Elvis Presley: The Artist As Cultural Icon 48 Years On

On the 48th anniversary of the death of Elvis Aaron Presley  (January 8, 1935 – August 16, 1977) here is a tribute to mass consumerism. Andy Warhol was as much about celebrity worship and consumerism as he was about the act of creation. Warhol was fascinated by popular culture, fame and celebrity and Elvis was the ultimate subject. He painted a number of portraits of the star.

Ever since the beginning of his career in 1954, Elvis Presley dominated the world of popular culture. According to Rolling Stone, it was Elvis who made rock ‘n’ roll the international language of pop, and in his role as the American music giant of the 20th century, he single-handedly changed the course of music and culture from the mid-1950s onwards. Elvis’s first record was of rockabilly music—an uptempo, beat driven offshoot of country music. But it was in 1956, when he released his first single, Heartbreak Hotel, under the guidance of his new manager “Colonel” Tom Parker, that his career really took off with a number one spot on the U.S. Billboard charts. In total, he had eighteen number one singles during his lifetime and nine number one albums, selling an estimated 600 million records during his career. 

In the mid-1950s, he embarked on a film career and over the next two decades he appeared in a total of 33 movies, including Jailhouse Rock, Blue Hawaii and Flaming Star (from where the source material for the current lot was taken). Presley’s emergence as a cultural phenomenon coincided with the birth of the American teenager—a new consumer market that, thanks to the popularity of people like Elvis, would come to be worth billions of dollars. As early as 1956 the Wall Street Journal identified the potential of this new sector of buying power and identified Elvis as a major contributor. Elvis’s popularity spawned demand for everything from new lines of clothing based on his black slacks and loose, open-necked shirts to pink portable record players for teenagers’ bedrooms. It was also responsible for a phenomenal growth in the sales of transistor radios, which rocketed from sales of an estimated 100,000 in 1955 to 5,000,000 in just three years later. 

Elvis energised interpretations of songs with a sexually provocative performance style, combined with a singularly potent mix of influences across color lines that coincided with the dawn of the Civil Rights Movement, made him enormously popular—and controversial.

In 2014 Andy Warhol’s Triple Elvis [Ferus Type] (Top Left) sold at Christie’s auctioneers for over $81.9 million dollars to an anonymous telephone bidder. 

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