The Myth of Elvis Presley
Rock critic Greil Marcus holds that Elvis' songs are simply a facade. But is there not a creative person behind the facade?
Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock 'n' Roll Music: Sixth EditionPublisher: Plume
Length: 448 pages
Author: Greil Marcus
US Publication Date: 2015-04
In Greil Marcus’ essay, “Elvis: Presliad”, tribute is made to Elvis Presley as a supreme figure in American culture who has no real point of comparison with our country’s musical legends. Marcus identifies Elvis as being the personification of everything great in America: a great artist; a great rocker; a great symbol of potency; and a great American (Marcus 121). At the outset, it appears that Marcus is writing another tribute to the great King, but he very quickly lets his audience know that much of what we thought we knew about Elvis was merely an illusion. For Marcus, the real Elvis is the “performance” of Elvis: “…Elvis transcends his talent to the point of dispensing with it altogether… action is irrelevant when one can simply delight in the presence of a man who has made history” (Marcus 121). Thus, Elvis has been identified with his appearance on stage, his performance, and his presence. Elvis is seen as the antithesis of creativity: “How could anyone create when all he has to do is appear?” (Marcus 121).
According to Marcus, understanding Elvis as a performer is to understand his myth-status. Marcus very clearly separates the “man” Elvis from the “performance” created by Elvis. What America sees, and what it wants, is the performance of the King. For Marcus, the “myth” of Elvis was exclusively created by the American music culture to satisfy its own cravings for the power of his performance: “It is as if there is nothing Elvis could do to overshadow a performance of his myth. And so he performs from a distance, laughing at his myth, throwing it away only to see it roar back and trap him once again” (Marcus 122).
Marcus may have been successful in identifying Elvis’s fanfare with his powerful performances. He may also have accurately portrayed Elvis as being a paradigm of American culture. However, in his explanation of the myth of Elvis’s performances, Marcus concludes that Elvis’s songs are simply a facade. He describes how at one performance, Elvis sang -- as if suffering in his very soul -- a song called “This Time You Gave Me a Mountain” (which related to Elvis’s suffering from his divorce from his “little girl”). Then, Elvis is described as rocking straight into a sort of burlesque rendition of “Lawdy, Miss Clawdy”, singing with a lazy grin to his audience. For Marcus, this performance typifies the facade of Elvis’s performances, which are all based on emotion and shallowness (Marcus 122). Thus, Elvis is relegated into a massive American road show, which, according to Marcus, is the “myth” of Elvis Presley.
At the outset, it is believed that one should question the theoretical lens of Marcus’s understanding of the “myth” of Elvis Presley. As stated above, Marcus’s “myth” of Elvis is premised on his argument that the performance of Elvis is an illusion that always roars back to “trap him once again.” In short, Elvis is held captive to the eventual return of the chain of his performance, which he can never escape. Thus, the theoretical lens rests on a recurrent pattern in the “myth”, simply because it always returns and holds Elvis and his audience prisoners to his performance. It is very apparent that rather than describing and analyzing Elvis’s songs and his live performances, Marcus wants the reader to make interpretive assumptions as to the overall meaning of Presley’s performances as they relate to the American music culture. In “Presliad”, Marcus identifies the Elvis myth with the decadence of our American culture:
Dressed in blue, red, white, ultimately gold, with a Superman cape and covered with jewels that no one can be sure are fake, Elvis might epitomize the worst of our culture--he is bragging, selfish, narcissistic, condescending, and materialistic to the point of insanity. But there is no need to take that seriously, no need to take anything seriously. “Aw shucks”, says the country boy; it is all a joke to him; his distance is in his humor… (122)
What Marcus has done here is to make two major assumptions about the “myth” of Elvis. First, he has determined that the performance of Elvis is actually what Elvis is, and that there is, in reality, no creative person behind the facade of the performer. Secondly, Marcus has relegated the “myth” and facade of Elvis onto the American music culture. Marcus wants his readers to assume that our culture is indeed decadent in adopting and becoming part of this myth. Of course, this begs the question that is Marcus’s premise: that our music -- and that of Elvis in particular -- lacks any substance and is only illusory.
One must ask what the specific basis is for our alleged cultural and musical decadence that Marcus describes. Is it because we are presumably a materialistic society? Is it because the fanfare and entourage surrounding Elvis fails to look into what artistic endeavors lie behind the performance? No one can fairly analyze Elvis’s myth without knowing the basis for these assumptions. In short, it appears that Marcus wants his readers to simply approve of his interpretation of Elvis’s music, and its impact on the American culture. While it may be held that Marcus’s essay on Elvis is more akin to a literary work (such as Alice Walker’s “Nineteen Fifty-five”), he actually presents his audience with an analytic-type approach to understanding Elvis. Since he does that, his arguments are subject to the same criteria that he exposes the “myth” of Elvis to.
Although it is sometimes difficult to pin down, it appears that Marcus’s real complaint in “Presliad” has to do with the lack of creativity on Elvis’s part as a performer, and with American music culture in general. For Marcus, Elvis is seen as a mere symptom -- or possibly a metaphor -- of the true sickness that plagues our culture. That is, we somehow have no real compassion, no real will to create. As Marcus states: "How could anyone (that is, Elvis) create when all he has to do is appear?" (Marcus 121). This question, however, presupposes its answer: namely, that any society that adores the creature over the creator has become devoid of substance. In doing so, our culture has somehow forfeited its meaning and value.
In order to give some meaning to his argument, Marcus places the “myth” of Elvis into a historical element. He writes, “History without myth is surely a wasteland; but myths are compelling only when they are at odds with history. When they replace the need to make history, they too are a dead end, and merely smug” (Marcus 123). What we have here is an apparent overview, from a literary perspective, that a “myth” that is creative, and which bears a will to create, will necessarily be contrary to commonplace “history” that tends only to repeat itself. Only the myth (the Superman) can break through this recurrent scheme by the act of creating. Unfortunately, Elvis himself could never achieve this act of creativity because his existence is “dissolved into a presentation” (Marcus 123). Thus, the presentation is precisely where our society wants Elvis to be for eternity. According to Marcus, Elvis’s sole task is to dramatize his existence through his recurrent performance, and in this way it is not necessary for him to create anything new.
What Marcus never explains, and what he wants his readers to take for granted, is the concept that Elvis’s music and his performances lack any degree of creativity. Marcus fails to make a case that Elvis’s performances are not themselves an act of creativity. To the contrary, one could make a case that Elvis’s rendition of “An American Trilogy” was itself a brilliant masterpiece of creative genius. The compassion, the expression, and the art form are all present in this work, together with a message that our country needs to resolve concerning its history of racial exploitation. “An American Trilogy” is an example of the quintessential musical-political art form; in it, Elvis beckons American society to break through its Civil War history that it had refused to let go.
In his interpretation of "An American Trilogy", Marcus’s true intentions are exposed. He beats the same drum of American decadence, with Elvis being the chief spokesman for the facade:
But it is an illusion. A man or woman equal to the song’s pretension would have to present each part of the song as if it were the whole story… proving that one American really could make the South live, the Union hold, and slavery real… Elvis transcends any real America by evading it. There is no John Brown in his “Battle Hymn,” no romance in his “Dixie,” no blood in his slave song… it is a throwaway America where nothing is at stake. (124)
Marcus is highly critical of Elvis and the American culture he purports to symbolize, claiming that Elvis’s performance of "An American Trilogy" failed to evoke the drama, the blood and the meaning of the Civil War. What Marcus seems to demand of Elvis is that he vocalize all of the elements that comprise the Civil War -- and why “the Civil War has never ended” (Marcus 124).
It appears that Marcus is using his interpretation of Elvis Presley’s performance here to make his own political argument and press his agenda upon his readers. On the other hand, Marcus may simply have placed unreasonable expectations on Elvis as a performer. Elvis may actually have had no concept that he was trying to deliver America from its ongoing issues from the Civil War. Rather, his performance of “An American Trilogy” may be seen as Elvis the “hillbilly” who is attempting to sooth a divided nation with his heart-felt songs.
At the same time, Marcus clearly wants us to believe that Elvis was an utter failure as a creative artist because he had become a paradigm of our culture. In essence, Marcus’s theory of the “myth” of Elvis Presley is a political-social critique of American society. He appears to be enraged that our society elevated Elvis to a legend status without considering the consequences.
Some of Marcus’s theory of the myth of Elvis can be seen in Alice Walker’s fictional account of “Nineteen Fifty-five”, a story about a white singer called Traynor who gets famous for performing a song written by a black woman, Gracie Mae Still, even though he does not understand the song’s meaning. The story is widely acknowledged as a direct parallel to the musical life of Elvis.
Traynor is portrayed as being a legendary performer who is lacking in any real creative skills. Several times in “Nineteen Fifty-five”, Traynor ponders the meaning of “the song” that leads him to stardom. He complains that “I’ve sung it and sung it, and I’m making forty thousand dollars a day offa it, and you know what, I don’t have the faintest notion of what that song means” (Walker 8).
Similar to Elvis’s feelings about the songs he performed, Traynor cannot understand why people were so mesmerized by certain songs that he could not understand. Traynor’s failure to comprehend the meaning behind the music he performed causes him to question the value of his own artistic skills, ultimately leading him to question whether his own existence has any inherent value (Walker 11). One can make an argument that Traynor (and Elvis’s) own downfall was a direct result of his inability to cope with the reality that he was nothing more than a high paid performer. That is, there was no substance to the person behind the facade (Walker 19; Marcus 124).
As is the case with Walker’s Traynor, Marcus’s Elvis is also devoid of any substantive creative skills. However, Marcus’s myth of Elvis goes beyond Walker’s subtle criticisms of Traynor. For Marcus, Elvis is the ultimate con artist: he portrays Elvis as being a master counterfeit of music in a world “where nothing is left to be mastered,” and everything is “aesthetically closed” (Marcus 123). As noted earlier, Marcus attacks the very core of the American music culture as being a sham, something that values presentation and devalues artistic expression. In Marcus’s view, all is devoid of character or substance, and Elvis is the paradigm for such decadence.
If we take an overview of Walker’s “Nineteen Fifty-five” in comparison to Marcus’ “Elvis: Presliad”, there is one marked difference. In Marcus’s view, there are no heroes in the American music landscape. The real Elvis is seen as a country boy who views his “Superman” status as being a big joke (Marcus 122). Although there may be satisfaction in Elvis’s performance, for Marcus it must all be viewed with a great emptiness because the performance lacks any creative merit (Marcus 123). On the other hand, we do find a “hero” in Alice Walker’s “Nineteen Fifty-five” who does have creative integrity: Gracie Mae Still.
Gracie Mae’s authorship of Traynor’s hit song is what propels him to stardom. Gracie Mae’s character stands for simultaneously being creative and true to one’s self. She is genuine and knows exactly who she is. Being genuine leaves her content and resilient. Unlike Traynor, Gracie Mae eventually comes to understand the true meaning of her hit song. Therefore, Walker’s Traynor draws a parallel with Marcus’s “myth” of Elvis in that both characters are somewhat superficial, and both lack any fundamental creative tendencies. However, we can see that the character Gracie Mae still retains her integrity in the end, despite the failures of Traynor.
A student of philosophy might see an interesting comparison between the “myth of Elvis Presley” (as portrayed by Marcus) and that of Friedrich Nietzsche’s myth of the Eternal Return. According to the myth of the Eternal Return, every second of our lives recurs indefinitely. For Nietzsche, the general nature of this universe is propelled in a kind of circular time warp, so that every action we take is necessarily going to repeat itself , ad infinitum. According to Nietzsche, all life is incoherent and ambiguous, and should not be subjected to any kind of philosophical analysis (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, “On Reading and Writing”).
For those individuals who see themselves trapped in the Eternal Return, they necessarily bear the heaviest of all burdens, since they understand the monotony and weight of being a part of this perpetual recurrence. Here we see the dread of existentialism. In this context, we can also see a parallel between Marcus’s myth of Elvis and the myth of the Eternal Return.
In “Elvis: Presliad”, Marcus paints a picture of Elvis that is distinctly similar to Nietzsche’s existentialism. After presenting Elvis’s performance as being part of the myth, with an “explosion of flash bulbs and cheers”, someone in the crowd understands Elvis’s problem:
What a burden to live up to! It is as if there is nothing Elvis could do to overshadow a performance of his myth. And so he performs at a distance, laughing at his myth, throwing it away only to see it roar back and trap him once again. (122)
Thus, we see Marcus’s myth of Elvis being very similar to Nietzsche’s myth of the Eternal Return. Elvis is trapped in the same cycle of perpetual recurrence. While he may laugh at his monotony, there is no escape from this cycle. In a sense of dread, Elvis cannot live up to or die from his myth since he has “dissolved into the presentation of his myth” (Marcus 123).
While this is speculation, Marcus may have had an unintended result with his theory of the myth of Elvis. That is, we can see a philosophical interpretation of Elvis that could account for his life as a legendary performer. For Marcus, it is ever important to contrast the myth of Elvis with the American dream: “The version of the American dream that is Elvis’s performance is blown up again and again, to contain more history, more people, more music, more hopes; the air gets thin but the bubble does not burst, nor will it ever” (Marcus 125). Therefore, we can see that Elvis, American culture, and the American dream are all caught up in what Nietzsche envisioned many years earlier: an ominous eternal vacuum.
One of the most interesting characteristics attributed to Elvis is that he became extremely lonely and alienated during his career, especially in the late ‘60s and ‘70s. For example, if we assume that Alice Walker’s “Traynor” is her version of Elvis, it would appear that Walker saw Elvis’s personal life in a state of emptiness and discouragement. During a conversation in 1968, Walker’s Gracie Mae could see that Traynor just wasn’t all there: “…I could tell his eyes weren’t right… something was sitting there talking to me but not necessarily with a person behind it” (Walker 13). In this context, Walker suggests that the emptiness seen in Traynor’s eyes is a result of the lack of honesty of his fans and from the group of people around him (Walker 17).
For Gracie Mae Still, there is a definite emotional tie to the singer, as she is the only one who seems to recognize Traynor’s emptiness. In particular, both characters are disillusioned by the lack of honesty and integrity with Traynor’s fans. This sense of emptiness even causes Traynor to confront his fans on national television, in hopes that they will become honest after being introduced to Gracie Mae. As he learns, however, these fans have no interest in character or integrity, but are only moved by Traynor’s powerful performance (Walker 18). In this regard, both Walker and Marcus are critical of Elvis’s fan base as being more drawn to the performance, rather than to the author of the music.
There are several songs and ballads sung by Elvis that give us glimpses of the emptiness the legend may have been suffering. In “I’m Leavin’” there is a distinct mood of hopelessness present in the lyrics: “Who will I find to lie beside me?” and “Who will I find to ease this emptiness inside me?” One could make an argument that Elvis was indeed singing “I’m Leavin’” about his own failures, and the chaos he had wrought on his own life. In this particular song, Elvis imagines his own empty bed, a metaphor for his own wrecked marriage, and his problematic relationships. The sound is dismal and desolate, and the image evoked is very similar to Traynor’s picture of the emptiness of his life in “Nineteen Fifty-five”: “You meet ‘em for no reason…You marry ‘em for no reason. I do it all but I swear it’s just like somebody else doing it. I feel like I can’t remember Life” (Walker 19).
Thus, Walker’s perception of the legend’s death is very much like her view of his life: Traynor (and Elvis) went through much of his life in a dream state, a state of emptiness and loneliness. He could never understand the true meaning of his life as an entertainer. Indeed, Walker suggests that the legend’s death was directly attributable to his failure to really understand who he was.
Marcus appears to have a totally different interpretation of the emptiness that Elvis personified throughout his career. In Mystery Train, Marcus discusses the history of the blues song from the ‘50s, and how it was originally portrayed by the Carters as being a song of “supernatural loneliness”. According to Marcus, the meaning behind “Mystery Train” by Jr. Parker is:
The uselessness of action, the helplessness of a man who cannot understand his world, let alone master it. The singer was to enter this world, suffer it, make that world real, and thus redeem it. Elvis had his job cut out for him if he was to make the song his own. (173)
For Marcus, Elvis went through a kind of metamorphosis with his rendition of “Mystery Train.” Possibly inspired by feelings of wanting to overcome the meaning of the blues classic, Elvis sings the song with shock and awe. Instead of being subservient to the lyrics, Elvis “seizes the music, [and forces] the changes” (Marcus 173).
Thus, according to Marcus, with his passion Elvis has turned the “Mystery Train” around and has escaped from the guilt of the blues. In this context, Marcus has turned away from lambasting the myth of Elvis (in the first part of his essay) to a triumphant Elvis (in the end of his essay) who was able to replace the “guilt of the blues” with the sense that we need not be trapped by our own fate. With “Mystery Train”, Elvis actually changes the “personae his songs originally offered his listeners”; and in making the change, he escapes from the suffering and emptiness the blues represented. This performance is the essence of Elvis’s genius (Marcus 174).
Here it appears that Marcus may have unwittingly come to terms with the “myth” of Elvis Presley. Contrary to his earlier presentation of Elvis being a myth that is dissolved into his own performance (Marcus 122-23), Marcus finally seems to recognize that Elvis’s career and his music was full of ambiguity and change. As he eloquently states: “Elvis is the grandest figure in the story I have tried to tell, because he has gone to the greatest extremes: he has given us an America that is dead, and an unmatched version of an America that is full of life” (Marcus 175).
In the end, whether he was successful at the early or later stages of his career, we can all remember Elvis as being the prodigy who escaped the blues of his own life by the power of his never-ending performance.
John Hansen received a BA in English from the University of Iowa and MA in English Literature from Oklahoma State University. He has completed several projects and publications involving Frederick Douglass, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Hart Crane, non-fiction, Middle English, and poetry.