The Elvis Presley birthplace is the single most visited tourist attraction in Mississippi. More than 75,000 people drop by each year.
That translates into a lot of money spent in the local economy, so it’s no wonder that Gary, Ind., is looking Tupelo’s way.
The Chicago Tribune reported last week that city officials in Gary would like to replicate Tupelo’s success in marketing its Elvis connection by capitalizing on the legacy of their own native son, Michael Jackson. They’re planning to study Tupelo and the Elvis birthplace to help them figure out how to do it.
Officials at the birthplace and the foundation that owns and runs it will no doubt be happy to help. It’s not as if a Michael Jackson birthplace in Gary would be a competitive threat.
But all the commotion of the last couple of weeks aside, it’s hard to envision Jackson’s star shining as brightly three decades from now as Elvis’s does today, nearly 32 years after his own untimely death.
Jackson was unquestionably a superstar entertainer, a showman of the highest order. But his overall impact on music and culture, and the broadness of his appeal, falls far short of Elvis Presley.
What Elvis produced was not only a musical phenomenon but a sociological one as well. He melded white and black music – essentially gospel and rhythm and blues – into an entirely new art form that became known as rock ‘n’ roll. In so doing, he helped set the stage for the dramatic social change that was to follow.
It’s easy to forget how revolutionary – and threatening to some – Elvis’s music and persona were. It’s not an exaggeration to say that without him, 1950s and 60s American culture would have looked a lot different, musically and otherwise. In many ways, he opened the floodgates.
Jackson was masterful in his chosen pop genre, but the new ground he plowed had more to with technique, technology and showmanship than deeply rooted musical change. His was ˆ more the creation and cultivation of a celebrity image – tarnished at times – than the vanguard of a new musical era. Other earlier, lesser-known African-American artists like Chuck Berry probably did more to change overall musical direction than Jackson.
Sure, Elvis’s later years were less about musical breakthroughs and more about renewing and sustaining his career. But for years he was a trailblazer of unparalleled impact and broadness of appeal.
That’s why interest in his music and his personal story has endured all this time. It’s why people continue to visit his birthplace. When the hoopla dies down, will Michael Jackson have that staying power? Gary, Ind., is no doubt banking on it.
NEMS Daily Journal