Is there anything real about Elvis Presley?

In Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis,” there is a scene based on a true conversation that took place between Elvis Presley and Steve Binder, the director of the 1968 NBC television special that hinted at the singer’s return to live shows.

Binder, an iconoclast unimpressed by Presley’s recent work, has pushed Elvis back in time to revive a career stalled by years of mediocre film and soundtrack albums. According to the director, their conversation plunged the player into a deep soul-searching.

In the trailer for Luhrmann’s biopic, this back-and-forth version 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?”

As a southern history scholar who has written books about Elvis, I still wonder the same thing.

Presley never wrote a memoir. He also did not keep a diary. Once, when told of a potential biography in his works, he expressed doubts that there was a story to tell. Over the years, he has attended numerous interviews and press conferences, but the quality of these exchanges is erratic, often characterized by shallow answers to even more superficial questions.

His music can be a window into his inner life, but because he is not a songwriter, his material relies on the words of others. Even the rare gem of revelation – songs like “If I Could Dream”, “The Separate Way” or “My Way” – did not completely penetrate the veil that shrouded the man.

Binder’s philosophical inquiry, then, is not only philosophical. Many fans and scholars have long wanted to know: Who really is Elvis?

Nation’s barometer

Deciding on Presley can depend on when and who you ask. Early in his career, admirers and critics branded him the “Hillbilly Cat.” Then he became the “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” a music king that promoters placed on the mythical throne.

But to many, he has always been the “King of White Trash Culture” – the story of a wealthy southern white working class that never sufficiently convinced national establishments of his legitimacy.

Man with blue eyes and sideburns talking into microphone.
Elvis Presley during a press conference at Madison Square Garden in New York City in 1972.
Art Zelin/Getty Images

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

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of her identity is the singer’s relationship to race. As a white artist who greatly benefited from popularizing styles associated with African-Americans, Presley, throughout his career, worked under the shadow and suspicion of racial dispossession.

The connection is complicated and smooth, of course.

Quincy Jones met and worked with Presley in early 1956 as CBS-TV’s “Stage Show” music director. 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 innovator. However, in 2021, amid a changing racial climate, Jones dismisses Presley as a shameless racist.

Elvis seems to serve as a barometer against America’s various tensions, with less about Presley and more about the pulse of the nation at any given moment.

You are what you consume

But I think there’s another way of thinking about Elvis – one that might be put in the context of the many questions surrounding him.

Historian William Leuchtenburg once characterized Presley as a “hero of consumer culture,” a commodity that produced more image than substance.

The rating is negative; it’s also incomplete. That doesn’t take into account how a consumerist disposition may have shaped Elvis before he became an entertainer.

Presley reached adolescence as the post-World War II consumer economy began to move forward. A product of unprecedented prosperity and pent-up demand caused by depression and wartime sacrifice, it provides almost limitless opportunities for those who wish to entertain and define themselves.

Teens from Memphis, Tennessee, took advantage of this opportunity. Tearing up the idiom “You are what you eat,” Elvis became what he consumed.

During his formative years, he shopped at Lansky Brothers, a clothing maker on Beale Street who outfitted African-American performers and gave him secondhand pink and black ensembles.

He tunes into the WDIA radio station, where he absorbs gospel and rhythm and blues songs, along with the colloquialisms of black disk jockeys. He turned the dial to WHBQ’s “Red, Hot, and Blue,” a program that saw Dewey Phillips spin an eclectic mix of R&B, pop and country. He visited the Poplar Tunes and Home of the Blues record stores, where he bought the music that danced in his head. And in Loew’s State and Suzore #2, he watches the latest Marlon Brando or Tony Curtis films, imagining in the dark how to imitate their behavior, whiskers, and duck tails.

In short, from the nation’s growing consumerism culture, he acquired a persona that the world would recognize. Elvis alluded to this in 1971 when he gave a rare glimpse into his soul after receiving the Jaycees Award as one of the Ten Outstanding Young Men:

“When I was a child, ladies and gentlemen, I was a dreamer. I read comic books, and I am the hero of comic books. I saw the movie, and I was the hero in that movie. So every dream I’ve ever dreamed of has come true hundreds of times… I want to say that I learned early on in life that ‘without songs, the day will never end. Without songs, a man has no friends. Without song, the road will never bend. No song.’ So, I will continue to sing a song.”

In that acceptance speech, he quoted “Without a Song,” a standard song performed by artists including Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Roy Hamilton — seamlessly presenting the lyrics as if they were words that were directly applicable. on his own life experience.

A loaded question

Does this make Jaycees recipients some sort of “weird, lonely kid who reaches for immortality,” as Tom Parker, played by Tom Hanks, tells an adult Presley in the new “Elvis” film?

I don’t think so. Instead, I saw him as someone who devoted his life solely to consumption, an unusual late 20th century behavior. Experts have noted that while Americans once defined themselves by their pedigree, occupation, or beliefs, they are increasingly starting to identify themselves through their tastes – and, by proxy, what they consume. As Elvis worked out his identity and pursued his craft, he did the same.

It can also be seen from the way he spends most of his free time. A tireless worker on stage and in the recording studio, the setup still demands relatively little time. For much of the 1960s, he made three films each year, each taking no more than a month to complete. That’s the extent of his professional obligations.

From 1969 until his death in 1977, only 797 of the 2,936 days were devoted to performing concerts or recording in the studio. Most of his time is spent on vacation, exercising, riding a motorbike, playing karts, riding horses, watching TV, and eating.

By the time he died, Elvis was a shell of his former self. Obese, bored, and chemically dependent, he seemed exhausted. A few weeks before his death, a Soviet publication described him as “destroyed” – a “mercilessly discarded” product that fell victim to the American system of consumerism.

Elvis Presley proved that consumerism, when channeled productively, can be creative and liberating. He also points out that left unchecked, it can be empty and destructive.

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

“Who are you, Elvis?” haunting trailer.

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

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