Saturday, June 27, 2009

The King is Dead

I'm well aware that the world doesn't need another blog post mentioning Michael Jackson, and I'm certainly cognizant that it would be superfluous to intone that his passing symbolizes the "death of an era." But while commentators, pundits, and bloggers often imbue news events with more significance than they deserve, I think this is one time when they are right-- there is a story here beyond the fact that a famous person died. So I can't help but make my own observations: about the inextricable links between culture, media, and celebrity, and about how a cyclical narrative has concluded.

Consider the story of a boy born into poverty, in a geographical area infamous for its poverty. At a young age, he exhibits musical talent and catches on with one of the nation's pre-eminent record labels. He fuses elements of black and white culture and manages to achieve widespread appeal, thanks in part to noteworthy appearances on television (though some are scandalized by the way he moves his body while performing). He eventually becomes known for his gaudy and sequined wardrobe, and is given the nickname of "King." His fame comes at a price, though, as he becomes detached from reality (in part because he surrounds himself with sycophants). He builds himself a mansion on an estate so stunning it is given its own name (ending with the suffix -land). His lifestyle becomes ever more lavish and opulent, even as the money starts to dry up. His health deteriorates, and he apparently becomes addicted to prescription drugs. Nevertheless, his death at a relatively young age shocks the world, and he is mourned in round-the-clock vigils around the globe.

Of course, but for the fact that one got too fat and the other too skinny, this story fits both Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson (and there is also of course the Campbell-esque element of Jackson symbolically asserting his right to the monarchy by marrying the first king's daughter). Yet this story will not be told again. There will not be a third entertainer to rise as king (and they would not have been kings had they not been born in the right time). Elvis and Michael rose and fell in essentially the same world, and that world is now gone.

I don't need to belabor here the extent to which both of them tapped into the power of mass media, specifically television. But not many people are aware that after Carl Perkins's version of "Blue Suede Shoes" went to #1 for Sun Records in 1956, the people at RCA Records were nervous that they had signed the "wrong guy" away from Sun. But after Elvis's national TV debut a few weeks later, their nervousness was assuaged. Upon Presley's death, Perkins himself showed that he recognized the importance of visuals in the supposedly aural medium of popular music, as well as the importance of style along with substance, saying: "This boy had everything. He had the looks, the moves, the manager, and the talent. And he didn't look like Mr. Ed like a lot of the rest of us did. In the way he looked, way he talked, way he acted… he really was different."

I'm struck by the cultural reference in Perkins's quote. Just as everyone knew who Elvis was because of television, everyone knew who Mr. Ed was. And though I was born years after the show ceased production, and I have never seen an episode, I know who Mr. Ed was and I (unfortunately) can sing at least part of the theme song. But Mr. Ed is dead; one talking horse is no match for millions of twittering birds. Mass culture has splintered Elvis and MJ's kingdom into fiefdoms, and I don't think there will ever come a knight powerful enough that can unify them--at least not one from the entertainment industry. I think if we do have another "king" it will be someone who comes from a realm entirely outside that of song and dance.


Blogger Sonya Borton said...

Really nice, Azor. I've said to a couple of different people that I think I fully understand for the first time my mother's response to the death of Elvis Presley. I was only 6 when he died, and I clearly remember her walking into my bedroom with tears streaming down her face. It scared me, of course, to see her crying, but when she told me why, I really couldn't understand why she was crying over someone she never met and why she couldn't stop listening to his music. Now, I do. The tears were for a life so full of talent, so used up and wasted by so many people and then cut short. I shed those same tears over MJ. Nice post.

9:17 AM  
Anonymous Kay Buchanan said...

Azor, you are so worth reading... eloquent and articulate. I am at an age where I have been consciously affected by the death of both of these "Kings". Until I read this, I never made the connection. I agree though, I don't think there can be, or will be a third.

12:00 PM  

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