Thursday, November 6, 2008
The Elvis Effect
By Ted Burke
August 16, 1977, I was in a photo booth at the Stockton Country Fair where I was working on the carnival midway getting my picture taken, four snaps for four quarters, when an announcement came over the fair ground PA that legendary singer Elvis Presley had died that morning. My photos had just then popped out of the machine , and with the news of The King's death still not sinking in, I looked at my poses, pouty-lipped, snarling, curled lip rock star disguises one practices when they wipe away the steam from the bathroom mirror. I had long hair at the time, and I was in my mid twenties, shuffling self images. Elvis was dead, and these ridiculous poses I'd made for the camera seemed ironic. The King was dead, and it was time to get a life.
Since then Elvis has become a permanent icon of American culture and perhaps the most over used punchline in the camp of the Easy Ironist who might want to gift their sagging art a lift with the Neutron Bomb of pop culture references; here, I'm sure, most of us can cite a number of examples where the Presley references in novels, tv shows, songs, movies have cropped up like thick weed clusters on formerly well manicured lawns. Instant depth, bottomless intertextuality, a dance of unmoored signifiers swirling on strong gusts through the halls of the cultural archive. It got to be just a major riff among the schooled post moderns who were perhaps too well read in Pop Anthropology and hadn't spent enough time with their thoughts; the fear, perhaps again, might be that they hadn't any ideas to begin with, at least in regards to creating art that transcends the need to dismantle artifice or exhume depleted tropes and settle somewhere in a personality that might, by chance, engage the qualities of their experience.
Elvis did the best he could with what he had to work with, and that should be honored to the degree that his music was genuinely arresting. The least we can do is to stop dropping the poor man's name and his tag lines when we're in need of Fast Literary Effect, the problematic distancing between subject matter and the reader , who is forced suddenly to interrogate the manner in which a piece is given us and not the ideas ."Affect" is the blunter term, an application of something iconic, instantly graspable and nearly perfect in it's ability to make a reader pause and wonder why Elvis suddenly makes a cameo in a story line . It's not a bad habit for the reader/viewer to be aware of the style and form of the narrative devices an author (or film maker) deploys , since deciphering the mystery of how techique makes a poem's, a novel's or a film's particulars subtler, richer, a more pleasurable thing to consider at length, but with the case of Elvis, or Marylin , or Einstein or Hitler and the others from the 2oth century who's enormity denies appreciation of what they've actually achieved, desirable and dire as the case may be, the dropping of their names and images in our popular arts keeps us fidgety disconnected. One moves along with a reading and up pops Elvis in his sequined jumpsuit and jeweled sunglasses and one thinks, okay, here's Elvis, out of nowhere, to complicate things, I'll just think about this poem much later... Contemplation and examination are deferred, set aside, never gotten back to, which is just as well for many an author who don't want their tricks examined too closely.
But perhaps this is the reader's wish as well. Scary thought, awful thought,expecially now that we have all supposedly won the battle against the Bad Guys and duly elected Barack Obama to lead us out of the wilderness; some of us might well long to remain among the devastated trees, making fires out of damp twigs, sleeping in the back seats of rusted out SUVs. Life among the chipped iconography of our fictionalized past is a preferable fate than the real work of creating a Useful Present, a life that is authentic and which works in ways our disseased day dreams could never live up to. Curl a lip around that.