Death—what a concept. Serious contemplation about the Grand Finale can do in any sap's head. It raises so many difficult questions, like "Will my loved ones be able to afford a glamorous funeral?" "Is there an afterlife?" And, most importantly, "Who controls the rights to my likeness and back catalog?"
OK, that last one isn't a major concern for us ordinary mortals. Our survivors toss the corpse on a pyre or in a pine box, and all that's left are a few faded photographs and some embarrassing anecdotes. But for celebrities, death is no longer the end. Except in one key regard: They can kiss all creative control goodbye.
Once upon a time, when a movie star or musician departed this mortal coil, their career ground to a halt. All that remained was their body of work: Films, records, books. Talent-poor offspring and disgruntled former employees-cum-lovers could always be counted on to churn out cheap, tell-all biographies and made-for-TV movies, but essentially, after a star left to powwow with St. Peter, the public didn't see or hear anything new from them again.
But nowadays, dead celebrities are everywhere. Twenty-six years after laying her father to rest, Natalie Cole kick-started her flagging career by reanimating Dad with "Unforgettable," triggering a host of like-minded imitations. Then, thanks to the magic of digital editing and a permissive (and apparently hard-up) widow, Fred Astaire was able to sell Dirt Devil vacuum cleaners from beyond the grave. This is how we want our children to remember one of civilization's greatest dancers?
Next month, Elvis Presley will have been dead a quarter-century. But that didn't stop him from topping the U.K. pop charts this past June, when his song "A Little Less Conversation" hung around the No. 1 slot for four weeks, giving the King his 18th such hit and finally breaking his historic tie with the Beatles for the most British chart toppers. And I couldn't be more disappointed.
Before I incite the wrath of Elvis fans everywhere, let me go on record as saying I don't object to posthumous recordings, books, or films—so long as they were works in progress and completed in the spirit of the artist's original intentions. Ditto for finished projects that simply hadn't been released before the artist died. Aaliyah undoubtedly heaved a great sigh of relief watching from behind the pearly gates instead of from down here as Queen of the Damned bombed, but the film would have stunk just as badly if she'd lived, so why leave it rotting in a vault?
But that's not the case with "A Little Less Conversation." First of all, the version that ran roughshod over Brit radio for weeks—and was recently released stateside—isn't an Elvis original. It's a big beat-style remix by Amsterdam-based DJ-producer JXL. (JXL's real moniker is Junkie XL, but the Presley estate took exception to that association and mandated the abbreviation; thank god nobody tapped DJ Deep-Fried for the gig.) What's worse, the track was commissioned for an $80 million World Cup ad campaign by Nike. The Presley estate has never granted permission for "The King of Rock and Roll" to be remixed before, but to sell a few soccer cleats . . . what the hell!
What really burns me up is that the old, original "A Little Less Conversation" was perfectly fine. Written by hirsute Mac ("It's Hard to Be Humble") Davis and Billy Strange, the song debuted in one of Elvis' countless cinema mishaps, Live a Little, Love a Little. The film may be a dud, but the song is a peppy, percussive hip shaker. It's no "All Shook Up," but it's at least as good as "Bossa Nova Baby" and a far sight superior to most of his Hollywood-era singles. So why wasn't "A Little Less Conversation" a smash the first time it was released, in September 1968? Who knows. But I suspect if Elvis Presley Enterprises, Inc. had simply licensed the song to Nike as the King recorded it—sans break beats—they'd have wound up with a hit anyway; $80 million in international TV spots can do that.
Is the King spinning in his double-wide plot at Graceland or feeling chuffed that he finally trumped the Fab Four, albeit with an assist from an obscure Dutch DJ? Will the estates of dead celebrities ever acknowledge the sanctity of the adage "if it ain't broke, don't fix it," or will Jimi Hendrix and 2 Pac start renegotiating contracts via the Sci-Fi Channel's prime-time s顮ce Crossing Over? Search me. Like I said, death raises many difficult questions. But one thing seems certain: Nowadays, any artist who cares about their legacy has more to worry about when they write their will than just who gets the house and the jewelry.