Elvis or Michael Jackson -

who is the bigger star?

Click here for all the Michael Jackson / Elvis Presley News stories

(EIN comment, 6 July 2009)

Prepared by Nigel Patterson

Elvis Presley's death deprives our country of a part of itself. He was unique and irreplaceable. More than 20 years ago, he burst upon the scene with an impact that was unprecedented and will probably never be equaled. His music and his personality, fusing the styles of white country and black rhythm and blues, permanently changed the face of American popular culture. His following was immense, and he was a symbol to people the world over of the vitality, rebelliousness, and good humor of his country.

President Jimmy Carter, 1977-08-17

With a vigorous debate and much hype surrounding the death of Michael Jackson and his relative status compared to Elvis and the Beatles, EIN decided to take a look at what is actually happening on the ground rather than in the rhetorical world of our increasingly tabloid mass media, and the ivory towered and specious multi-national record companies.

The words “hype” and exaggeration” appear to be symbolic of the media’s reaction to the sad death of music icon, Michael Jackson.  Possessed with a personal genius as a songwriter and choreographer, Jackson’s unfortunate end, like the deaths of Elvis and John Lennon before him, will undoubtedly and justifiably leave an unfillable vacuum in part of the music world.

However, claims that Jackson’s death is bigger and more profound than that of Elvis and John Lennon are at worst, not supported by the facts, and at best, premature.

Physical sales: In many respects it is difficult to compare the impact of Michael Jackson’s death with that of Elvis.  The music landscape has changed dramatically since 1977 when 12” vinyl albums reigned supreme.  Today, sales of CDs continue to diminish and the boom area is in downloaded music.

It is in the area of new technology where Michael Jackson’s death has had its biggest impact; namely the very large number of downloaded tracks (although yet to be in the millions as some reports suggest) and the online interest in news around his death via the Internet.

Also impressive is the more than 1 million requests for tickets to Jackson's funeral service. Undoubtedly, huge crowds will be present in Los Angeles tomorrow when Jackson's public funeral is held. The numbers will far outstrip the thousands who watched Elvis' funeral procession in Memphis in August 1977. For the record, it must be noted that there is a significant difference in population between the two cities.

So when Billboard states that Michael Jackson albums are making up 9 of the top 10 albums this week, this fact cannot be directly compared to what happened after Elvis’ death.

Jackson’s ‘Number Ones’ album is at #1 but with total sales of only 108,000 copies….a figure well down on what was needed in the 1970s and 1980s to have the #1 hit.  At #9 is his ‘The Ultimate collection compile which needed only 11,000 sales to make the Billboard top 10!

Billboard stated:

‘Collectively, Jackson's solo albums sold 422,000 this past week. That's extraordinary, given that his titles sold a combined 10,000 in the week that ended June 21. Of the 422,000 total, 57 per cent were digital downloads. On the top digital albums chart, Jackson has a record six out of the top 10 slots, including the top four.  The Essential Michael Jackson leads the list with 80,000 downloads sold, while Thriller is at number two with 57,000.’

To put the Elvis vs. Michael Jackson death impact into perspective, one needs to consider that within 2 days of Elvis’ death around 10 million Elvis records were sold in the US alone. In addition, newspapers in more than a dozen countries reported having to significantly increase their print runs in order to meet demand for their stories on Elvis. And more than 100 "special edition" magazines were released around the world in tribute to the King of Rock 'n' Roll.

This is not happening in the same way for Michael; Jackson as today’s media is much more fragmented and the Internet offers easily accessible news and information sites.

Similar claims of Michael Jackson memorabilia eclipsing post death sales for Elvis and John Lennon are also premature.  Both

Elvis and Lennon continue to enjoy robust sales of memorabilia, in Elvis’ case 3 decades after his death.

An examination of Michael Jackson memorabilia listed on eBay indicates that while tens of thousands of items have been listed, less than 50% are attracting bids., and not surprisinbgly it is only rare and collectible items which are experiencing strong bidding.

Sales of Michael Jackson DVDs and albums exaggerated!: Despite claims that retailers have sold out of Michael Jackson DVDs and albums, this actually does not appear to be a widespread phenomenon.

Reports from Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra indicate many stores have plentiful stocks of the late singer’s releases and a similar reports have been posted on messageboards in both the US and Europe.

So while Jackson’s record company may be shipping large volumes of his releases, it does not appear this is being complemented by fans actually snapping up the product. This situation is in stark contrast to August 1977 when, despite RCA having just re-issued a number of Elvis’ back catalog, his records did sell out, with fans having to wait several weeks to receive their orders.

When Elvis died an estimated 100 million of his records were pressed, with RCA having to, not only run its own pressing plants 24 hours a day, but also having to hire the pressing plant services of other record companies in order to meet the unprecedented demand for Elvis releases.

Who do we believe?: With a viral tabloid media altering the “factual” landscape of our world, knowing what to believe and not to believe has become increasingly difficult. 

A casual look at the headlines of the weekly gossip magazines usually show particular celebrities

The case of Michael Jackson’s ex-wife, Debbie Rowe, is a case in point.  

Since Jackson’s death, she has either:

  • Not been interested in having custody of her children (News of the World – last week)
  • Seeking custody of the children (People magazine - this week)
  • Uncertain about whether she wants to seek custody (BBC News – this week)

The latter two claims were published on the same day (3 July 2009)!

In all 3 cases, her lawyer is quoted! 

Whatever happened to legal sanctions for misleading information!

Socio-cultural impact – Elvis or Michael Jackson?: The issue of who is greater, better or more important between Elvis and Michael Jackson cannot be solely limited to their respective impacts on popular music.  It MUST also include their impact on the socio-cultural fabric of the world.  This is where Elvis has a decided, in fact, insurmountable, advantage! 

EIN has written widely on this issue over many years.  Most recently we offered the following in recent days:

"Elvis emerged at a point in history where our culture was ready to turn itself upside down," says Dr. John Bakke, a professor emeritus of the University of Memphis' Department of Communication, who staged the first scholarly conference on Elvis in 1979. "From the Depression on to World War II and then into the Cold War, there was a real drive towards security. Elvis came along at just the time the first identifiable generation of teenagers were about to substitute a drive for freedom for their parents' drive for security.

"With the change in values came a change in music and you had the impact of what became rock and roll. Elvis stood at the cusp of that generational revolution."

As Nash notes, Presley's was a trailblazing path. "Where Elvis co-created a musical art form, Michael largely built on one. Where Elvis changed sexual mores in the conservative wake of World War II, Michael only made shocking crotch-grabbing movements. And where Elvis, expanding on James Dean's work, harnessed a burgeoning youth culture, Michael only drew more attention to it," says Nash. "He did it brilliantly ... but his cultural impact pales in comparison to Presley's."

Beyond their impact in life, the question now is whether a cult will spring up around Jackson in death similar to the one that grew around Presley.

Given the particular nature of Jackson's legal and personal troubles over the past decade, it's hard to imagine millions of tourists visiting Jackson's childhood home in Gary, Ind., or his former Neverland Ranch complex in California the way Presley pilgrims - young and old - turn up at Graceland each year.

"There will always be throngs of people who will mourn and revere (Jackson)," says Nash. "But because his personal life was so outsized, peculiar, and tainted with scandal far more lurid than Presley's drug abuse, I can't see him morphing into the Disney-zed figure that Elvis has become.

"It's far easier to overlook Elvis's peccadilloes than Michael's," she adds. "Elvis was beautiful, sexy, and fun. Michael was sweet, strange, and sad. Who wants to see that on a lunchbox?"

Bakke also points out that the worlds in which Presley and Jackson lived and died in were dramatically different.

"In general people weren't interested in (Elvis) personally or that interested in their pop culture figures the way they are now. It was a big deal when one of the networks actually led their newscast with Elvis' death. Compare that to what you're seeing with Jackson - it's totally night and day."

The importance of both Elvis and Michael Jackson is highlighted by the need for some fans to deny their deaths and embrace fanciful conspiracy stories that both artists faked their deaths.

It will be interesting to see if the Michael Jackson death hoax stories are as lasting as they have been for Elvis and if they spawn as many books and magazine articles as the Elvis death hoax has.

And Michael Jackson returning to the stage wearing a mask would, of course, not be unlike his appearances in later years.

And apart from the points made above:
  • how many Michael Jackson tribute songs will be released?
  • how many books about Jackson will be published each year?
  • how well will Michael Jackson be embraced in folk art?
  • how many Michael Jackson tribute artists will we see?
  • how big will be the annual commemorations of Michael Jackson's death?  

To match Elvis, the numbers in all cases will need to be huge and lasting!

Pragmatically, the real measure of Michael Jackson's death on the world will not be known for some time.

Comment on this article

More on Elvis and Michael Jackson:

"Parallels in lives, deaths of Michael Jackson and Elvis - But Presley's path was Trailblazing"


Lisa Marie Presley - Michael Jackson - EIN archives about Lisa Marie & The King of Pop

Your Feedback

FFI Webmaster: Elvis got it all started, Elvis influenced all the ones that out sold him, and Elvis was better looking and had more sex appeal than all combined. So this article can go to hell.

Don Cooper: I've always been a fan of both of these talented artists. Each had strengths the other lacked but both compensated for them by focusing on their unique ability to adapt. While Elvis never wrote or composed most of his music, Michael Jackson did. While Jackson was never able to learn much on any instruments, Elvis knew more than his critics give him credit for. Both were (as Fred Astaire once remarked to Jackson) hell of a movers. While Jackson showed his ability to move with the music early with his brothers, the Jackson 5, his later solo performances were largely choreographed.

Elvis, on the other hand was always... well, you never knew what Elvis was going to do onstage. From the 1950s to the 1970s Elvis thrilled his audiences with his voice and suggestive dance moves. Michael did so from the 1970s to the 2000s. As a child growing up in the 80s I stayed up all night watching Elvis movies and Michael Jackson videos and I loved watching the sheer talent these two men had. Yes, there were similarities between the two. Both had chimps. Both were eccentric. Both wore makeup. Etc, etc, etc. But we should also focus on their differences. What I mean is the different talents they used to entertain like no others before them or after them. May they both rest in peace!

Steve Smith: I read your article about this and I am gonna give my views on this subject. Who is the biggest star between the two? Thats a funny thing to ask. Of course its Elvis! Yes Michael was a big star and yes he was an outstanding performer. But what else did the guy really do? The answer is NOTHING! Elvis on the other hand was the greatest star the world has ever known and will ever know.  I wont write the many many things he did for others and for charities and so on because like Elvis himself said "that is not what matters". Elvis had hit records all over the world, hit singles all over the world, gave concerts year after year all over the country, did the first EVER World Wide Satellite concert, and on and on. The accomplishments of the King could go on forever.

What did Michael really do? In my book he had two major hit albums and they were Thriller and Bad. But can you really say anything that followed was really any good? Yes a gave some fine concerts but lets face it when you have all the flash of fireworks and flashy dance moves any concert will look good. The biggest thing for Michael is what he "shouldnt" have done and that was his relationship with kids. If he didnt do the things he was accused of then why did he pay those people off to stay quiet? This will be in my book a black mark on Michaels legacy no matter how celebrated he may be. You never heard of this kind of scandal with Elvis and why? Because Elvis would never have even thought about doing what Michael did.

Dont get me wrong I like Michael Jackson and respect him for what he did as far as music goes but thats where the respect stops. He will never be as big as Elvis and to mention the two in the same breath is an insult not only to the King but to all his fans. Elvis was and is the biggest star the world has ever known and thats the way it will continue to be. Elvis will be remebered for many, many years to come will Michael? That remains to be seen.

Tim Stone (Ca.): Article is RIGHT ON!!!!!!!!!! We'll see if they are still talking about Jackson 32 years from now. I attended the 30th anniversary in Memphis with 75,000 other Elvis fans. Now that is Legendary! Elvis is the REAL King!  Go to the Graceland Trophy room. There's the proof!

Luke: I don't even like the idea that MJ and Elvis are being compaired to each other. Yes MJ was very sucessful as the king of pop, but Jackson had a very dark side of life that included children, and to me thats unforgiveable!! King of pop or not. Lets not forget that side, just because he's now gone.

Poor Elvis just had to deal with being loved to death, trapped in an image created by himself and others.  some painful health problems, with which he came to dependent on high doses of pain killers. Im not saying E was perfect but Elvis was nothing at all like MJ and i hate media is compairing the 2. Just my opinion i suppose

John (Exeter): Terrific article!

Ida Ritter: Very little I could say after such a beautiful article about Elvis or Michael.  As you point out, they happened in different eras when everything was conducted differently and the technology was not that of today's.
After analyzing this era I can't but think what would have happen with Elvis if the technology we enjoy today would have been in place in his time?  Elvis's grandeur was such that is hard to imagine how much more bigger his place in the music history of this country and the world would have been.  I red what Alana Nash have to say and she made a perfect description of what Elvis was and is today, and why nothing or nobody could surpassed that.
After that I just have to add that I was a witness of what happened in the United States and in the world when Elvis died, what RCA have to do at that time to meet the demand for Elvis's records,not to mention the media all over the world, and the impact that Elvis's untimely death had; today is another story. then Elvis stood alone and there is nothing to measure him then or today.  I do not think is a matter of comparison is a matter or documentation and facts. 

Thanks for a beautiful article on this subject.

Laurie Falkenburg: I think you are is right on. I am a huge Elvis fan, while I respected MJ as an artist before all of the strangest that became him I do not think he is in the same realm as Elvis. Elvis had a light about him that MJ did not. I think that because Michael set out to be better than Elvis was the reason he will not. Elvis just was, he never competed with anyone. His fans saw that about him. I also remember the day Elvis died, I was only 12 and I was suppose to see him in concert on Aug. 22 in Hartford, CT. I still have my ticket.

Also the Presley family did not make a spectacle out of it unlike the Jackson's, The news was the only way we as fans could find out anything and the news was on at only 3 times a day. There were no all day news networks. There were no computers, so to even compare the two is just wrong. I wanted to go to Memphis after he died but when my Dad looked into the few flights they had back then and the amount of money an airline ticket was I couldn't.

We'll see in 10 yrs, what is talked about as far as Michael goes. One more thing if I hear one more time from any African American say that Elvis was a racist I am going to scream, I believe that MJ was more of a racist than Elvis, the man stripped himself of his color, I do not believe he had a skin disease, I have seen people w/it and they are not white all over. Lone live the only true King and that is ELVIS,  Well thanks for the article.

Ben Smart: The MJ fans have got to be kidding, right? Theres no comparison between him and the real King, Elvis.

Wendy: There will always only be one real King of music and that's Elvis. Michael Jackson might have been a great artist but Elvis' combination of good looks, wonderful voice and charisma put him on a higher level to Michael.

Frank Johnson: Bravo! Your article puts all of the MJ hype into perspective. Keep up the good work in the name of the King of Rock and Roll.

Annie: I'm so sick of the media overkill surrounding Michael Jackson. He was an OK singer who had a few major hit albums but that in no way can compare to what Elvis achieved during his lifetime. In 10 years time it will be Michael who? Elvis however will live on forever.


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