Elvis is America.
I am not entirely delighted by that fact — even somewhat embarrassed by it — but there is no other figure, public or private, from the past 200 years that sums up so succinctly what the United States is all about.
And three and a half decades after his disappearance and reported death, Elvis Presley remains both what Americans are and what they want to be.
Of course, what they want to be is Young Elvis — brash, sexy, talented. And, compared to most Old World cultures, that is just what America is. Its pop culture has preempted many indigenous folkways throughout the planet precisely because it is so appealingly energetic. Content doesn’t matter nearly so much as style points, and Elvis — and America — can swivel and two-step like a blue demon.
The effect is so pervasive that in deepest Africa, you don’t hear tribal drumming so much as you hear Top-40 tunes. And Japanese karaoki is not, after all, based on the music of the classical Noh plays.
No, what appeals to the world is America’s optimism, its lack of guilt, its comfort with itself. America may be a novice in world history, but it is a refreshingly guileless novice — or at least, it has been.
Like Young Elvis, we think of ourselves as dangerous without being threatening.
But America would prefer not to notice the Old Elvis in the mix, which is also part of our Elvis-selves.
For America is also crass, loaded with bad taste, money-chasing, conspicuous consumption, anti-intellectualism, sentimental Christianity, drug hypocrisy, junk food and mindless consumerism.
On the surface, the Young and Old Elvises seem like opposites, but they are not: The one naturally evolves from the other. You cannot have the Young Elvis without the Old One waddling behind, two halves to the same coin.
The flip side of our energy is our anti-intellectualism; our self-confidence is also our provincialism.
Our sober, well-educated founding fathers envisioned an America modeled on republican Rome — or rather modeled on imperial Rome’s nostalgic vision of its republican past.
Washington, Madison, Adams and Jefferson imagined something brand new in the world, something bursting with energy, new ideas and vitality.
That is Young Elvis. But just as republican Rome turned into the empire of Tiberius, Nero and Elagabalus, so America quickly added to its repertoire the Jacksons, the No-Nothings and the Tea Party and Neocons.
Indeed, Andrew Jackson, who kept goats in the White House and stabled his race horses on the grounds, was probably the first Old Elvis in our history. He was even known as “The King,” in his day — King Andrew, he was called by his political opponents, who disliked his monarchical yet proletarian ways.
There is something in American culture that is illogically ambivalent about royalty. We claim to be a classless society and righteously argue that anyone in America is as good as anyone else. Heaven help anyone who “puts on airs.”
It is the ultimate goal of American democracy, not that we all share equally a modest and comfortable life, but that everyone should be a millionaire — and Old Elvis is America’s vision of what a millionaire should dress and act like.
So, we make an image of our desires and create a kind of celebrity aristocracy and pay homage to them by gobbling up tales of their every peccadillo in tabloid exposes.
It is a kind of trailer-park version of royalty: Bad taste, emphasis on wealth and glamor.
Glamor is to beauty as rhinestones are to rubies: There was some genuine grace in the Young Elvis; the Old Elvis is cubic zirconia to the bone.