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.

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"Graceland" is a famous album by the musician Paul Simon, released in 1986. The album marked a departure from Simon's earlier folk-rock style and incorporated African rhythms and influences, particularly from the music of South Africa.

The album was controversial at the time due to South Africa's apartheid regime, which was widely condemned as a human rights violation. Many musicians and cultural figures boycotted South African products and cultural exports, including music, in an effort to pressure the South African government to end apartheid. However, Paul Simon chose to collaborate with South African musicians on "Graceland," which was seen by some as breaking the cultural boycott and endorsing the apartheid regime.

Despite the controversy, "Graceland" was a commercial and critical success, and is widely regarded as a masterpiece of world music. The album has been credited with helping to bridge cultural divides and promoting a more diverse and inclusive musical culture.

In a broader sense, "Graceland" can be seen as a symbol of the end of a common culture in which cultural and musical boundaries were more rigidly defined. The album's success helped to usher in an era in which musical genres and cultural influences are more fluid and interconnected, and in which artistic collaboration across national and cultural borders is more common.

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"Graceland and the End of a Common Culture" is an essay by American novelist and cultural critic, Philip Roth. The essay explores the concept of cultural diversity and the impact it has had on American society. Roth argues that the rise of multiculturalism has led to the fragmentation of a common culture, which was once shared by all Americans.

Roth uses the example of Elvis Presley's Graceland mansion to illustrate this point. He explains that while Graceland was once a symbol of American culture and identity, it now represents the fragmentation of that culture as different groups claim it as their own. Roth argues that this fragmentation has led to a loss of shared values and experiences, which has weakened the bonds that once held American society together.

Overall, "Graceland and the End of a Common Culture" is a thought-provoking essay that challenges readers to consider the role of cultural diversity in shaping contemporary society.  ManageMyHealth Login