We have all heard of Elvis Presley, known in China as the Cat King. Despite his untimely death in 1977 at the age of 42, he is still known as the “king of rock and roll.” He developed the rock and roll we know today by blending different strains of music with an energetic vocal style, new rhythms, and electric guitars.
Elvis came before my day, so I wasn’t part of this Elvis craze. In China as in the United States, his influence diminished, being taking over by Michael Jackson, Madonna, and even Britney Spears. However, Elvis made an indelible imprint on rock and roll, and many modern artists openly admit that their music, at some point in their careers, was influenced by Elvis.
On my recent visit to Memphis, Tennessee, I walked some of the steps that Elvis took. When he moved to Tennessee as a teenager in 1948, he became exposed to a music scene unlike any other at the time. Beale Street in downtown Memphis was a center of blues music, and Elvis became a part of that.
After Elvis became world famous, he bought Graceland, a stately Southern mansion in Memphis. He lived there with his family until his death. He performed all over the United States, but said he always looked forward to returning home.
Today, Graceland is a museum complex, including the original house, a working horse ranch, exhibits detailing his life and career, and his plane, boat, and train collections. Fans from around the world flock to see it, making Graceland the second most visited house in the United States after the White House.
Graceland Jungle Room
Graceland Billiard Room
To see the house is one thing, but my purpose was to better understand the man who lived there. As I walked around the house and grounds, I asked the guides, other tourists, and even myself—what did Elvis do to change the world? Here’s what I found:
Innovation need not be new
Elvis did not invent rock and roll. The guitar, bass, and drums existed long before Elvis. However, he brought rock and roll to a different level by blending styles, as his music was heavily influenced by African-American blues, Christian gospel, and Southern country.
So even though Elvis did something new, his work is rooted in what was older. He borrowed from different genres to create his own style. By knowing each style well, he was better able to use his creativity to meld his own style. Elvis created a whole new style of music: it wasn't black, white, pop, or country—it was different. Creativity doesn’t exist in a vacuum.
So if you are trying to innovate, either for your job or in your personal life, take stock of what you already have and what people have done before. You often don’t need to reinvent the wheel, but rather, blend different things and create something new from that.
Form and substance are both important
Elvis’s zany performance style was very different from that of his predecessors. His dance moves were more exaggerated, his outfits (known as jumpsuits) became a style of their own, his pompadour hairstyle became a fad, and his attitude was decidedly non-conformist.
Before Elvis, performers may have moved around a little on the stage, snapping their fingers and swaying back and forth. Elvis, however, took on a more explosive style, making bold moves and taking up a lot more space. Although this is the norm today, Elvis was the first to do this on such a large scale.
So even though the “substance” of Elvis’s music was innovative, his “form” of presenting the music was also new. If he did not have such an individualistic and overstated presentation style, he may not have distinguished himself the way he did. He went against the flow in form and substance.
Choose a new audience
In Elvis’s day, music was geared toward adults. Elvis, however, was the first to target teenagers. Teenage girls, in particular. By exploiting this new audience, Elvis expanded the music industry, moving it from adult-centered to youth-centered. To this day, many popular music artists perform to this very same teenage girl demographic that had been neglected before Elvis.
This shift, of course, generated considerable controversy. His music and performances provoked strong opinions among the public and in the press. Pundits, politicians, and other musicians criticized him. Some of his television performances were censored. Yet Elvis turned a deaf ear to his critics, pursuing his own path.
At the Graceland museum, I watched a series of televised interviews with Elvis on this very question. Journalists asked him if the critics bothered him and whether the controversy discouraged him. Time after time he simply said, “no,” saying that everyone has a right to their opinion and can say about him what they want. In other words, he simply ignored them.
In my article on The Pursuit of Happyness, I shared with you a story about a turtle that completed a marathon, despite the naysayers on the sidelines who said he’d never make it. It turns out the turtle was deaf, so he just listened to his own inner voice and drew upon his personal conviction to succeed. Elvis did the same. And so can you.
The documentary The King (2017) with Alec Baldwin exposes the darker side of Elvis’s life, showing how he lived a life always pursuing the highest-paying contracts. Despite his fame and influence during a turbulent time in American history, Elvis did little for the civil rights movement. Over time, he became addicted to prescription drugs. The message, I think, is to stay true to your character and focus on the common good to achieve lasting success.
My friend, Elvis changed the course of music and music culture. But he didn’t start from scratch, but rather mastered and blended styles, creating his own. He focused on form and substance, and also discovered a new market. So if you are trying to change something in your own life or environment, follow these same steps—and maybe change the world as well!