Can't be the King forever
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Elvis's stock: steadily on the way down.
I don't mean to throw a wet blanket on the Elvis Presley remembrances, which show that he is still a very big deal, but the King's relative decline in relevance may mean something for classical music. At his height of popularity, not 30 years ago as is being celebrated this week, but 50 or so, he was the American idol, taking that title from Frank Sinatra. Elvis was huge, a dominating presence in music and film.
But today he isn't as relevant. He is still big, but he is not the singular presence he was in his heydey. Yes, he has diehard fans, those great impersonators of his Vegas look, Graceland is still hugely popular and the Elvis "30 Number 1 Hits" from 2002 was a big seller. But even so, Elvis' influence and popularity have dropped from his heyday. It would have almost been impossible not to.
How does this make a classical music fan happy? Not on schadenfreude, but in how it might compare to Beethoven. It's apples and oranges, I suppose, but hear me out.
Both in classical music circles and in the greater public sphere, Beethoven today is no less relevant than he and his music were in the '50s (actually also considered a heydey, or golden age for classical music). His music is played more often by orchestras and chamber groups, his place in history is more secure with new developments, his influence on composers is probably greater than it was in the height of modernism. Beethoven's recently even been the subject of a few films, too, and snippets of his music are just as known to the average person as they were then. The explosion of recordings obviously helped Elvis, but so too Beethoven. Because of them, his music has reached many more households that typically wouldn't get out to concerts.
The point is, we continually hear that classical music is so much less relevant than pop and rock or anything in pop culture, but over the long haul that is not borne out. Sure, Elvis was more famous at his height than Beethoven ever has been, and is still more known now, but as time goes on, Beethoven's influence has remained (even increasing) while Elvis' has dipped. I would expect the trend to continue. It has something to do with fashion, but I believe it also is somewhat because Beethoven's music has more depth and more to offer to listeners. Elvis' music (he was more singer than songwriter) had his force of personality, sex appeal and cross marketing to help them sell as well as it did (and he died young). Beethoven's works flourish without much of that.
This is not to diminish anyone's love of Elvis or his songs -- my point really applies to most pop culture, not just the King. I like Elvis' singing, but the question is, do I like it more than Bruce Springsteen or some like living rocker? No, not really. Neither do today's kids. They have their own Elvises to idolize. But Beethoven's music is not being duplicated today. Without even getting into a flawed high/low, pop/art discussion, it's easy to predict that Beethoven's stock will continue steadily for decades, even centuries, while only the best pop music -- Beatles, Bob Dylan, Radiohead, etc. -- will not eventually dip in relevance.
And I think we classical music lovers can take heart in that.
First Published August 16, 2007 11:56 am