MEMPHIS, Tenn. (KSDK) – It wasn't something I was planning on, but I'm only human. After all, who can pass a street named Elvis Presley Boulevard without stopping and admiring its wonders?
So that's what I did one fall afternoon, on the tail-end of an ill-planned, impromptu road trip through the lonely back roads of Kentucky and Tennessee. Here I was, a 23-year-old woman who had never been to the south before, driving a dirty Toyota Solara with Colorado plates into the parking lot of a national icon…alone.
Yup, it sounds weird, but once I got inside and bought a $25 ticket for the basic tour using an outdated student ID, I felt a kinship with my fellow tourists, as we waited for the Elvis bus to pick us up and drop us off at our intended destination.
Even though Elvis was dead long before I was born, I was by no means the youngest person in the room. Perusing the cheesy souvenir t-shirts alongside me were a group of 15-year-olds on a school trip. Checking out the Hawaii exhibit was an elderly couple who claimed to know every song by heart. And hanging out near the windows – looking out at the white house on the other side of the road -- were a group of middle-aged moms, who were all wearing matching Elvis-themed fanny packs.
As we waited, classics like "Suspicious Minds," "Burnin' Love" and songs I hadn't heard from Presley's back-catalogue blared over the speakers, and despite our differences, almost everyone was tapping their feet and marveling at a deep baritone they had probably heard thousands of times.
Yes, it might sound cliché, but it almost felt like we were going on a pilgrimage.
When we arrived at the actual mansion – all clad in nerdy headphones blaring the voice of an automated tour guide – the excitement boiled over, as we passed the Jungle Room, his awesome 1970s kitchen, the shag-carpet covered walls and his shooting range. People politely took turns taking selfies in the mirrors that lined one stairwell, and marveled at his clothes from the army, legendary jumpsuits and unrivaled trophy room. The house is cheesy and ridiculous, but it's awesome enough to draw 600,000 tourists a year.
Once we were funneled outside, the mood turned solemn as we saw Elvis' final resting place. I'm not ashamed to admit it: I cried, and so did almost everyone else. You try seeing a single flame atop an effigy bearing the name "Elvis Aaron Presley" and not a shed a couple of tears!
Wednesday marked what would have been Elvis' 79th birthday, and I can't help but think about this trip to Graceland, and wonder if any musical artist – ever – will rise to his level of reverence, to the level where hundreds of thousands of people each year will visit his or her house, buy their merchandise and know their songs by heart.
In part, the fascination might lie with Elvis' quirks. When I tweeted that I was at Graceland (what can I say: I'm a millennial), my hilarious former boss started making comments about how there 'something about the Jungle Room.' Another friend immediately asked if the shag carpeting was as ridiculous as she heard. My father asked me if it was truly the cheesiest place I've ever been (for the record, that distinction lies with Casa Bonita, Denver's premier Mexican restaurant).
John Lennon didn't leave behind a strange Jungle Room or totally mad monkey statue. Lots of people visit Jim Morrison's grave, or still listen to Jimi Hendrix's music, but their songs aren't the subject of "Lilo and Snitch."
It's not just the 70s carpeting that makes people take tours of his house. Elvis has a level of mystique that's hard to achieve -- after all, how many other celebrity deaths inspire the same sort of conspiracy theories? And how many other celebrity deaths act so metaphorically as a cautionary tale of the pitfalls of fame?
Graceland itself is cheesy, and some might call Elvis cheesy too, but you have to admit: there's got to be something special about someone who can bring together a 23-year-old pseudo-hipster, people in their 70s and kids on a high school trip. There's got to be something special about someone who's death - -even some 36 years later – can bring grown men to tears.
And there's got to be something special about someone whose music, half a century later, still resonates in a culture whose music is dominated by dubstep and autotune. A Facebook post asking our viewers what their favorite Elvis song is drew 838 comments, as St. Louisans weighed in on an icon whose influence is still felt long after he was gone. And just like inside of Graceland's waiting room, you saw passion from people in their 20s to their 70s, lovingly talking about a man famous for singing about a "Hound Dog."
You can't help but speculate who – if anyone – will draw this same sort of reverence 50 years from now, if tourists of all ages will go to Lady Gaga's house to check out her meat room, or make a pilgrimage to the place where Miley Cyrus first learned how to twerk.
I doubt it. And that's precisely what makes Elvis' 79th birthday worth celebrating.