We are still all shook up
Charisma of the King is liberating life force for fans
Memphis calls itself the home of the blues and the birthplace of rock and roll. But while Beale Street’s music understandably draws tourists from all over the world, Memphians scratch their heads in wonder at the thousands who pour into our city each August to grieve for Elvis Presley, again.
The National Civil Rights Museum, which commemorates the civil rights movement and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., might be regarded as the more important Memphis destination. Yet 700,000 people visit Graceland each year.
This Friday is the 25th anniversary of Elvis’s death, and Graceland is bracing for as many as 70,000 visitors during Memorial Week alone. Why?
In the social sciences and in numerous newspapers, magazines, books, Web sites and tabloids, an assortment of theories suggests Elvis has become a religious icon. Is the attraction to Graceland a call to worship?
This comes to mind when you observe the homemade shrines and the hours-long candlelight procession of fans who pass through the gates of Graceland and up the winding driveway to reach Elvis’s grave on the anniversary of his death. If you ask Elvis fans, there is the suggestion of something religious, a feeling that can be described as elevating and even redemptive.
“I think he is one of the most perfect beings, other than Jesus, that was here,” said Carol Beverly of Indianapolis. “He had charisma, worth, morals, talent, unbelievable drive, and I think that’s why everybody is attracted to him.
“He is what they would like to be, and when they come here they get that spirit, and I think it energizes them to go back to their normal, routine life,” she said.
Some fans describe a spiritual kinship with Elvis, but deny its worshipful character, which they see as the jurisdiction of God, not Elvis.
HAS A RELIGIOUS theory emerged because it provides greater weight and depth to the Elvis experience? A sense of elevation or redemption does not have to signify the hereafter. It can also be secular - an elevation for the devotee above everyday life.
Social theorist Max Weber suggested that elevating and redeeming experiences are provided not only through religion, but also through art, sensuality and charisma. He argued that everyone desires a route to the extraordinary, particularly as life becomes progressively more routine, rationalized and “disenchanted.”
Humans, according to Weber, experience this difference between the everyday and the extraordinary. It frees them from the oppression of routine and pain.
For many, however, this release is difficult to find on their own. For some people, charismatic figures may provide direction. Others find it by breaking traditional barriers or devoting themselves to a cause.
Some discover renewal in the power and feeling of music, art, sensuality or the liberation of seeking a new destination. Some fusion of these ingredients may provide an even more potent route to secular redemption.
Elvis was this alternative, this fusion, this detonation. He was the epitome of cool, in the 1950s and beyond.
“He affects my life because I’m a performer, too, and I have to go on all these auditions,” said Andrea Pontani, a Graceland visitor from Brooklyn. “I’m primarily a dancer, and usually every time before I go I’m really nervous. I just kind of have a hold on myself and say: OK, if Elvis can get out there in, like, a bedazzled 20-pound jumpsuit in front of 50 million people and do kung fu moves and come across cool, I can do this.”
Other fans mentioned the extent of Presley’s giving. Wilma Wooten, of Salem, N.C., a board member of the Presley Trauma Center, said: “Elvis helped me reach out and help others by being so charitable.”
Other fans describe Elvis and his music as barrier breaking, evocative and sensual. They refer to his charisma and the liberating dynamism of his music.
“It just shows a part of … every human who would like to bust out and have a chance to be free, you know?” Pontani said. “He’s free.”
A pilgrimage to Graceland and its accompanying rituals can reinforce the intensity of these feelings. Elvis was, and is, that charismatic figure who subsumes all of these paths to a type of secular redemption.
It is not the elevating power of religion but rather, as art historian Gary Vikan has said, Elvis’s personal charisma that is the real draw for the hundreds of thousands of people who come to Graceland each year. But the key is not, as Vikan suggested, that of a primal religion.
ELVIS’S CHARISMA, while not religious, can deliver a sense of the extraordinary and of redemption from the struggle of life. This is also the case for the pilgrims who come to Memphis to memorialize King, who embodies Weber’s depiction of a serious charismatic figure and cultural hero, leading thousands to redemption from an oppressive existence.
More than 120,000 people visit the site of King’s assassination each year. The draw there is also secular, not religious.
The power of Elvis’s appeal is that he, like King, was charismatic and broke barriers. However, Elvis also tapped into Weber’s proposed paths to the extraordinary, such as art and eroticism. With his death, his fans have inherited a direction, a cause, a pilgrimage, a ritual.
Both Graceland and the Civil Rights Museum were developed in remembrance of charismatic figures whose memories are more vivid now, 25 to nearly 35 years later, than at the time of their deaths, and show no signs of slowing.
The key to the ever-expanding extravaganza in front of Graceland, to the paroxysm of grief, sequins, devotion, shrines, tribute artists, media and gawkers, isn’t that Elvis is Jesus. Max Weber had the answer a century ago.
The point is that charisma can provide a redeeming experience. There are not only serious (as in King) but also “unserious” varieties of charisma that deliver such an experience.
No Comments Yet
You can be the first to comment!