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Michael T. Bertrand, Tennessee State University
(THE CONVERSATION) In Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis,” there is a scene based on actual conversations that took place between Elvis Presley and Steve Binder, the director of a 1968 NBC television special that marked the singer’s return to live performance. live.
Binder, an iconoclast unimpressed by Presley’s recent work, had pushed Elvis back to his past to reinvigorate a career stalled by years of mediocre movies and soundtrack albums. According to the director, their exchanges left the interpreter immersed in a deep examination of conscience.
In the trailer for the Luhrmann biopic, one version of this back-and-forth plays out: Elvis, played by Austin Butler, tells the camera, “I’ve got to get back to who I really am.” Two frames later, Dacre Montgomery, playing Binder, asks, “And who are you, Elvis?”
As a student of southern history who has written a book on Elvis, I still wonder the same thing.
Presley never wrote a memoir. He didn’t keep a diary either. Once, when informed of a possible biography in the works, he expressed doubt that there was even a story to tell. Over the years, he had appeared at numerous interviews and press conferences, but the quality of these exchanges was erratic, often characterized by perfunctory responses to even more perfunctory questions.
His music could have been a window into his inner life, but since he was not a composer, his material depended on the words of others. Even the rare revealing gems, songs like “If I Can Dream”, “Separate Ways” or “My Way”, did not fully penetrate the veil that shrouded the man.
Binder’s philosophical inquiry, then, was not merely 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 to whom you ask. Early in his career, fans and critics alike dubbed him the “Hillbilly Cat.” He then became the “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” a musical monarch who was placed on a mythical throne by promoters.
But to many, he was always the “King of White Trash Culture,” a rags-to-riches tale of working-class white Southerners that never quite convinced the national establishment of its legitimacy.
These overlapping identities capture the provocative fusion of class, race, gender, region, and commerce 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 suspicion of racial appropriation.
The connection was complicated and fluid, no doubt.
Quincy Jones met and worked with Presley in early 1956 as music director for CBS-TV’s “Stage Show.” In his 2002 autobiography, Jones noted that Elvis should be listed alongside Frank Sinatra, the Beatles, Stevie Wonder, and Michael Jackson as pop music’s greatest innovators. However, by 2021, amid a changing racial climate, Jones was dismissing Presley as an outright racist.
Elvis seems to serve as a barometer measuring America’s various tensions, with one gauge less about Presley and more about the pulse of the nation at any given moment.
you are what you consume
But I think there is another way to think about Elvis, one that could put a lot of the questions surrounding him into context.
Historian William Leuchtenburg once characterized Presley as a “consumer culture hero,” a manufactured commodity more image than substance.
The evaluation was negative; it was also incomplete. He did not consider how a consumerist disposition could have shaped Elvis before he became an artist.
Presley reached his teens when the post-World War II consumer economy was reaching its peak. The product of unprecedented wealth and pent-up demand caused by depression and wartime sacrifice, he provided nearly limitless opportunity for those seeking to entertain and define themselves.
The teenager from Memphis, Tennessee, took advantage of these opportunities. Making a joke of the idiom “you are what you eat,” Elvis became what he ate.
During her formative years, she shopped at Lansky Brothers, a clothing store on Beale Street that dressed African-American artists and provided her with second-hand pink and black ensembles.
He tuned into radio station WDIA, where he immersed himself in gospel and rhythm and blues tunes, along with the vernacular of black disc jockeys. He turned the dial on WHBQ’s “Red, Hot, and Blue,” a show that featured Dewey Phillips playing an eclectic mix of R&B, pop and country. He visited Poplar Tunes and Home of the Blues record stores, where he bought music that he danced to in his head. And at Loew’s State and Suzore #2 theaters, he watched the latest Marlon Brando or Tony Curtis movies, figuring out in the dark how to emulate his demeanor, sideburns and duck tails.
In short, he drew from the nation’s burgeoning consumer culture the personality the world would come to know. Elvis alluded to this in 1971 when he provided a rare glimpse into his psyche by receiving a Jaycees Award as one of the nation’s Ten Outstanding Young Men:
“When I was a child, ladies and gentlemen, I was a dreamer. He read comics and I was the hero of the comic. I saw movies, and I was the hero of the movie. So every dream I’ve dreamed of has come true a hundred times… I’d like to say that I learned very early in life that ‘without a song, the day would never end’. Without a song, a man does not have a friend. Without a song, the road would never bend. Without a song. So, I will continue to sing a song.”
In that acceptance speech, he quoted “Without a Song,” a standard tune performed by the likes of Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Roy Hamilton, seamlessly presenting the lyrics as if they were words directly applicable to his own life experiences.
a loaded question
Does this make the Jaycees catcher some kind of “strange, lonely kid looking for eternity,” as Tom Parker, played by Tom Hanks, tells an adult Presley in the new “Elvis” movie?
I do not think. Instead, I see him as someone who simply dedicated his life to consumption, a common behavior of the late 20th century. Scholars have noted that while Americans once defined themselves through their genealogy, jobs, or faith, they increasingly began to identify themselves through their tastes and, by proxy, what they consumed. As Elvis created his identity and pursued his craft, he did the same.
It was also evident in how he spent most of his free time. A tireless worker on stage and in the recording studio, those stages, however, demanded relatively little of his time. For most of the 1960s, he made three films a year, each taking no more than a month to complete. That was the extent of his professional obligations.
From 1969 until his death in 1977, only 797 of 2,936 days were spent performing concerts or recording in the studio. Most of his time was spent vacationing, playing sports, riding motorcycles, go-karting, horseback riding, watching TV, and eating.
At the time of his death, Elvis was a shell of himself. Overweight, bored and chemically dependent, he seemed worn out. A few weeks before his death, a Soviet publication described him as “shipwrecked,” a “mercilessly” dumped victim of the American consumerist system.
Elvis Presley demonstrated that consumerism, when channeled productively, can be creative and liberating. He also showed that if left unrestrained, it can be empty and destructive.
Luhrmann’s film promises to reveal much about one of the most captivating and enigmatic figures of our time. But I have a feeling it will also tell Americans a lot about themselves.
“Who are you, Elvis?” the trailer probes eerily.
Perhaps the answer is easier than we think. He is all of us.
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article here: https://theconversation.com/was-there-anything-real-about-elvis-presley-184902.