Why does Elvis Presley have a hit record?

How popular culture gets popular.
July 17 2002 11:20 AM

Elvis Presley

The King's new hit record.

CD cover

It's been a while since Elvis Presley had a top-of-the-charts hit, for the understandable reason that he died of an overdose almost a quarter-century ago. Despite this, he's back in a remixed version of "A Little Less Conversation," which recently hit No. 1 in England (breaking a long-standing tie between Elvis and the Beatles for most chart-toppers there), Ireland, Australia, and the Netherlands. The single is just out in the United States, where it debuted at No. 50 on the Billboard Hot 100 and is already leading the single sales chart. Its chances for further success are good, but whatever happens, the return of Elvis to No. 1 status is a powerful testament to his endurance: Few have ever embodied the idea of number oneness so completely as Elvis has—in both life and death.

The original "A Little Less Conversation" peaked at No. 69 in the United States when it was first released in 1968—one of 152 Elvis appearances on the Hot 100, stretching from 1956 to, of course, this year. The new version (you can see a video for it at Elvisnumberones.com) has the original vocal track running over the high-octane instrumentation and beats of a club tune; the mix was put together by JXL (or Junkie XL, although that moniker is being sort of downplayed at the moment, for obvious reasons), the stage name of 34-year-old Dutch DJ Tom Holkenborg.

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As the track finds its way onto mainstream radio, it may well strike a lot of listeners as more of an artistic breakthrough than it really is. Pretty much everyone is familiar with sampling, even taken to the extreme of using practically an entire music track by one artist and adding vocals by someone else (one very famous example being Puff Daddy's "I'll Be Missing You," which relied heavily on the Police's "Every Breath You Take.") Remixes that fall somewhere between a cover version and a unique work haven't had as much radio success, but there are certainly precedents for a contemporary DJ reworking a recognizable song from rock antiquity. One interesting example is Fatboy Slim's take on the Who's "I Can't Explain" in the track "Going Out of My Head," from 1997's Better Living Through Chemistry.

There's also been a lot of remixing and sampling all across the musical spectrum, including the recent Verve Remixed, in which, for instance, Billie Holiday's "Don't Explain" gets a trance treatment from production duo Dzihan and Kamien; Moby's Play, which used an assortment of obscure gospel samples; and the 1995 album No Protection: Mad Professor vs. Massive Attack, in which dub artist Mad Professor essentially produced an alternate vision of a Massive Attack record. "A Little Less Conversation" is billed to "Elvis vs. JXL"a naming style that's been used in the remix world for a while but has lately come to be associated with the undergroundish bootleg or mash-up trend, in which songs by two (or more) wholly disparate artists are remixed by a third party into a new, and often strange, hybrid. (Boom Selection is probably the vanguard site for this phenomenon.)

Antecedents notwithstanding, JXL's take on "A Little Less Conversation" is a pretty big step in the mainstreaming of the remix idea, defined broadly. And while it's possible to imagine something more adventurous, it's still a pretty good version and undeniably catchy.

But ultimately the song is actually more remarkable as a business deal than as a groundbreaking piece of music. As Holkenborg tells it in various interviews, he was contacted by someone at Nike, which was looking for music to go with its global, World Cup-related ad splash. That campaign revolved around an imaginary secret soccer tournament, featuring the game's biggest stars, played on an abandoned tanker. It needed a soundtrack. Holkenborg says he eventually suggested revamping the Elvis tune, which shows he has quite an ear for marketing, given how well that song's lyrical hook"A little less conversation, a little more action"dovetails with Nike's eternal "Just Do It" theme.

But the shrewdest player in this game may well be Elvis Presley Enterprises; the King's estate had apparently been approached with remix requests before, but this is the first one it has ever OKed. And why not? Even if the song never got a single radio spin, millions would hear it through Nike's huge campaign. And—what a coincidence!—it happens that a new album called Elvis 30 #1 Hits is due out in September. (A compilation of Beatles chart-toppers sold more than 7 million copies last year, making it one of the biggest-selling releases of 2001.) According to the official promotional site, the JXL tune is being added to that release. And in another handy coincidence, the little girl heroine of the new Disney movie Lilo & Stitch turns out to be a dedicated Elvis fan.

As Ted Williams' heirs can tell you, commercial immortality is a very tricky business, and you have to give the Elvis estate credit for its skill in making Presley's pop DNA available to new generations. No wonder a recent column in Brandweek, noting that Graceland is "the cornerstone of Memphis tourism" and that Presley still sells more than 4 million albums a year, dubbed Elvis "a real, time-tested Superbrand." It's true: Elvis' post-death career has already outlasted his pre-death one, and its future has never looked brighter.

Thanks to Marc Weidenbaum of the ambient/electronica site Disquiet for invaluable background and insights.

Rob Walker is a columnist for Yahoo Tech, a contributor to Design Observer and the New York Times, and the author of Buying In.

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