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The Romantic Myth of Elvis

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During the late 1950s, Elvis was the most famous entertainer in the world, but nowhere as popular as in his native South. In the last years of his career, his audience in other parts of the country were centred in the original “fifties” fans whose youth were defined by Elvis. In the lower or working class people who saw in Elvis some glamorised image of their own values. In the South, however, the pattern of Elvis’s popularity tended to cut across age barriers. Class lines which were themselves a less recognisable thing in a region in which almost no one is more than a generation or two away from poverty, and where “class” in small communities might have more to do with family and past status than with money. Among Southern youth, Elvis was not a relic from a musical past; he was still one of the vital forces behind a Southern rock, which though different now from his, still echoes the rhythms which his music had fused out of the region. His numerous concerts in the South could not exhaust the potential audience. At his death, leading politicians and ministers from the South joined the people on the street in eulogising him. Local radio and television stations ran their specials in addition to the syndicated or national programs. Halftime ceremonies at the Liberty Bowl were in tribute to him. When someone commented on national TV that the Presleys were “white trash,” it was a regional slur, not just a personal one. The white South expressed love, grief, and praise for Elvis from all age groups at virtually every level of the social, intellectual, and economic structures.

Some critics attribute the romantic myth of Elvis to the cleverness of Colonel Parker, his manager, and the cooperation of Elvis himself. To do so is to oversimplify a complex phenomenon and to misread a generation’s pure mythmaking as merely another shrewd “sell” campaign. For anyone less significant than Elvis, the path that Colonel Parker advised by way of numbingly stupid movies and empty music would have been the path to sure oblivion. The 1968 Black Leather television special saved Elvis from that, but allegedly against the advice of Parker, who wanted the show to be all Christmas music. Elvis, pursued by the myth and under pressure to confirm it, kept to himself and never told the public anything. The Colonel was smart enough to promote the myth, but it was the authentic handiwork of a society that needed a legend to justify the identification it felt with such a figure. After Elvis died, the Brentwood, Tennessee, Historical Society even supplied the Presley genealogy. The family was, of course, completely respectable, producing “renowned professors, doctors, judges, ministers” in every generation until poverty overcame them during Reconstruction.

Elvis created a beautiful illusion, a fantasy that shut nothing out. The opposite was true. The fascination was the reality always showing through the illusion – the illusion of wealth and the psyche of poverty; the illusion of success and the pinch of ridicule; the illusion of invincibility and the tragedy of frailty; the illusion of complete control and the reality of inner chaos.

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