ELVIS, THE BEATLES AND MUHAMMED ALI

by Russell T. Johnson

Lately various media and advertising consortia have been falling all over themselves acquiring the rights to images, histories, and artistic libraries of some of our most treasured cultural icons. One group from New York has bought Ali and Elvis and Sony is slobbering over Michael Jackson's library of songs, particularly those of the Beatles.

I'm afraid these guys have timed their acquisitions poorly.

The value of these three icons is due to their status as cultural demigods and that status is on the wane. These people acquire that status among a certain audience. As that audience ages, the population at large changes its perspective on those figures. Music consumers come along who don't know what popular music was like before Elvis; and there have been so many musicians who have worked an Elvis influence into their styles that a kid today would hear an Elvis recording and think, "Well, there's another one of that flavor."

Not to denigrate Elvis himself. He was a great guy, a great performer, a trail blazer, a super talent.

But.

He was a talented singer who made some movies. Our civilization has accumulated enough perspective to realize that now. I'm afraid that any efforts to keep him up there in the mythological firmament are going to seem a little silly and contrived from here on out. And since the Presley family is no longer in charge, any makeover or tweaking or boosting of the Presley image is going to seem insincere, contrived and calculated.

The Beatles, for those of you visiting from the planet Zork, were a rhythm and blues band whose members sometimes used their popularity to push social and political causes.

Now every band does that. Wasn't so then. They blazed a trail and that made them great.

Here's another trail they blazed. Sergeant Pepper was the first rock and roll album that people would sit and listen to and analyze like a volume of poetry. Never happened before. Now it's every record in the store, but the Beatles did it first.

As good as they were, musically they don't have the staying power of The Beach Boys or the Who. You can listen to Tommy or Animal Sounds over and over, but the White Album will wear you out.

So while we honor their contributions to the culture, we now have enough perspective to see them as a very talented and creative and socially outspoken rock and roll band. And that's all.

Now there are these guys, these big companies that seem to be in a big hurry to accumulate as much intellectual property as they can in as short a time as they can; and there are any number of lesser acquisitions whose value is quickly diminishing for the same reasons.

There's yet another force devaluing the abovementioned intellectual currency. Inflation. Cultural stuff is being created at a logarithmically increasing rate. Something's got to fill up a hundred channels of cable. Some kind of organized, copyrighted noise has got to occupy two hundred satellite radio channels. If you've got an ipod, you can listen to music for eight hours a day for a year and a half and not hear the same song twice.

There are not enough ears to hear everything that's made today, much less today's output plus all the output for the last thirty years.

Here's something you probably haven't considered. Much of the appeal of Elvis, The Beatles and Muhammed Ali is due to nonconformity, rebellion, a disdain for authority and the status quo. What happens to that appeal when it's sponsored and presented by a multinational conglomerate? It's just going to seem false and hypocritical. Part of their value derives from the fact that they're not selling Coco Puffs and Toyotas. As soon as you start using Muhammed Ali in ads for mutual funds, you're done. However you apply these images is likely to spoil their value. And Lard Hep Ye if you try to modify the image to make it more commercially useful. The fans of these guys have fixed ideas about their heroes and anything you do, no matter how well-intentioned or seemingly inoccuous, is likely to backfire.

Good luck with your investments, guys, but I think you've made some errors in judgement.

RTJ--4/13/2006

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