Graceland and the End of a Common Culture

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An Elvis figurine dangles from a car's rearview mirror.jpg

The storm of media attention circling the recent death of Lisa Marie Presley is something more than the usual hoo-hah surrounding the passing of a pop culture star. Indeed, if we compare the phalanx of stories involving Ms. Presley to those reporting on the death of David Crosby—a far more successful and influential pop star—we can see just how much more significant, in a cultural semiotic sense, the Presley coverage is. For as Crosby fades away from the front pages, Presley’s story continues, with a Graceland memorial event still to come as I write these words. The semiotic question then becomes, “what does all this avid attention to Lisa Marie Presley tell us?”

To answer this question, it will be useful to go back to Paul Simon’s Grammy Award winning album Graceland, which used Elvis Presley’s famed mansion as a platform for exploring the uneasy state of America in the 1980s. We saw something similar with Simon’s song “Mrs. Robinson” which invoked the image of Joe Dimaggio as a lost symbol of American unity while America was being torn apart in the 1960s by the Vietnam War and the cultural revolution.  Indeed, in the title song from the album (“Graceland”), Simon gets quite specific about his hopes—what he calls his belief—that he could find in his pilgrimage to Presley’s legendary estate a place not only for the restoration of his own personal sense of dislocation and loss but also a unifying haven for all Americans. 

At a time of social, political, and cultural division that surpasses anything this country has seen since the Civil War, “Graceland” is more powerful than ever. What is evident, in the massive media attention to the death of Elvis Presley’s only child, is a kind of desperate nostalgia for a long-lost era when Elvis ruled as “the King” of rock-and-roll. There are many ironies in this nostalgia, of course.  For one thing, the rise of Elvis in the 1950s accompanied (and even facilitated) the suppression of the Black pioneers of rock music, which was hardly a demonstration of cultural unity (one could say that Graceland was segregated). And as the British Invasion and the Summer of Love changed the narrative on rock-and-roll in the 1960s, establishing it as the background music for the cultural revolution, Presley’s place in the pantheon shifted. No longer “the King” of a single rock-and-roll nation, Presley became something of a joke in the emerging zeitgeist—an aging Vegas act courted by the likes of Richard Nixon. For now there were two nations: the pop cultural musical mainstream in which the King had been dethroned, and the generally rural America where Elvis is revered to this day, an icon of a larger movement that can be called the counter-cultural-revolution.

This takes us back to Lisa Marie Presley. For her entire life, she was thrust into the role of a princess bearing forth the banner of her father the King. But the kingdom had changed even before the King’s death, and Lisa Marie’s role was always an awkward one. So now, in her death, nostalgia and, perhaps, a little guilt, floods the mass media in a ritual of memory not only for a person but ultimately for a time of American unity—of a common culture—that never was.

Photo by Emrecan Arik (2019), used under the Unsplash License.

About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.