and inevitable over the last 72 hours. Even Billboard magazine editorial director Bill Werde declared', The world just lost the biggest pop star in history, no matter how you cut it'. But is there really a case to be made that Jackson's and Presley's places in the pantheon of popular culture were as similar as some suggest?

Certainly, parallels between the two do exist. Both were born poor and became massive music icons on a global scale (though Jackson may have the slight advantage there as Presley never performed outside of North America.) Each sold hundreds of millions of records and reached unimaginable levels of fame and wealth before experiencing rapid personal and professional descents (and, of course, there's the matter of Presley's daughter, Lisa Marie, who was married briefly to Jackson)

'Like Elvis, Jackson unified black and white listeners, and made startlingly important, memorable, and era-defining music', says writer and music historian Alanna Nash, author of several Elvis books, including a groundbreaking biography of Presley's manager, Col. Tom Parker'. Jackson was also a completely luminous performer -- you couldn't take your eyes off of him -- and part of it was because you sensed that this was an extraordinarily damaged boy-man, again, like Elvis, a Peter Pan, a puer aeternus (Latin for 'eternal boy').

Presley's impact and lasting relevance were part of a larger cultural phenomenon.

Elvis Presley
Elvis Presley

But unlike Jackson -- whose gaudy sales figures and personal excesses defined him -- Presley's impact and lasting relevance were part of a larger cultural phenomenon. 'Elvis emerged at a point in history where our culture was ready to turn itself upside down', says Dr. John Bakke, a professor emeritus of the University of Memphis' Department of Communication, who staged the first scholarly conference on Elvis in 1979. 'From the depression on to World War II and then into the Cold War, there was a real drive towards security'.

'Elvis came along at just the time the first identifiable generation of teenagers were about to substitute a drive for freedom for their parents' drive for security. 'With the change in values came a change in music and you had the impact of what became rock and roll'. 'Elvis stood at the cusp of that generational revolution'.

As Alanna Nash notes, Presley's was a trailblazing path'.

Where Elvis co-created a musical art form, Michael largely built on 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', says Nash'. He did it brilliantly ... but his cultural impact pales in comparison to Presley's'.

Bakke also points out that the worlds in which Presley and Jackson lived and died in were dramatically different.

'In general people weren't interested in (Elvis) personally or that interested in their pop culture figures the way they are now. It was a big deal when one of the networks actually led their newscast with Elvis' death. Compare that to what you're seeing with Jackson -- it's totally night and day'.

Like Jackson, Elvis' reputation had, by the end of his life, been damaged to some extent (by his divorce, rumors of drugs and diminishing commercial success). But Presley's image was rehabilitated posthumously. Due largely to the continuing efforts by the Elvis Presley Enterprises and RCA records, he's remained a relevant, romantic and iconic figure for successive generations of fans. (Through a spokesman, EPE declined to comment.)

Michael Jackson
Michael Jackson

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. 'Suddenly after Elvis died, there was a vacuum', notes Bakke, 'and there was plenty to fill up the void: RCA started packaging and marketing to those interests'.

The opportunity for Jackson to be remembered and rehabilitated will be more complicated given his chaotic family and financial circumstances. Elvis had strong supporters in Priscilla and Parker, as well as a small army of business interests eager to keep his flame burning. Who will step in and play the same custodial role for Jackson? At this point it's hard to say. The only thing that's clear now is that the tragedy of Jackson's life and death might prove mere foreshadowing for what awaits his legacy.

Comparing two icons

Michael Jackson

Died: 50 years old

Age began performing: 8

Albums sold: 750 million [Elvis Australia comment - Really?]

Grammy Awards: 13

Film appearances: 6

Elvis Presley

Died: 42 years old

Age began performing: 18

Albums sold: 1.3 billion [Read our article - Lifting the Lid on the King's record sales By: Nick Keene]

Grammy Awards: 3

Film appearances: 31

From Dance moves to love of animals, Presley, Jackson eerily similar

As cultural touchstones, Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley invite comparison, but as individuals they also shared traits. Their personal lives shared numerous elements, for better or worse:


Both careers involved 'moves' that were part of their attraction.

Elvis' moves earned him the nickname 'Elvis the Pelvis'. Later, he would include karate moves in his act. Jackson's legendary 'Moonwalk' was just one part of a dance-heavy act.

Costumes came to symbolize both. Elvis had popularized capes and beaded jumpsuits in Las Vegas. Jackson, known as the 'gloved one', also popularized other distinctive clothes including braided military-style jackets.

Obsessive personality traits were part of their lives. Both were musical perfectionists, spending long hours in the studio doing take after take until they were satisfied. Jackson was obsessed with his appearance, including his notorious morphing through plastic surgery and a meager diet to keep a 'dancer's body'. Elvis obsessed about everything, sometimes eating meatloaf every night for two weeks at a time.

By Bob Mehr Memphis Commercial Appeal -- Michael Lollar

Articles about Elvis Presley Australia's has a photo presentation Music's Late Greats.

In this they have "died" in quotation marks for Elvis, and not any of the other artists featured.

Elvis Australia has contacted them and asked for an explanation.

We told them, nicely, that we found it offensive. Seems someone though it a good joke to pop it in.

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