Was there anything real about Elvis Presley?

In Baz Luhrmann”Elvis“, there is a scene based on actual conversations that took place between Elvis Presley and Steve Binderthe director of a 1968 NBC television special which marked the return of the singer to the stage.

Binder, an iconoclast unimpressed with Presley’s recent work, had pushed Elvis to reach back into his past to revitalize a career stalled by years of mediocre films and soundtrack albums. According to the directortheir exchanges left the performer immersed in deep introspection.

In the trailer for Luhrmann’s biopic, a version of this back-and-forth plays out: Elvis, played by Austin Butler, says to the camera, “I have to get back to who I really am.” Two frames later, Dacre Montgomery, playing Binder, asks, “And who are you, Elvis?”

Like a southern history specialist who wrote a book on Elvis, I still ask myself the same question.

Presley never wrote memoirs. He also did not keep a diary. Once informed of a possible ongoing biography, he expressed doubt that there was even a story to tell. Over the years, he had submitted numerous interviews and press conferences, but the quality of those exchanges was erratic, often characterized by cursory answers to even shallower questions.

His music could have been a window into his inner life, but since he was not a songwriter, his material depended on the words of others. Even the rare revealing gems – songs like “If I Can Dream”, “Separate Ways” or “My Way” – have not fully penetrated the veil that shrouds the man.

Binder’s philosophical research was therefore not simply philosophical. Countless fans and scholars have long wanted to know: Who was Elvis, really?

A barometer for the nation

Identifying Presley may depend on when and who you ask. At the dawn of his career, admirers and critics called him “mountain cat.” Then he became the “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll”, a musical monarch that the promoters placed on a mythical throne.

But for many he has always been the “King of White Trash Culture” – a story of the white working class of the south that goes from poverty to wealth never quite convinced the national establishment of its legitimacy.

Elvis Presley at a press conference in Madison Square Garden in New York in 1972.
Art Zelin/Getty Images

These overlapping identities capture the provocative fusion of class, race, gender, region and trade that Elvis embodied.

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of his identity was the singer’s relationship to race. As a white artist who benefited greatly from the popularization of a style associated with African Americans, Presley throughout his career worked under the shadow and hint of racial appropriation.

The connection was complicated and smooth, of course.

quincy jones met and worked with Presley in early 1956 as musical director of CBS-TV’s “Stage Show”. In his 2002 autobiography, Jones noted that Elvis should be listed along with Frank Sinatra, the Beatles, Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson as pop music’s greatest innovators. However, by 2021, amid a changing racial climate, Jones dismissed Presley as a shameless racist.

Elvis seems to serve as a barometer measuring America’s various tensions, with the gauge less on Presley and more on the pulse of the nation at any given time.

You are what you consume

But I think there’s another way to think about Elvis – one that could put many of the questions around him into context.

Historian William Leuchtenburg once characterized Presley as a “consumer culture hero”, a manufactured product more image than substance.

The evaluation was negative; it was also incomplete. He did not consider how a consumerist disposition may have shaped Elvis before he became an artist.

Presley reached adolescence as the post-World War II consumer economy was in full swing. A product of unprecedented wealth and pent-up demand caused by depression and wartime sacrifice, it provided almost unlimited opportunities for those looking to entertain and define themselves.

The teenager from Memphis, Tennessee took advantage of those opportunities. Inspired by the idiom “you are what you eat”, Elvis became what he consumed.

During his formative years, he shopped at Lansky Brothersa Beale Street draper who outfitted African-American performers and supplied them with second-hand pink and black sets.

He picked up the radio WDIA, where he soaked up gospel and rhythm and blues melodies, as well as the vernacular of black disc jockeys. He turned the dial to WHBQ’s “Red, Hot, and Blue,” a program that had Dewey Phillips spinning an eclectic mix of R&B, pop and country. He visited poplar tunes and The homeland of the Blues record stores, where he bought the music that danced in his head. And at Loew State and Suzore #2 movie theaters, he watched the latest films by Marlon Brando or Tony Curtis, imagining in the dark how to imitate their behavior, their paws and duck tails.

In short, he gleaned from the country’s burgeoning consumer culture the personality the world would come to know. Elvis alluded to it in 1971 when he provided a rare glimpse into his psyche after receiving a Jayces Prize as one of the country’s ten outstanding young men:

“When I was a kid, ladies and gentlemen, I was a dreamer. I read comics and I was the comic book hero. I saw movies and I was the movie hero. So, every dream i have ever dreamed has come true a hundred times over… i would like to say that i learned very early in life that “without a song, the day would never end”. No friend Without a song the road would never bend Without a song So I’ll keep singing a song.

In that acceptance speech, he quoted “without songa standard tune performed by artists such as Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Roy Hamilton – transparently presenting the lyrics as if they were words directly applicable to his own life experiences.

A loaded question

Does that make the recipient of the Jaycees some kind of “strange, lonely child seeking eternity,” as Tom Parker, played by Tom Hanks, tells an adult Presley in the new “Elvis” movie?

I do not think so. Instead, I see him as someone who simply devoted his life to consumerism, a fairly common behavior in the late 20th century. Scholars have noted that whereas Americans once defined themselves by their genealogy, work, or faith, they increasingly began to identify themselves through their tastes — and, by proxy, what they consumed. As Elvis forged his identity and continued his craft, he did the same.

This was also evident in the way he spent most of his downtime. A tireless worker on stage and in the recording studio, these adjustments nevertheless required relatively little time from him. For most of the 1960s he made three films a year, each taking no more than a month. It was the extent of his professional obligations.

From 1969 to his death in 1977, only 797 days out of 2,936 were devoted to interpretation concerts or recording in the studio. Most of his time was spent on vacations, sports, motorcycling, go-karts, horseback riding, watching TV and eating out.

At the time of his death, Elvis was just a shell of himself. Overweight, bored and chemically dependent, he appeared spent. A few weeks before his disappearance, a Soviet publication described it as “castaway” – a “ruthless” dump victimized by the American consumerist system.

Elvis Presley proved that consumerism, when channeled productively, can be creative and liberating. He also demonstrated that left unrestrained, he could be empty and destructive.

Luhrmann’s film promises to reveal a lot about one of the most captivating and enigmatic figures of our time. But I have a hunch it will also say a lot about themselves to Americans.

“Who are you, Elvis? the trailer is hauntingly probing.

Maybe the answer is easier than we think. He is all of us.

#real #Elvis #Presley

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