On Aug. 16, 1977, the day Elvis Presley died, folklorist William R. Ferris remembers that in Memphis “it was like the ground began to shake.” Within hours, hundreds of pilgrims had descended on Graceland, and the process by which a beloved public personage is transformed into a mythic figure was underway.
But which Elvis would be mythologized, and whose legacy would be preserved? The youthful rock rebel or the Las Vegas glitter god? The sultry crooner who gyrated his way into a nation’s (and eventually the world’s) consciousness, or the sadly diminished man who rasped his way through his final hit single?
The struggle over who gets to control a pop cultural or historical figure’s legacy and shape his or her predominant image is a shifting, elaborate progression involving the family and friends of the deceased, public relations managers, fans, journalists and, today, legions of bloggers. Over time, it also may be influenced by museum directors, filmmakers, scholars, biographers, publishers, copyright lawyers and politicians.
In the case of figures as influential and multifaceted as Presley and Michael Jackson, this ultimately is a process that can’t be controlled or stage-managed by any single person or interest, said Ferris, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities and senior associate director of the Center for the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Jackson is scheduled to be memorialized today at a public service at Staples Center, but today’s testimonials, combined with the millions of words already written, spoken and blogged on Jackson’s behalf, constitute merely the prologue to a cultural dialogue that is likely to last for decades, if not generations.
“The power of a charismatic person like Elvis Presley or Martin Luther King or Michael Jackson is a kind of force unto itself,” Ferris said. “It’s a folkloric process by which people remember and talk about and sing about a mythic figure, and they become greater than life. In the case of Michael Jackson it’s already happening, and it will sweep aside the coroner’s report and the factual data concerning Michael Jackson’s death in favor of making a myth.”
The methods by which we construct our mythic narratives obviously have changed over the centuries, said Michael Marsden, dean of St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wis., and past president of the American Culture Assn. Gradually, the oral tradition of myth-making gave way to pulp fictions, which in turn have been partially eclipsed by viral technologies as makers and disseminators of folklore. Instead of gathering around the hearth or the campfire to recount the exploits of Davy Crocket or John Dillinger, we now turn to Twitter.
Yet in many ways, the process by which ordinary mortals after death are elevated to the stature of saints, icons and larger-than-life legends really hasn’t changed since the days of Krishna, St. Paul or Marilyn Monroe. Technologies change, Marsden said, but the motifs and metaphors surrounding such people tend to remain fairly constant.
“One of the issues with these larger-than-life figures is that they’re enigmatic,” Marsden said. “The reason that they continue to have this life force is that they’re enigmatic and so each generation can continue to reinvent them.”
Miraculous births, ambiguous parentage, divine portents of greatness and mysterious circumstances surrounding death are among the enigmatic events and qualities that adhere to mythic figures, Marsden said. Dillinger, the Depression-era outlaw, possessed that enigmatic quality, said Marsden, who grew up in Chicago hearing stories about how people had dipped their handkerchiefs in the dead gunman’s blood, and how little boys had collected the tacks that Dillinger threw in the streets to deter police cars, as if they were saintly relics.
Similarly, Ferris points to the prevailing ambiguities surrounding Presley’s cultural pedigree. “We know that he’s claimed by Indian, Jewish, black, Irish. Everyone claims Elvis,” Ferris said. “You have the Elvis impersonators, you have the pilgrims who come from all over the world to visit, you have the fan clubs, you have the individual fans with their memorabilia and their collections. There are so many levels of preserving and shaping the meaning of a figure like Elvis Presley or Michael Jackson.”
Jackson, an enigmatic figure since he first appeared on television as a preternaturally gifted child singer, and years later as the defendant in a sordid child-molestation case for which he was found not guilty, has acquired more question marks in the days since his death. These include the custody status of his children, the manner of his death, and the 50 London concerts that may or may not go forward. “He’s sufficiently enigmatic that people can impose their own stories and if enough people believe it, it becomes true,” Marsden said. “Michael Jackson is just a vehicle.”
Once that vehicle gets rolling, it’s anyone’s guess where the cultural momentum will take it. George A. Custer was celebrated as a hero for decades after he and his troops were massacred at Little Bighorn. Then, in the 1960s and ‘70s, revisionist historians and filmmakers, influenced by critiques of Custer by Native Americans and drawing on parallels between the U.S. Army’s 19th century western campaigns and the Vietnam War, began to recast him as a genocidal lunatic.
John Lennon was once reviled by some conservative Christian Americans for saying the Beatles were bigger than Jesus Christ. Now there’s a memorial to him in Central Park.
Monroe in her day was largely viewed as cinematic eye candy. She has since been reappraised as a serious actor who yearned for more substantial parts and to be more than simply an appendage to famous men like Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller.
In today’s highly legalistic, market-driven Hollywood entertainment world, preserving a deceased star’s legacy is directly related to maintaining control over the rights to that star’s image and likeness, and to releasing only those posthumous recordings or other materials that will enhance, rather than detract from, his or her lifetime body of work.
Those legacy-making mechanisms have grown considerably more sophisticated, and the potential posthumous financial stakes have increased, since Presley’s death. Jerry Schilling, former creative affairs director for Elvis Presley Enterprises, said that in the late 1970s, laws regarding the use of a deceased celebrity’s name and likeness were less clear than today.
Faced with an onslaught of independent marketers trying to cash in on the King’s image, Presley’s widow, Priscilla, and a circle of close friends and associates began to exert control over the licensing of Presley memorabilia, and to make Presley’s Memphis estate, Graceland, into a fitting showcase of the artist’s life and career.
“There weren’t these established image and likeness laws like there are now,” Schilling said. “Everybody was doing anything they wanted to do and a lot of it was really tacky and that was part of the reason why Priscilla decided to do something.”
Schilling said that managing Jackson’s image and posthumous earnings would require a similarly coordinated effort. “There are a lot of creative potential projects given the size of Michael Jackson’s body of work that could go on forever if it is done properly and with the right people,” he said.
Staff writer Harriet Ryan contributed to this report.