Remembering Elvis

When our culture was all shook up

by J. Peder Zane

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

16 August 2007


Slap on some aviator sunglasses? Don a sequin jumpsuit? Curl my lip? Swivel my pelvis? Wolf down a grilled peanut butter and banana sandwich?

Do you even ask what I’m talking about?

I don’t know how I will mark Thursday’s 30th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death. But I know I will be one of millions of people around the globe who will pay tribute to the King of Rock `n’ Roll.

Truth be told, I’m not the world’s biggest Elvis fan. I like his music—especially his breakthrough tracks from the mid-‘50s (“Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock”) and his leather-clad “comeback” concert from 1968. But I can’t really watch his 31 feature films (“Clambake”? “Kid Galahad”? Please!).

The ranks of Elvis impersonators—estimated at 70,000—make me laugh and scratch my head: What’s up with these guys (and gals)? So do the 600,000 folks who make pilgrimages to his Memphis mansion each year, turning Graceland into a national shrine.

I won’t be celebrating Elvis, but the idea of Elvis: Not the man but the icon. The symbol. The legend.

The poor boy from Tupelo, Miss., whose superstar life was just a warm-up for the greatest second act in the history of American popular culture. The singer who scored No. 1 hit records (the single “A Little Less Conversation” in 2002 and the album “Elvis: 30 No. 1 Hits” in 2003) decades after his death and who is honored each year at Elvis festivals held everywhere from Australia, Canada and England to Ypsilanti, Mich., and Chapel Hill, N.C. The King of Rock `n’ Roll who has become the King of Kitsch—last week eBay listed 6,925 Elvis items for sale, ranging from records and DVDs to Elvis knives, belt buckles, clocks, barstools, heart-shaped tins and copies of his third-grade report card showing many “E’s” for excellent. The urban legend seen sipping Slurpees outside 7-Elevens in off-the-radar towns—is that bag of burgers under his arm for his roommate, Bigfoot?

The sublime silliness of Elvismania is a wonder to behold. It is, at bottom, terrific, goofy fun. And yet it also contains a strange depth, opening a window into our nation’s history and psyche.

Elvis is our greatest celebrity, an icon whose unrivaled fame was fueled by the forces that transformed America during the last century—forces that, paradoxically, now make it all but impossible for our celebrity-saturated culture to produce another Elvis.

Elvis the entertainer could have thrived in any era; Elvis the icon only became possible in the 20th century. Before then, the work of all the performing artists—every actor, singer, dancer, comedian who ever lived—was vaporous. Once they delivered a soliloquy or sang a note, it was gone forever.

Technological advances—especially Thomas Edison’s invention of sound recording in 1877 and the development of motion pictures in the 1880s and ‘90s—changed that. Mass audiences could hear Enrico Caruso sing his arias with a turn of a handle and watch the shenanigans of the Keystone Kops for a few coins at the local theater.

Suddenly, fame was possible on a grand new scale. And that possibility fueled America’s appetite for celebrity. The fame game really took off in the 1920s, when radio was introduced and cinema started coming into its own. This first great era of icons gave us athletes such as Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey, actors including Rudolph Valentino, Charlie Chaplin and Greta Garbo. During this decade Bessie Smith, Jimmie Rodgers and Louis Armstrong cut records that would immortalize them.

Fame spread like a happy virus across the culture to writers such as Hemingway and Fitzgerald and dancers, including Martha Graham.

As America became the richest and most powerful nation on Earth, our desire for heroes—for larger-than-life figures who symbolized of our rising status—ballooned.

The 1930s and ‘40s produced a host of silver screen icons: Bogart, Cagney, Davis, Crawford, Cooper, Gable and Lombard, to name a few.

But the 1950s and ‘60s proved to be the golden age of American icons as the mass media enjoyed their greatest reach and greatest concentration. During this era, with three TV networks and numerous Top 40 radio stations, Americans watched the same shows, heard the same songs.

The roster of enduring names and images that emerged during this period—Milton Berle and Lucille Ball, the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix, the Marlboro Man and Cap’n Crunch—is too long to cover. It is easier to note that the era gave us the three biggest icons in the game: Marilyn Monroe, James Dean and Elvis.

Technology, of course, explains only part of their success.

The 1950s and ‘60s were a period of immense social transformation. These three artists became icons because, in addition to dying young (paying the price for our sins?), they embodied our emerging culture: Monroe our new sexual mores, Dean the youthful rebellion.

Elvis also oozed sex—for men, to whom he offered a masculine role model different from John Wayne, and for women, who could express their lust through squeals and shrieks. And his brand of rebellion, popularizing black music for white audiences, was far more subversive than Dean’s.

Elvis’ rags-to-riches story evoked the deepest hopes of the American Dream. His lonely descent into drugs and obesity, ending with his ignominious death at Graceland at the love-me-tender age of 42, symbolized darker truths about the American experience.

Elvis’ talent made him a star, but it was these factors—plus one more—that made him an icon.

The final dynamic was born around the year of Elvis’ death, 1977. Cable TV was getting a foothold, ready to fragment the viewing public across hundreds of channels. The process accelerated in the 1980s as the Internet further segmented the public.

Mass culture gave way to niche culture.

Our appetite for celebrity has not abated since Elvis’ death, but it has become bite-size. We have new TV stars, but no Lucys; new movie stars, but no Bogies; new rock stars, but no Beatles.

Since Elvis’ death, other celebrities have died young, including John Lennon, Kurt Cobain and Tupac Shakur. They remain famous, but only Princess Diana has become, like Elvis, an icon.

So the King reigns 30 years later because no one has taken his crown. He’s the last giant standing from the age of icons.

And besides, it’s fun to wear aviator glasses, to curl my lips, Elvis my pelvis and say, “Thank ya, thank ya very much.”


J. Peder Zane is a columnist for the Raleigh (N.C.) News & Observer. Readers may send him e-mail at peder.zane AT newsobserver dot com.

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