Elvis Presley Challenge no. 4 – Steve Jobs

This challenge was issued by Amy, my daughter, after Bono compared the two men.

 

Today I caught the train into the centre of Liverpool, a fifteen minute journey along the Northern railway line that runs between Liverpool and Southport.   On the train I did what I usually do.  I read a book.   This time it was ‘Security’ by the gifted American writer Stephen Amidon.  I first made the journey nearly forty years ago and throughout that time my reading habits have put me in a minority.   The difference now is that the non-readers no longer stare out the windows.  They are instead, if I understand the vernacular correctly, wired.  They are active rather than restless.  The more old-fashioned listen to their MP3 players.   Most, though, exercise their thumbs on their iPhones.  Some use cheaper and unfashionable equivalents.  These users tend to be more discrete.

The claim that followed the death of Steve Jobs was consistent across the media.  He changed the way we live.  This was a man who left his mark.  This may not be the easiest challenge to write but it is the least difficult to meet.  As soon as Bono made the comparison between the two men there was little left for this blog to do but analyse the nature of the relationship.  

Rock and roll also changed the way we live and Elvis was a key player in helping the music to have an impact but, like technology and Jobs, rock and roll did not begin and end with Elvis.   He required influences and after he left his mark others came along and utilised the shift in behaviour and taste to have additional impact.  Unless the apocalypse is well ahead of schedule others will do the same in the future.  The same will happen with technology.  Generations will come along and make innovations and impose values to make modern day iPhone huggers uncomfortable and complain the world is not what it used to be.  Old-fashioned rock and rollers like me say the same when we listen to modern music.

Inevitably, the debates are already starting around Jobs as they did with Elvis.  Was Steve Jobs the key player that his myth proclaims?  Are there others who made more significant contributions?  Soon people will argue that innovation is not just about individuals but reflects the process of history.  Those who need authenticity are in full pursuit and some believe they have discovered it in figures with lower profiles.  Dennis Ritchie, the software creator, has already been mentioned and no doubt a cult will build around him.  Posterity invites a debate between the relative importance of Jobs and Ritchie similar to that which exists between the aficionados of Fats Domino and Professor Longhair.

Jobs and Elvis may not have been the only creators in their fields but both were significant because they introduced cool.  Before Elvis people listened to rhythm and blues and country but nobody assumed these musicians were stars capable of inspiring mass sexual hysteria.  Before Jobs technology made machines work and function.  After him the machines were desirable, a source of pleasure.  Fashion, status and image became involved.  Both Elvis and Jobs understood that there could be consequences others had missed.  Elvis realised it could make him a giant in his generation and create a revolution in style.   Jobs believed technology could be gratifyingly fashionable.   Neither was entirely alone in these aspirations.  We must not forget the Walkman.  Elvis and Jobs stood apart because they were so successful and played for higher stakes.  Before Elvis there was show business and before Jobs there were innovations.  After Elvis show business was condemned and, indeed, later he was criticised for forgetting his own revolution.  Eventually, Steve Jobs was obliged to claim what were sometimes only modest inventions (the iPad for example) as something different, pretend he was still making existential breakthroughs.

It is interesting that the subsequent claims of both men had to be made from a stage to an audience all too willing to compare what they had become with what they had been.  It is probably no coincidence that both men relied on a sartorial statement that they thought made them iconic.  Elvis attempted to define his supremacy and separateness from other musicians with his white suit and Jobs distanced himself from other CEOs with his jeans and sweatshirt.   Both men had to suggest they had continuing significance denied to others.

ElvisTo understand their achievement what we need to do is remember men who are becoming quickly forgotten.  Elvis was preceded by Bill Haley and Bill Gates once looked like he might rule the world.  The notion that Haley or Gates would be soon no more than a footnote would have caused mirth if it had been suggested when those two men were dominant.  They are now ignored because they failed to understand what Jobs and Elvis proclaimed when they were important – cool and fashion.  Elvis soon lost his cool and just before Jobs died some were already beginning to be weary of the jeans and sweatshirt he felt obliged to wear on stage.  Indeed, the Jobs approach to technology may be considered vulgar by future generations. Style and appearance may eventually have to concede second place to a rarified minimalism.   But, originally, both men had led the way.

So the connection exists and no doubt there will be other details and coincidences such as their short tempers and occasional tyrannical behaviour but I am reluctant to take the comparison too far.  The early pictures of Steve Jobs reveal a different animal to that of Elvis.  Steve Jobs was a talented opportunist interested in technology.  As a youth he communicated optimism, self-belief and purpose.  The delight he is taking from the world and the opportunities it will offer his energy and ability is obvious from his early photographs.  His exceptional success and impact made him unusual but such ambition and enthusiasm is not that rare in Universities and there are plenty of young men and women with a similar purpose and capacity for delight.  Elvis did not belong with such people.  We only have to listen to the nihilistic scorn in ‘Hound Dog’ and ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ to know Elvis would never enjoy the fulfilment that the chosen believe they have a right to expect.  Bono got it wrong.  The two men are connected because in most fields of activity fate is obliged to choose iconic individuals.  But to compare them is to insult the memory of both men and to ignore something called the American class system.   The ambition of Elvis and Jobs required them assuming significance others did not imagine or, in some instances, rejected.  Although both men dealt in dreams the impact of their society should not be ignored.   They may have had their careers shaped by the making of riches but they began with very different plans.  Technology is not rock and roll.

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6 comments

  1. incisive analysis of the impact of 2 very different men on the worlds of music and technology.

  2. Most enjoyable post on the Elvis Presley challenge yet, although I think the premise of the question is entirely wrong. Steve Jobs and Elvis were really not that similar at all. Good job of making the right points though.

  3. It’s funny, I see Jobs more as the underdog who made good by bringing Star Trek into our daily lives.

    There’s a documentary series called William Shatner changed the world – and how the people who watched Star Trek went on to invent medical scanning machines and other technology based on Star Trek.

    In Next Gen, Data would listen to several musical recordings and shortly after, the internet advanced from text to text, pictures, sound and eventually video – downloaded then streaming because people figured out how to compress data into manageable chunks.

    Watching Deep Space 9 and Voyager, the crews of those shows used hand held and laptops before those where common – the ipad, kindle and other reading devices are right out of the Star Trek Props department.

    Bill Gates tackled the business computer users – all Jobs had was the cool underdog role to fill, to carve out a market niche now that he couldn’t compete against MicroSoft.

    Jobs is different from Elvis, he saw the gaps and filled them

    Elvis absorbed everything and did something entirely new – it wasn’t just the music and sex, Elvis was colourblind to ethnicity, and egalitarian in the belief that anyone can accomplish their dreams with a lot of hard work and effort.

    Elvis, more than anyone, embodies the American Dream of rising from the lowest socio-economic standing and becoming globally popular.

    Before Elvis, only one song had ever sold a million copies, and Elvis sold million sellers back to back. He accounted for 50% of RCA profits in 1956 and the number 1 billboard chart slot was his for almost the whole year.

    Elvis was so cool in 1956 that he still makes more money than living artists 34 years after he died.

    Elvis’ appeal was down to Elvis – but Steve Jobs was riding Gene Roddenbury’s coat tails and picking up the slack that Bill Gates couldn’t touch.

    But Bill Gates has reinvented himself as a philanthropist and has done more to save lives in Africa than America has.

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