Phenomenon: The Cultural Afterimage of Elvis
Mark Duffett [+]
University of Chester
When Elvis Presley died there only a tiny handful of biographies existed in print. His death launched a wave of grief that became the top national news story. It also generated an extraordinary demand for his music that saw RCA use additional facilities to press more records. Since 1977 fans have been presented with a vast outpouring of vault releases, bootlegs, repackages, outtakes and remixes from both RCA and specialist imprints like Follow That Dream. Meanwhile, a steady avalanche of popular books have marked his presence as a popular phenomenon: after the parodies and buddy books, a wave of more objective accounts, some of them forensic in their attention to detail, have framed specific moments in his career (see Lacy 2006 and Gaar 2010, for instance). Members of his family and former entourage have also become workers in an increasingly lucrative Elvis heritage industry. Aided by licensing policies Elvis’s merchandising firm Elvis Presley Enterprizes (now reformulated as his estate corporation EPE), the royalty deal they struck with RCA, and the opening of Graceland as a public monument in 1982, Elvis Presley has remained a global brand and become the highest paid posthumous entertainer in popular music history. As Greil Marcus showed in Dead Elvis, the star’s image and ideas it represents have become a contested terrain spread across a wide field of popular culture. Elvis has inspired a legion of tribute artists and since the late 1990s returned to the stage once again on video accompanied by his 1970s band as an unexpected, spectacular live concert draw. Emerging from the shadow of critical dismissal and class-based jokes in the 1980s and 1990s, thanks in part to the methodical image reconstruction work of Ernst Jorgenson and Roger Sermon, in the new millennium Elvis has re-entered the building as a chart presence and family entertainer. Approaching the fourth decade anniversary of his death, the Elvis phenomenon shows no sign of stopping, because the legacy of his music and the concerns that he represents still circulate in capitalist society. Above all, Elvis bequeaths a legacy of performance moments, costumes, catch phrases, ideas and songs. His universal inspiration, which remains both a contested symbol of social unity and a commercial brand, naturally leads to consideration of Vernon Chadwick’s (1997: xvi) suggestion that “Elvis performed in song what Martin Luther King Jr proclaimed in sermon.” Debates in this section will include: • What can the Elvis phenomenon tell us about the way audiences read star performers as complex and contested inter-textual entities? • Why has Elvis’s fan base been hailed as a substitute for religion and to what extent is the comparison useful? • How has Graceland as place, product and story interacted to resurrect Elvis’s popular profile? • What role has impersonation played in maintaining Elvis’s image? • How has Elvis’s estate attempted to police, control and revise the portrayal of his image? • How has the Elvis myth been extended to sustain such a diverse array of signifiers? • How and why has Elvis’s posthumous reputation fluctuated with changing times? • What is Elvis Presley’s real musical and social legacy?