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Elvis One More Time

August 13, 2002
 
wenty-five years after his death, Elvis Presley still retains a strong presence in American popular consciousness. Shrines to him abound, "Elvis sightings" are still occasionally reported, and contemporary musicians continue to draw inspiration from his distinctive musical and personal style. In the years since his death, two Atlantic contributors have looked back at Elvis and his music, offering insight into who Elvis was, and what Americans saw in him.

In "Elvis One More Time" (January 1981), a review of Neal and Janice Gregory's When Elvis Died, Benjamin DeMott described the mass outpouring of grief upon Elvis's death, and the media's gradual comprehension of the extent to which the nation was moved by the story:
It was the fans who, by jamming switchboards with calls for information, shocked the media into action, ultimately dictating continuous "feature feeds" by the wire services, ragged TV specials, convulsive searches of newspaper back files for reports of the performer's local appearances, and on-the-spot coverage by broadcasters and papers unaccustomed to sending staffers out of town, but perfectly prepared to profit from the popular will.
The overwhelming fascination with Elvis, DeMott suggested, may be a symptom of his populist appeal. After all, DeMott pointed out, Elvis achieved unimaginable success not by adhering to elitist rules of propriety and conduct, but by flouting them:
Presley was widely admired for his sturdy unresponsiveness to those imperatives of self-improvement that usually rack the successful. Neither his tastes (Cadillacs, satin finery, down-home folk) nor the style of his generosity (impulsive gifts of Cadillacs and satin finery to down-home folk) ever changed. And his fans seem to have taken much satisfaction in this stability. Voice after voice in the book speaks of the man in a fashion suggesting that he constituted a sanctuary and a defense–justification for refusing to heed the authorities who tell you to work harder, enjoy yourself less, read better books, get higher grades, shed your malaise, and so on. It's hard to credit, perhaps, but one great gift that the wildly gyrating rock star seems to have bestowed upon his people was self-acceptance, surcease, rest.
In "His Own Jukebox" (January 1994), Francis Davis considered the nature of Elvis's talents and influences. Perhaps most important, Davis suggested, was Elvis's love of listening to and participating in many different styles of music, which he would then assimilate into his own repertoire. As a youth who grew up in the black section of his Mississippi town (because that was where his family could afford to live), he was particularly influenced by black music and culture:
Blackness does seem to have rubbed off on Elvis Presley, who sang rhythm and blues as unselfconsciously as he sang country music. His first Sun release, in 1954, a version of Arthur Crudup's 1947 blues hit "That's All Right" backed with Bill Monroe's "Blue Moon of Kentucky," was about as perfect an expression as you could hope to find of the unexamined racial double consciousness of a white southerner of his time and social station.
To some extent, Davis suggested, Elvis's rise to stardom may have been propelled by a desire to overcome an overwhelming sense of insecurity. His classmates, Davis pointed out, recalled him as a "loner, a sad, shy, not especially attractive boy."
The Elvis Presley who exploded on America in 1956, was a teenage misfit's successful attempt to reinvent himself as the most popular boy in class…. To Presley's way of thinking, becoming a star was the only alternative to the role of total nonentity to which his family's low social standing and his own shyness might otherwise have doomed him.
Unfortunately, Davis argues, stardom did not prove to be his salvation. Rather, "the stardom Presley wished on himself ultimately made him captive, increasing his sense of otherness and cutting him off from his original sources of inspiration." He continued,
Elvis Presley is one of the reasons that megastardom of the sort he virtually defined is increasingly equated with loneliness, isolation, mental and physical rot—tragedy waiting to happen. Stardom of such magnitude also invites the fantasy that the performer in question might have been happier doing something else with his life, or doing the same thing on a smaller, more life-size scale.
Perhaps, Davis suggested, Elvis's musical versatility might have led him to a comfortable life as a "demo" singer—a singer who helps recording artists try out new songs by demonstrating what the music would sound like if sung in their style and voice:
Maybe he missed his calling. Given his ability to sing practically anything, he might have been the greatest demo singer who ever lived, a record-industry cult figure, a sane and healthy man. But then he wouldn't have been Elvis Presley—at least not in the way his name will forever imply.
—Sage Stossel


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Sage Stossel is an editor of The Atlantic Online. She draws the weekly cartoon feature, "Sage, Ink."

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