Believing in Elvis: Popular Piety in a Material Culture

Article excerpt

Although he died on August 16, 1977, Elvis remains everywhere--his image seen on the surface of every conceivable mass-produced consumer item, his music honored in multiple tribute concerts and greatest-hits rereleases, his life dissected in endless biographies, art exhibitions, and documentaries. Contemporary folklore has it that the three most recognized words in the world are "Jesus," "Coca-Cola," and "Elvis." Elvis fans are eveywhere too. Some belong to the 500 or so official Elvis Presley fan clubs that currently exist around the globe. Others habitually visit Graceland, making it the second-most-popular house tour in America (after the White House). During Elvis International Tribute Week, a Memphis phenomenon that occurs each August on the anniversary of his death, the city swells as thousands of fans gather in grief and celebration around Elvis' grave at Graceland's Meditation Gardens, displaying a kind of emotional intensity and reverence that clearly intimates Elvis' popular culture canonization.

Eager to explain, and especially to debunk, the preponderance of Elvis imagery and the emotional and collective behavior of his fans, many journalists and critics relate how "culture" has become "cult." Some point out that Elvis' rags-to-riches life story and his tragic death neatly parallel the secular/sacred narrative of Jesus Christ, and hint at the contemporary possibility of Elvis' own eponymous cult foundation. Others cite a long list of quasi-religious factors that seem to confirm Elvis' contemporary deification: how, in the years since Elvis' death, a veritable Elvis religion has emerged, replete with prophets (Elvis impersonators), sacred texts (Elvis records), disciples (Elvis fans), relies (the scarves, Cadillacs, and diamond rings that Elvis lavished on fans and friends), pilgrimages (to Tupelo, where Elvis was born, and to Graceland), shrines (his grave site), churches (such as 24-Hour Church of Elvis in Portland, Oregon), and all the appearances of a resurrection (with reported Elvis sightings a t, among other places, a Burger King in Kalamazoo, Michigan). Ritual activities that occur during Elvis Week are cited as further evidence of Elvis' cult status.

A host of scholars have probed the Celtic, Gnostic, Hindu, and vodun derivations of elvis Culture, contemplated Graceland's status as "sacred space," and considered how and why some fans insist that Elvis, like Jesus, defeated death. Less-charitable writers cynically attribute the entire phenomenon to the fierce mass-marketing techniques of his estate, Elvis Presley Enterprises, Incorporated. "Explicit manifestations of 'Elvis Christ' did not exactly evolve," carps British journalist John Windsor. "They were cunningly contrived for a mass market."

Easy explanations that Elvis' omnipresence and the devotion of his fans embody a cult or religion bring up all sorts of questions, including the issue of religious essentialism. What is it about the revered images, ritual practices, and devotional behaviors within Elvis Culture that is essentially religious? And do these images and practices constitute the making of a discrete and legitimate religion? Why is it that images of Elvis seem to have taken on the dimensions of faith and devotion, viewed by many Elvis fans as links between themselves and God, as ex-votos for expressing and giving thanks, as empowered objects that can fulfill wishes and desires?

These questions are complicated by the fact that most Elvis fans quickly dismiss intimations that Elvis is a religious figure or that Elvis images and Elvis-centered practices constitute any sort of Elvis religion. "Elvis did not die for our sins, nor is he Jesus Christ and it is very wrong to even try and draw comparisons," writes one fan. "It's only the media who seem to be obsessed with turning Elvis into a religion, you don't hear normal fan discuss it," says another, who adds: "You only have to see the number of books published on the topic in recent years to see it's yet another way to make yet more money. …