Sun King American Style

On the 30th Anniversary of Elvis' Death

"Our love of Elvis brought us together," he says on the dust jacket, "but his ghost drove us apart." The book, In the Shadow of the King: Priscilla, Elvis and Me, was selling very well, said the chairman of St. Martin's Press, Thomas J. McCormack.

"They don't all sell, but the tremendous majority of things having to do with Elvis do well," Mr. McCormack said, "like it used to be with the Beatles, like the royals in Britain. This is our Princess Di."

-- Serge Schmemann
New York Times

Elvis as a cynical commentary? Or the outbreak in Memphis, Tennessee, deep in the heart of the heart of the country, of a more primitive Jungian archetype -- the Sun King?

Or both? A cynical commodity to such a point of excess, hysteria and exhaustion that Elvis actually disappeared into his own promotional culture. The Elvis commodity, then, achieving such a global degree of cynical exchange-value that that heartbreak voice, the sneer, the DA hair, and the rock 'n rollin' legs on stage with that guitar, and the screaming fans actually vanished into a massive black hole. As it grew more heated and intensive, the Elvis myth burst into a final brilliant luminosity, exploded inwards with a fantastic density of energy, and then settled down through the '70s and the '80s as a steadily-flashing cultural pulsar. What emerged from that cultural pulsar (the final stage of a dying star) were the five faces of Elvis: sometimes movie star (Blue Hawaii), confirmed rock 'n roll heart-throb; good ol' southern boy playing with his buddies; unpredictable philanthropist to the poor; and a real '50s sex symbol. And just like Marilyn Monroe and Jimmy Dean before him, Elvis can still attract such necrophiliac fascination because he was always a promotional simulacra which could be wrapped around any passing mood. Thus, in the '70s, it was Elvis' death as a tragedy, and in the '80s a nostalgia feast for our own time passing. In the end as in the beginning, he was the perfect fusion of voice, autobiography, commodity opportunity, and national mood.

But not just a cynical commodity. If Elvis can continue to be the charismatic pole of romantic populism (in many towns, all night vigils marked the 10th anniversary of his death), that's because he was, not just the King, but the mythical Sun King. And Elvis knew it, and parodied his entrapment (thus the Aztec sun symbols on his Las Vegas costumes). But, once nominated, no one can escape the dual fate of the Sun King: to be an object of sacrifice and adulation, and to be imprisoned in the charismatic, and hokey, role of a god. A good ol' southern boy, brim full of energy, with a voice so achingly good that you didn't know you just wanted to cry when he sang, especially the love songs, who had nowhere to go but to excess. And so, the Sun King went over to the dark side of self-liquidation, self-cancellation, and self-exhaustion: with drugs, with excrement, with sex (but never with his wife, except that once). His was the final ballad of sacrifice (other people's) and violence (against himself).

But still, even in his dying days the Sun King had this curious quality. If you watched his first big comeback Las Vegas show -- yes, the one with the black leather outfit -- for all of his self-cynicism, there was a voice, and the tangible hint of a memory behind that voice, which was just bursting to get out, and once it did, who could refuse to admit that the King was finally back. And again, if you saw one of his last Las Vegas shows -- the one where he is probably sky-high on drugs, actually forgets the words to the songs, swallows the microphone, and still the audience cheers -- well, in that last image of Elvis in ruins, the fat man, there is a trace of pathos and self-denigration so deep, so true and so diamond-sharp that you know that you are finally in the presence of the last violent, sacrificial rites of a Sun King American Style.


First published as "Panic Elvis" in Arthur Kroker, Marilouise Kroker and David Cook. Panic Encyclopedia: the definitive guide to the postmodern scene. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1989. 95-96.