Monday, August 20, 2007

Why Elvis Endures

The 30th anniversary of Elvis's death has resulted in over 6,000 news stories in the last week, according to Google news. To put that in perspective, that is on the bottom rung of a ladder that has Britney Spears at over 7,000 stories, Paris Hilton over 8K, and Lindsay Lohan more than 9,000.

Of course, the latter three have the advantage of still making what passes for news, while Elvis totally reliant on others to do that for him. The question about what makes Elvis an icon now seems trite after so many years, but has it ever been truly answered to any one's satisfaction?

In a culture that worships celebrity, there must be some gold standard, some enduring archetype of what celebrity means, which enables us to put in perspective the paparazzi-imbued flavor of the moment. In other words, the myth of Elvis, not so much Elvis himself, fulfills a cultural need.

So why is it that he ascended to the metaphorical crown which we have bestowed upon him? I think an easy but correct hypothesis would be the "all things to all people" theory, as I saw summed up in a USA Today cover story:
"He was sexual, a rebel, a gospel singer, a Vegas showman, a B-movie actor," says Erika Doss, author of Elvis Culture: Fans, Faith and Image. "Elvis' enduring presence is due to his many images. When people look at him, they all find exactly what they want to see."
Like Johnny Cash or even an early Britney Spears, post-mortem Elvis has indeed succeeded in somehow straddling the red state-blue state divide. For all the attention young Elvis got as a revolutionary, older Elvis can be seen as a bastion of conservatism. He released a gospel album in the summer of love, after all.

Yet for all of Ms. Doss's observations above, one element is glaringly missing: any sense of Elvis as intellectual. Elvis isn't given any credit for being the brains behind his own status. Col. Tom Parker and Priscilla are often assigned archetypal roles as the intellectual caretakers of Elvis's persona, with the singer himself regarded as some kind of enfant terrible, incapable of grasping tasks that call for anything beyond showmanship, and later, self-parody.

Bruce Springsteen contributed to this perception when he said at Bob Dylan's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction: "Elvis freed your body and Dylan freed your mind." In one fell swoop, Springsteen captured one of the fundamental precepts of Western philosophy (a duality in which the body and spirit/mind are separated), while positioning two great rock icons as avatars for each (while ingeniously subtly insinuating himself as a synthesis of this dialectic).

A couple years ago Dylan received attention for his autobiography, Chronicles, which devoted large sections to his discomfort with fame. Yet was it fame itself that Dylan was uncomfortable with? Cross-reference with what he said in an interview at the time:

I never wanted to be a prophet or a savior. Elvis maybe. I could see myself becoming him. But prophet? No.
So for all of Dylan's discomfort with being made into a living icon, he wouldn't have minded being Elvis, an even more famous icon, whose personal struggles with fame were even greater than Dylan's. Yet, precisely because he was an intellectual, Dylan cut himself off from the path of Elvis. He may be venerated today by the cognoscenti, but he would never attain the status of one who eschewed the things of the mind, and gave people what they really wanted: a freedom of the body. Whether that freedom is represented through giving license to lust or gluttony, most people prefer a hunk of something rather than the intangibility of something blowing in the wind.


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