Bigger than life, even in death
The iconography of Elvis
"Elvis is everywhere, Elvis is everything, Elvis is everybody, Elvis is still the King" -- Mojo Nixon
(CNN) -- When people think of Elvis Presley, they think of many things.
There's Swarthy Elvis, the slicked-back teen dream who took popular music by storm in 1956. There's Fat Elvis, the chubby man in the rhinestone jumpsuit and '70s clothes that were embarrassing even then.
There's Rock 'n' Roll Elvis, who belted "Jailhouse Rock" and "Hound Dog"; Balladeer Elvis, who sang "Are You Lonesome Tonight" and "Can't Help Falling in Love"; Movie Elvis, who cavorted with Ann-Margret and Stella Stevens; even Crazy Elvis, the firearm-loving drug addict who once allegedly shot out a television showing a "competitor," Robert Goulet.
That's the thing about Elvis. He can be anything people want him to be, says Glenn Gass, a professor of music at Indiana University.
"When I ask my classes, 'When you think of Elvis, what comes to mind?' I get an amazing array of answers," he says.
"Everybody has their own image of Elvis, and that's really the key. It's like the [postage] stamp -- you could choose between young Elvis and older Elvis. They didn't do that for Lincoln."
He remembers one student, an elderly lady, who took offense at Gass' dismissal of some 1960s Elvis ballads.
"She said, 'That's the real Elvis,' " Gass recalled. "So I never tread on anybody's Elvis."
'That one is dangerous'
It's this ability to be all things to all people that has made Elvis an icon. It's become so easy to approximate Elvis -- the hip shakes, the sideburns, the basso "Thankyouverymuch" -- that he's spawned a cottage industry of imitators and Elvis products, many of which we respond to through a kind of cultural shorthand.
"He is an easy person to imitate," says Illinois Wesleyan history professor Mike Weis. "That's partly the silliness of the outfit, but partly it's a genuine love and respect for an artist who transcends generations."
But the catch about being an icon is that you become encased in amber. The living Elvis, on the other hand, was a man who was constantly breaking down boundaries between musical genres.
"Elvis' early music has drama because as he sang he was escaping limits," Greil Marcus writes in his classic book on American music, "Mystery Train."
That makes many people uncomfortable, Weis says.
"It's easier to imitate the older Elvis than the '50s Elvis," he says. "That one is dangerous. He's ambiguous. He says something about class, race, the generation gap -- and he exudes sex. The one from the '70s doesn't do any of that. It's a lot more safe to do Vegas Elvis."
And yet Elvis was perfectly comfortable with his contradictions, says University of Virginia music lecturer Stephan Prock. He was at ease with the music, playful with it.
"He negotiated those contradictions in a way nobody else has done," Prock says.
As a white man singing black music -- but blending the genres with care and innate understanding -- Elvis was a figure of both racial appropriation and integration. "He had a way of reconciling opposites," Prock says.
'From Tupelo to Vegas'
Even his story -- the Horatio Alger tale of the poor boy that, through pluck and luck, becomes the king of the mountain, only to fall because of his own tragic flaws -- is seen as a quintessential American tale.
"From Tupelo to Vegas -- it's so perfect," Gass says. "You couldn't write it. It's a beautiful thing, really."
Perhaps so perfect that some people see Elvis as otherworldly. Prock says he remembers scenes in early 1970s Elvis concert films where people attend the concerts not so much for the show, but for the man and his spirit.
"It's about seeing him, touching him, touching the hem of his garment," Prock says. "In those documentaries, [for some people] Elvis brings more meaning into people's lives than Jesus [does]."
Gass says he hopes that his students can grasp the entire Elvis.
"There's nothing more important than getting Elvis," he says. As a musician, he points out, Elvis could be transcendent; as a human being, he's ultimately a tragedy.
"In the best sense he made himself up," Gass says. "In the worst sense he let himself go."
Elvis, Elvis Presley and Graceland are registered trademarks with the USPTO.
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