By voting on their dream mixtape, Elvis fans got a chance to tell the rest of us why Elvis is so great. They blew it.
Perhaps 100 years from now, there will be a section in Internet Studies on I Am an Elvis Fan. The new compilation for RCA/Legacy sits at the intersection of a thousand peculiarities — crowdsourcing and commerce, the passion of fandom and the messiness of history, the desire for relevance that sits at the heart of any Internet-based project.
Over 25,000 people voted online on for the songs that make up I Am an Elvis Fan. One has to assume the overlap with the 18,000 people who attended last year’s Elvis Week at Graceland is high. It’s also comparable with the number of voters in the now-somewhat infamous Pitchfork "People’s List". While RCA/Legacy hasn’t released any statistics about who exactly did the voting, it’s fair to assume that these are all people who have in someway felt left behind. If the history of Western pop music is Elvis vs. The Beatles, The Beatles won. Groups beat out solo acts, experimentation beat rockabilly, “Imagine” beat gospel. Right or wrong, Elvis is the one to be rebelled against, the one who is truly seen as ‘old’. Cirque de Soleil made a show about him too, but who cares?
That dichotomy has left the people still trying to sell new Elvis records in a bind. Like those who voted in Pitchfork People's List, Elvis fans strongly believe that their personal taste has the strength to become universally beloved, if only they could make everyone hear what they do. It’s an impossible task, considering how our lives shape the music we listen to, even if it often feels the other way around. But the closest you can get is with mixtapes. If you can tie a song not just to it’s tempo or lyrics but to an actual, breathing person, then it might have a fighting chance.
Once you get over the 20,000 mark, though, the oddities of your sample group will start to show themselves. That might mean thinking Radiohead has put out more than one good album, or in this case, that genius emerges out of a bubble. Listening to the tracks on Elvis Fan, you’d never know that Presley worshipped (and some would say stole from) so many African-American artists. “Big Mama” Thorton’s “Hound Dog” is shockingly missing from the collection, as is Elvis’ first single, Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s “That's All Right”. Forget the fact that these are some of Elvis’ best songs: unpredictable, freewheeling, and in the case of “Hound Dog”, so full of sexual danger that it would get Elvis’ car firebombed after a performance. To ignore these songs is to buy into the myth Forrest Gump gave us, with it’s early scene of shucking and jiving: that one man could single-handedly create the entirety of rock 'n’ roll in his free time. It was wrong then, and it’s wrong now.
What we’ve got here isn’t bad, though. There’s no point in describing many of these songs, as the straightening of the shoulders that comes from the pure guitar riff in the middle of “Heartbreak Hotel” and the ever-so-slightly-camp joys of “Burning Love” remain as present as they’ve ever been. Winks and nods mark the best Elvis songs, but Elvis Fan gets bogged down in the “Which Elvis Do You Like” debate that held our postal system hostage so many years ago. Fans voted in seven categories, forcing slow and staid duds like “Blue Hawaii” to sit at the table with gems like “Jailhouse Rock”.
The forgotten centerpiece of the Elvis Experience is the live performance, an electric magnetism and thighs so virile that The Ed Sullivan Show was pressured into showing him from the waist up. Here, though, we get the later stuff. For “Suspicious Minds” and “Burning Love”, this works great, with the King willing to wink and laugh at himself. Especially on “Suspicious Minds”, there’s a lightness in voice, a twinkle in his eye. “I hope this suit don’t tear up, baby”, he improvises. The horns whirl with background singers, and you can him woo-woo’ing right along with the audience. It’s a disarming performance, the type that lets you brush aside any mythology getting in the way of enjoying the music.
We’re also stuck with “The American Trilogy”. The only track on the compilation that reaches noxious levels, it features Elvis portentously and gravely weaving three Civil War standards together. Radically different than the original arrangement created by country legend Mickey Newbury, Elvis’ ignores Newbury’s attempts to personalize a vicious segment of American history and makes the “Trilogy” a straight line of nostalgia, as if “Dixie” and “Battle Hymn of the Republic” were talking about the same place. The horns and background singers used so effectively on “Suspicious Minds” feel forced and corny. The trick of cashing in is to make sure everyone forgets you’re doing it. Hearing Elvis sing “Dixie” belongs in Branson, Missouri with imitators, not the genuine artifact.
I’m picking on “Trilogy” so much because, like the other songs here, it doesn’t have to be. All of Elvis Fan is stuck between the fun and the serious, and Elvis did the former way better than the latter. But there’s no point in telling that to the people who voted on Elvis Fan. Any critique of track choices on a compilation like this is part of a debate pre-approved by RCA/Legacy, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. No one will ever stop trying to put the round circles of song into the square pegs of numeric value, and the press materials for Elvis Fan note that it is “BY Elvis fans” and “FOR Elvis fans”. A lot of the songs here feel like they hadn’t made the cut for previous best-ofs, and the collectors who have them all finally got a chance to give their ignored tracks the respect they thought they deserved. It’s a great idea, one that could be applied to many bands (It’ll be a shame if the eventual Animal Collective best-of is complied any other way). I Am An Elvis Fan is a collection for the die-hards. For the rest of us, not so much.