Friday, January 8, 2010

The Ghost Has Left The Building

Were he alive today, this would have been the human Elvis Presley’s 75th birthday. The story is quite familiar: he was born in 1935 to parents Vernon and Gladys at their home in Tupelo, Mississippi, arriving 35 minutes after his stillborn twin, Jesse Garon, buried in a shoebox in an unmarked grave. The human Elvis died in 1977 at age 42, thirty-three years ago next August, leaving a sole heir, Lisa Marie, born 1968. The Elvis brand still makes tons of money—for years Forbes has ranked Elvis among the top-earning dead celebrities. In 2009, dead Elvis earned roughly $55 million. With a new “Viva Elvis!” Cirque du Soleil show opening in Las Vegas, he is projected to top that figure this year. The place Elvis once owned and called home, Graceland, is the second most visited house in America after the White House, averaging about 700,000 visitors per year. Sales of Elvis CDs and records purportedly have topped one billion. There are more than 350 “official” Elvis Presley Fan Clubs around the world.

But there is another Elvis, an Elvis whose image has come free of his body and moves around the world seemingly enjoying itself, an Elvis who, figuratively speaking, lives on, and not just in the form of impersonators. Greil Marcus calls this free-floating Elvis image “dead Elvis,” and even wrote a book about it, titled Dead Elvis (1991). Marcus called this Elvis “an emptied, triumphantly vague symbol of displaced identity” (p. 33), but it also happens to be the condition of the android, the experience of the ghost having left the building. You can find this Elvis on coffee mugs, ashtrays, crushed black velvet, ties, T-shirts, scarfs, wine labels, billboards, Pez dispensers, limited edition dinner plates, clock faces, and appropriated for album covers. You can find it all over. It’s ubiquitous. Elvis’s meteoric rise to prominence roughly coincided with the new technology of television, so in a sense Elvis has always been an image, in a way like, for instance, Princess Diana, but unlike Elvis, she didn’t actually do anything. Elvis, at least, sang and made some feature films.

The Elvis image is, in fact, the brand of a corporation known as Elvis Presley Enterprises (EPE). What EPE did was to go around the world gathering up all the free-floating images of Elvis, collecting these images for its own purposes. So what is being celebrated today isn’t the birthday of Elvis, but Elvis the android, the ghost who’s left the building, a brand manufactured by EPE. Whose birthday are we, in fact, celebrating? Or rather, what?

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Behold! A Plucked Chicken

According to legend, at the point when Aristotle and his students had refined their definition of “man” to a creature having the qualities of “featherless biped,” the cynic Diogenes burst in holding aloft a plucked chicken, and announced, “Behold, your man!” Legend also has it that Diogenes lived in a large tub (or barrel, as depicted in many paintings), and purportedly walked through the streets of Athens in the daytime carrying a lamp, claiming to be looking for an honest man. Immodestly, he performed all bodily functions in public, and when criticized for publicly masturbating, replied he wished he could satisfy hunger merely by rubbing his stomach. Greatly admired by Alexander the Great for the freedom exemplified by his way of life, the great conqueror approached the cynical sage on a day when he, Diogenes, was sunning himself. Alexander the Great asked him if there were anything he could do for him. “Yes,” said Diogenes, “Get out of my light.” It is also reported that he asked to be buried standing on his head, because, so he thought, one day down would be up, and up would be down.

We find Diogenes to be quite modern, for he was the anti-Socrates. We can hear Diogenes in Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” when Dylan sings, “You don’t need a weather man/To know which way the wind blows.” We can hear him in the Rolling Stones’ “Get Off Of My Cloud.” We can also hear him in Muddy Waters’ brutal honesty:

I don’t want you to wash my clothes
I don’t want you to keep my home
I don’t want your money too
I just want to make love to you

A Few Diogenesian Performances:
The Cardigans – Hey! Get Out of My Way
Dramatics – Hey You! Get Off My Mountain
Bob Dylan – Subterranean Homesick Blues
Ian Hunter – Standin’ In My Light
Dave Mason – You’re Standing In My Light
? and the Mysterians – 96 Tears
Stan Ridgway – The Last Honest Man
The Rolling Stones – Get Off Of My Cloud
The Rolling Stones – I’m Free
Roy Rogers – Don’t Fence Me In
Steppenwolf – Move Over
Muddy Waters – I Just Want To Make Love To You
Hank Williams – Move It On Over

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Cool Sounds

The weather outside is frightful—“bone-chilling,” as the saying goes, in order to suggest, I suppose, the coldness of the grave. Hence, given the bitterly cold weather, it seems entirely appropriate to ponder the ecology of ice. As Eric G. Wilson has shown (The Spiritual History of Ice), at the turn of the nineteenth century, ice became auratic—it was endowed with aura, or believed to have magical or perhaps holy (spiritual) qualities—frozen shapes were not, in fact, dead, “but bearers of vital powers.” Wilson argues crystals, glaciers, and the poles were seen “as revelations of life as well as models of poetic composition” (or perhaps, re-composition). Indeed, ice came to embody scientific, psychological, and even occult insights. Jungian scholar and psychologist M. L. von Franz, in Man and His Symbols observed:

In many dreams the nuclear center, the Self, also appears as a crystal. The mathematically precise arrangement of a crystal evokes in us the intuitive feeling that even in so-called “dead” matter, there is a spiritual ordering principle. Thus the crystal often symbolically stands for the union of extreme opposites—of matter and spirit. Ice still carries that symbolic power, linking matter and spirit.

Yet the dreaded image of the so-called “ice princess,” alluring and beautiful, but emotionally (or spiritually) dead, has captured the modern imagination. Flattened expressive affect, or emotional “distance” (as opposed to proximity or closeness as authenticity), became metaphorically imagined as both blue and cold, as in Hank Williams’ country-blues standard, “Cold, Cold Heart.” Some say the world will end in fire, and some say ice (both used as spiritual emblems, incidentally), but I think the singers of the following songs say ice.

An Ice Cold 12-Pack Of Tunes:
AC/DC – Black Ice
Pat Benatar – Fire And Ice
Albert Collins – Icy Blue
Duran Duran – Silent Icy River
Foreigner – Cold As Ice
John Hiatt – Icy Blue Heart
Jefferson Airplane – Ice Age
Joy Division – Ice Age
Gucci Mane – Icy
Sarah McLachlan – Ice
Pink Floyd – The Thin Ice
Vanilla Ice – Ice Ice Baby

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Thoughts On Year Two

Yesterday represented the second anniversary of 60x50. As of yesterday, I have posted 395 entries on this blog, which averages out to about one post every forty-two hours over the past two years—or one every other day for the past two years. The number of posts this past year was down from the first, which I’d predicted in my reflections on year one at this time last year. I realized that I could not continue to blog at the same pace. The first year I managed to write 219 posts, while this past year I posted 174 entries—down 45 posts from the year before. That may seem like a substantial decline, until you do the math—on average, down fewer than four posts a month. As I have stated before, the research component for many of my posts is extensive, although I don’t mind doing it, and while I hope readers have found my research valuable, I have done it “for free.” But that’s fine, because I’ve taught myself something, and that’s the whole point of blogging in the first place, at least for me—to learn something I didn’t know.

Therefore, the task I set for myself with 60x50 (you can read the full explanation on the right)—to find a process that will bring about new things I would not have thought of if I had not started to say them—has, for the most part, been successful. I have discovered things by writing on this blog, things I would not have learned had I not imposed this writing requirement upon myself. All in all the experience has been a positive one. I’ve also found it interesting, for instance, to learn which of my posts has received the most hits over the past year—the entry on Gram Parsons’ Nudie suit. I never would have predicted that, but that’s one of the interesting things you learn by maintaining a blog. The post titled When the Whip Comes Down, prompted by some thoughts I had on re-watching Elvis’s Jailhouse Rock (the whipping scene, obviously), has also done quite well (posted December 2008, however, not in 2009). Interestingly, there is a high number of web searches on the subject of “whipping scenes in movies,” for reasons I cannot imagine. Perhaps more surprising is the fact that the post in which I discussed the meaning of “the great speckled bird” has also received a rather significant number of hits.

The downside, of course, is the amount of work this blog requires, but I’m repurposing it for the next few months so as to have it function in a new, and I think better, way for me. I’m going to incorporate my blog as part of a class I’m teaching this spring on “electronic literacy.” One of the requirements of the class is for the students to start up a blog (which they may take down at the end of the semester) not only in order to experience writing in an electronic environment, but also to require them to flex their writing muscle more than they may do normally. Therefore, once in awhile my posts may seem focused on narrowly academic issues or questions, but that doesn’t mean I’m giving up my usual ruminations on the subject of popular music. In fact, I’m teaching my “Writing About Popular Music” course again this spring, so some topics may pop up as a consequence of teaching that course as well. Students will be free to visit my blog to learn my thoughts on various subjects related to class discussions, in addition to the Blackboard discussion board I will also moderate. Hence I’m going to make this blog work for me in a way that it hasn’t done the past couple of years, making it a part of my teaching duties rather than an “outside” activity that seems disconnected from them. I do hope that returning readers continue to find my blog as engaging as ever, but a consequence of this slight change in purpose may change occasionally the nature of the posts, at least for the next four months.