Mariah Carey Passes Elvis in #1s
But Can’t Match His Influence

In a Newsday article, which appeared in my local paper on April 15, 2008, writer Glenn Gamboa reported that “countless airings … on radio and the video channels” have shot [Mariah] Carey’s “Touch My Body” to the top of the singles chart. According to Gamboa, “That success moved Carey into second place in music history for the most No. 1 singles, with 18—passing Elvis Presley and putting her within striking distance of The Beatles, at 20.” Now, that’s a little puzzling, since the article I read about this subject a couple of weeks ago had Elvis with 18 top ranked singles. If that’s so, then she is only tied with Elvis at this point. Of course, that’s a useless argument, since Carey, at age 38, will probably continue to add to her total for years to come, leaving The Beatles and Elvis in the dust.

What does it really mean for Mariah and Elvis?

To Gamboa’s credit, he addressed the significance of Carey’s string of No. 1 singles. Of her passing Presley, the writer noted, “It’s a distinction that has left many casual music fans scratching their heads.” Gamboa goes on to quote Bill Crandall, AOL Music editor-vice president. “It is hard to put her in the same category with The Beatles and Elvis,” judged Crandall. “She never defined a generation. Mariah has not had that impact on the culture. You can’t necessarily run off a bunch of her songs. Does she have a great voice? Yes.”

Carey herself has a reasonable perspective on overtaking Elvis. “I really can never put myself in the category of people who have not only revolutionized music, but also changed the world,” she explained in an Associated Press interview. “That’s a completely different era and time.”

A sidebar to the Gamboa’s article lists the titles of Carey’s 18 No. 1 singles. As if to reinforce the article’s point that the pop diva is not a real threat to Presley, the list is headed with the question, “How many of the previous 17 to you remember?” Scanning down the list, I could only find one title that I recalled—“Hero” from 1993. Granted, I’ve never been a Mariah Carey fan, but I venture to say that presented with a similar list of Presley’s 18 No. 1 singles, the casual music fan could recall a line or two from at least a half dozen of them.

Even the youngsters know some Elvis music

Let me offer an anecdote to support that contention. When I was a high school history teacher, every year on January 8 I’d arrive at school in the morning wearing an Elvis T-shirt and carrying a Presley cassette. At the start each of my five classes by saying, “Today is Elvis’s birthday. He’s … years old today. And don’t’ give me any of the stuff about him being dead, because Elvis will never die!” Then I’d pop the cassette in the player and tell the kids I was going to play the start of an Elvis song, and that when I pushed the pause button, I wanted them to sing the next line, if they knew it.

When I pushed the play button, the kids heard the following: “Wella blessa my soul, what’s a’wrong with me? I’m itching like a man on a fuzzy tree. My friends say I’m actin’ wild as a bug. I’m in love …”—pause. Without fail, nearly the entire class would sing out, “I’m all shook up.”

Keep in mind that every one of these kids was born after Elvis died. So how had they recognized this Presley classic from 1957? Perhaps through their parents, or maybe by hearing it on the radio. My two daughters are in their early twenties, and both occasionally tune their car radios to the local oldies channel. It’s not their favorite kind of music, but they enjoy some of the rock and pop sounds of the fifties and sixties.

Let’s put the King to the test

Anyway, why not put Elvis’s No. 1 singles to the test? Show a list of the 18 Presley titles that reached the top of one of Billboard’s pop charts during his career to a few relatives and friends who are not Elvis fans. In addition of “All Shook Up,” I’ll bet most of them will recognize many other Elvis titles, such as “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Hound Dog,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Love Me Tender,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “It’s Now or Never,” “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” and “Suspicious Minds.”

The point is that Elvis Presley’s music and influence on popular culture transcends statistics and defies comparison with contemporary singers. And even Mariah Carey, to her credit, admits that. — Alan Hanson (April 2008)

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