I’m a GenXer; born in the late 1970s, a child in the 1980s and a teenager in the era of 1990s Grunge. I don’t remember listening to Elvis at all growing up. But the Beatles? They were ever-present. The Fab Four was on record albums stored in the back of our coat closet. I saved up my babysitting money to purchase a CD version of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” My little sister adored the song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” It was her go-to song whenever we played Charades. So when I recently watched the 2022 Baz Luhrmann movie “Elvis,” I was stunned. It was like experiencing his music for the first time.
I was familiar with most of the famous Elvis songs of course. Who can grow up in America without knowing “Blue Suede Shoes?” I’d also, at some point in my past, watched the 1988 made-for-TV movie “Elvis and Me” based on Priscilla Presley’s best selling book. But I never understood the musicality behind his work until I watched “Elvis.”
I spent the next week driving around town listening to channel 75, Elvis Radio, on SiriusXM. I pushed aside all the kooky images I’d grown up with — Elvis impersonators, Elias wedding chapels, “Elvis is alive!” headlines on grocery store tabloids — and listened to his music with new ears.
What Elvis Radio does which is special is that it plays live recordings of Elvis on stage. One day you’ll hear him belt out “America the Beautiful” in a way that gives you goosebumps. The next day you’ll hear a version where he forgets the words, perhaps due to overwork and drug abuse. This is the opinion I formed: 1950s Elvis was absolutely amazing, 1960s Elvis was still incredible but 1970s Elvis bore harbingers of tragedy.
There were lots of things I didn’t know. What was poke salad for example, from the song “Poke Salad Annie?” I pictured some sort of macaroni concoction with peas. After googling it, I learned it was a plant called pokeweek that people foraged for and had to cook carefully so they wouldn’t get sick.
The big question to me at the end of “Elvis Week,” as I had begun to call it, was why had I never appreciated Elvis before? I asked some fellow GenXer friends and we all had the same answer. Our parents came of age during Beatlemania. When we were little we were more likely to listen to “Let it Be” than “If I Can Dream” because that’s what our parents played on their stereos.
Perhaps this is why teenagers now worship Nirvana. When we get in the car my teens ask me to turn on Lithium, the grunge rock and ’90s alternative station. Everything about the 1990s has made a huge comeback, including Dr. Martens. But do they listen to the Bee Gees or Whitney Houston? No way. The 1970s and 1980s are dead to them.
So who was cooler, Elvis or the Beatles? My guess is that it depends on which generation you ask.
Jennifer Bardsley is the author of “Sweet Bliss,” “Good Catch” and more. Find her online on Instagram @jenniferbardsleyauthor, on Twitter @jennbardsley or on Facebook as Jennifer Bardsley Author. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.