Was there anything real about Elvis Presley?

In Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis,” a scene is based on real conversations that took place between Elvis Presley and Steve Binder, the director of a 1968 NBC television special that announced the singer’s return to live performance.

Binder, an iconoclast unimpressed by Presley’s recent work, had prompted Elvis to go back to his past to rekindle a career stalled by years of mediocre movies and soundtrack albums. According to the director, their exchanges allowed the artist to be immersed in a deep search for the soul.

The trailer for the Luhrmann biopic plays a version of this back and forth: Elvis, played by Austin Butler, tells the camera, “I need to get back to who I really am.” Two frames later, Dacre Montgomery, who plays Binder, asks, “And who are you, Elvis?”

As a Southern history scholar who wrote a book about Elvis, I still wonder the same thing.

Presley never wrote a memoir. He also didn’t keep a diary. Once, when informed of a possible biography in the works, he expressed his doubts that there was even a story to tell. Over the years he had submitted to countless interviews and press conferences, but the quality of these exchanges was erratic, often characterized by superficial answers to even more superficial questions.

His music could have been a window into his inner life, but since he was not a songwriter, his material relied on the words of others. Even the rare revealing gems – songs like “If I Can Dream”, “Separate Ways” or “My Way” – didn’t fully penetrate the veil that enveloped the man.

Binder’s philosophical research was thus not purely philosophical. Countless fans and scholars have long wanted to know: who was Elvis anyway?

A barometer for the nation

Locating Presley may depend on when and who you ask. At the beginning of his career, admirers and critics alike referred to him as the “Hillbilly Cat.” He then became the ‘King of Rock ‘n’ Roll’, a musical monarch who placed promoters on a mythical throne.

But to many, he was always the “King of the White Trash Culture”—a tale of white workers from the rags-to-riches south that never quite convinced the national establishment of its legitimacy.

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 amalgamation of class, race, gender, region and commerce that Elvis embodied.

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of his identity was the singer’s relationship with racing. A white artist who benefited greatly from the popularization of a style associated with African Americans, Presley worked in the shadows and under suspicion of racial appropriation throughout his career.

The connection was intricate and fluid, to be sure.

Quincy Jones met and worked with Presley in early 1956 as the musical director of CBS-TV’s “Stage Show”. In his 2002 autobiography, Jones noted that Elvis, along with Frank Sinatra, the Beatles, Stevie Wonder, and Michael Jackson, should be listed as pop music’s greatest innovators. However, by 2021, amid a changing racial climate, Jones dismissed Presley as an unabashed racist.

Elvis seems to serve as a barometer measuring the various tensions in America, with the gauge less about Presley and more about the nation’s heart rate at any given time.

You are what you consume

But I think there’s another way to think about Elvis, one that can put many of the questions surrounding him into context.

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

The review was negative; it was also incomplete. It failed to take into account how a consumerist attitude may have shaped Elvis before he became an entertainer.

Presley reached adolescence as a post-World War II consumer economy took off. A product of unprecedented wealth and pent-up demand caused by depression and wartime sacrifice, it opened up almost limitless possibilities for those seeking to entertain and define themselves.

The teenager from Memphis, Tennessee, took advantage of these opportunities. Breaking down the “you are what you eat” idiom, Elvis became what he consumed.

During his formative years, he shopped at Lansky Brothers, a Beale Street clothing store that outfitted African-American performers and supplied him with second-hand pink and black ensembles.

He tuned into the radio station WDIA, where he recorded gospel and rhythm and blues melodies along with the vernacular of black disc jockeys. He turned the dial to WHBQ’s ‘Red, Hot, and Blue’, a program in which Dewey Phillips played an eclectic mix of R&B, pop and country. He frequented the Poplar Tunes and Home of the Blues record stores, where he bought the dancing music in his head. And at Loew’s State and Suzore #2 cinemas, he took in the latest Marlon Brando or Tony Curtis movies, imagining in the dark how he could match their demeanor, sideburns and ducktails.

In short, he extracted from the country’s burgeoning consumer culture the persona that the world would come to know. Elvis alluded to this in 1971 when he gave a rare glimpse into his psyche when receiving a Jaycees Award as one of the ten best young men in the country:

“When I was a kid, ladies and gentlemen, I was a dreamer. I read comic books and I was the comic book hero. I’ve seen movies and I was the hero in the movie. So every dream I’ve ever dreamed has come true a hundred times… I would like to say that very early in my life I learned that ‘without a song, the day would never end. Without a song a man has no friend. Without a song the road would never bend. Without a song.’ So I’ll keep singing a song.”

In that acceptance speech, he quoted “Without a Song,” a standard tune performed by artists such as Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Roy Hamilton — seamlessly rendering the lyrics as if they were words directly applicable to his own life experiences.

A loaded question

Does this make the Jaycees recipient some sort of “strange, lonely kid reaching for eternity,” as Tom Parker, played by Tom Hanks, tells an adult Presley in the new movie “Elvis”?

I do not think so. Instead, I see him as someone who simply devoted his life to consumption, a behavior not uncommon in the late 20th century. Scholars have noted that while Americans once defined themselves by their genealogy, jobs, or faith, they increasingly began to identify themselves by taste—and, by way of proxy, what they consumed. As Elvis formed his identity and pursued his craft, he did the same.

It was also evident in the way he spent most of his free time. As a tireless worker on stage and in the recording studio, these institutions demanded relatively little of his time. For most of the 1960s, he made three films a year, each taking no more than a month to complete. That was the extent of his professional obligations.

From 1969 until his death in 1977, only 797 of the 2,936 days were spent performing concerts or recording in the studio. He devoted most of his time to holidays, sports, motorcycling, go-karts, horseback riding, watching TV and eating.

By the time he died, Elvis was a shadow of his former self. Overweight, bored and chemically dependent, he seemed exhausted. A few weeks before his death, a Soviet publication described him as “broken” – a “ruthlessly” dumped product that fell victim to the American consumerist system.

Elvis Presley proved that consumerism, when channeled productively, can be creative and liberating. He also showed that if left uninhibited, it could be empty and destructive.

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

“Who are you, Elvis?” the trailer is terrifying.

Perhaps the answer is easier than we think. He belongs to all of us.

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