The results of the latest incredibly scientific New Times poll are in. In case you were among the quarter of a billion or so U.S. citizens we somehow failed to contact, the burning issue was this: Which version of Elvis should the post office put on the stamp? The landslide winner, with 57 percent of the vote, was "Little Elvis," followed by "Dead Elvis" at 42 percent. The remainder were surprised to hear that Mr. Costello was even under consideration for such an award.
Unfortunately, the folks at the U.S. Postal Service, in their infinite wisdom, have seen fit to present us with only two options: Thin Elvis and Fat Elvis. In short order this has become the defining issue of the waning years of the millenium, a debate that has been raging for months and will in all probability continue long after the Postmaster General has adjudicated the matter. Roe v. Wade seems tame by comparison.
The Eighties were a tough decade for popular American culture. First there was the heated new Coke/old Coke debate. Then there was the original Star Trek vs. the Second Generation. One night the new Newhart awoke to find that he was still the old Newhart, that Larry, Darryl, and Darryl were just a dream. George Foreman terrorized barbecues and fast-food venues for a decade and emerged as a contender for the heavyweight boxing crown. The Japanese devoured our motion picture and popular music industries, and British humor (an oxymoron if ever there was one) dominates late-night public TV. Is it any wonder we're confused as to who was the real King, the sleek, sexy, singing stud who represents us as we like to think we once were, or the corpulent, complacent, self-indulgent, pharmaceutical vacuum that is probably a lot closer to our true national character?
The concept of honoring Presley with a stamp is pandering to begin with, but the post office needs to do something to divert our attention from rate hikes. If there were any justice in this world, the debate would not be between Fat Elvis and Skinny Elvis, but between, say, Robert Johnson and Willie Dixon. But of course the latter two were not white men and therefore are not worthy of consideration, despite the fact that their music, along with that of fellow bluesmen like Muddy Waters, Leadbelly, and Buddy Guy, was the real deal, the foundation upon which Elvis and tens of thousands of other paleface rockers squatted. Is it any surprise that a nation that confers upon the slaughterers of its indigenous population (i.e., Gen. George Armstrong Custer) the status of hero and myth, a nation that elevates a second-rate actor incapable of independent thought to the highest political office in the land, would choose to honor the first white guy to competently plunder black music while ignoring the black men and women who invented the music in the first place? Where is the Chuck Berry stamp?
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Fire up your poison pens, ladies and mentalgems, you're not gonna want to miss this opportunity to send a letter to the editor. The sad fact is that Elvis was (and still is) as overrated as he is dead. He could sing, he could pout, he could shake his hips. Big fucking deal. He came along at a time when white middle-class Americans were sexually repressed to the boiling point and facing the prospect of nuclear annihilation. Black people were still too dangerous to get close to, but a white southern kid who could produce a reasonable facsimile of black music's innate sexuality was just the tonic a nation of restless, horny adolescents was looking for. It didn't hurt any that he had dreamy eyes and a pretty good voice to boot. And in retrospect, Elvis was not only one of the first, but also one of the best Caucasians to get the hang of devil music. The rest is hype. If Da Vinci had been black, would we be issuing a stamp to commemorate the first white guy to make a credible sketch of the Mona Lisa? Maybe, if he was a baby boomer with bedroom eyes.
We do cherish our myths in this country. One of our favorites is the Tough Guy. Off-camera Bogart was about as tough as quiche. Michael Jackson dons a studded leather jacket and we're supposed to believe he's gonna kick some ass. It's all smoke and mirrors. Valentino was not interested in women, John Wayne never took a bullet, and David Copperfield cannot fly. Young Elvis sang and danced pretty good for a white boy, but his guitar was little more than a prop, nobody confused him with the great thinkers of his day, and as best we can tell, he never beat anyone up, not even a wimpy music critic. At least Axl Rose can throw a punch, even if he has been ducking Greg Baker for months now.
Old Elvis, for all his turned-up collars, dark sunglasses, sneers, and hip swivels, was essentially a pathetic creature with little if any self-control who started believing his own press and devolved into a porcine, pompadoured self-parody, about as threatening, defiant, and relevant as Liberace. His death was the ultimate career move.
So which version goes on the stamp? Who cares? What difference does it make which myth we honor now? The real Elvis left the building fifteen years ago.