The Dead Musicians Society

How we, as a culture, apotheosize and exploit defunct artists

Illustrator: Lizzie Goncharova

Illustrator: Lizzie Goncharova

I have seen the ghost of Elvis Presley.

Kind of. About a year ago I had the misfortune of touring the late Mr. Presley’s infamous former home, Graceland mansion. As I was herded like cattle through the narrow, musty halls of the stale yet uncannily preserved manor house, I couldn’t help but imagine the hip-swivelin’ phantom of the King of Rock n’ Roll lurking around every corner, wondering what all these gawking tourists were doing in his house.

When Presley died, the general public somehow made the executive decision to make him God. This odd sanctification of dead musicians is actually a pretty common phenomenon. Artists elevated to godlike status after their deaths include but are not limited to: Michael Jackson, Kurt Cobain, Freddie Mercury, and John Lennon.

Then there’s Graceland, where items ranging from Elvis key chains to musical toilet seats are sold for as much as $40,000.

These musicians all have something in common (besides being dead men): their music continues to be produced, and their personal brands continue to be used post-mortem. The successful “Nirvana Unplugged” MTV Session was released closely following Cobain’s death in 1994, Queen continued to produce music after front-man Freddie Mercury bit the dust in 1991, and Jackson’s hit biopic, “This Is It,” was released mere months after his passing in 2009. Then there’s Graceland, where items ranging from Elvis key chains to musical toilet seats are sold for as much as $40,000.

According to Forbes, Elvis has been raking in about $55 million every year since his death, but money isn’t the only thing being leeched from the dead, helpless king. By exploiting Elvis’ legacy for monetary gain, producers are slowly stealing his credibility as an artist. The endless plastering of his face onto phone cases and tennis shoes turns the artist into a cheesy figurehead, well known but seldom respected. Yes, he is considered a “king,” and sometimes even a God, but how much respect can you truly have for him once you’ve laid your eyes on a custom-made toilet seat featuring a poorly drawn picture of fat Elvis? The same goes for seeing Kurt Cobain’s suicide note on a novelty t-shirt or hearing a song written by Freddie Mercury used to sell diet soda. Their images remain, but the true essences of the artists fade into crappy jokes and consumerism.

Within the stuffy, commercialized walls of Graceland, Elvis’ ghost is forced to live on while his successors reap the financial rewards of his legacy. I suppose ghost Elvis isn’t too sad about it though, he’s still the king.