Menu Close

The quasi-religious significance of Elvis, king of rock ’n’ roll

The King in 1957. Elvis Presley Enterprises

During the summer I visited the Louvre in Paris. I wanted to see the Mona Lisa but wasn’t quite prepared for the iconic power of the image. Standing in front of the picture reminded me of a rock concert or even a Celebrity Big Brother eviction. Everybody craning their necks to see what all the fuss was about, everybody looking at the painting though the eye of their smart phone, nobody actually looking at it. And I realised no matter how hard I tried, it would be impossible to separate the myth of the Mona Lisa from the work itself. The painting reminded me how difficult it was to remain objective about cultural artefacts after they have been canonised and fetishized to saturation point.

The King. Elvis Presley Enterprises

To say that Elvis Presley has been mythologised into an iconic state of quasi religious significance is not an exaggeration. Elvis belongs to an elite group of one. He was the universal symbol that crystallised the whole rock n roll movement.

It’s been 60 years since the Memphis Flash walked into the Sun Studio and started a social revolution, and now the big E is finally coming to Europe. His personal effects are anyway. Like the great Egyptian boy pharaohs from the Valley of the Kings, his possessions will be on display at London’s O2 as sacraments for the faithful and as kitsch junk for the simply curious.

The classic myth figure comes from an underprivileged background, creates a defining moment and then dies tragically young. Vernon Presley says he remembers a blue star in the sky the night Elvis was born, while Gladys Love Presley told her only surviving son that all the power of his stillborn twin brother entered him at the moment of birth. The symbolic transference here is significant, and to disregard the power of the mythic in this poor and uneducated Southern family is to miss the point. The sacred reading is that twinship is the product of three parents, the two humans and the divine. To be born again is the ultimate goal of the mystic, and by Gladys Presley’s reckoning, Elvis had already achieved this through the spiritual re-birthing of his twin brother.

On the Mystery Train. Elvis Presley Enterprises

Joseph Campbell writes how makers of legends endow the hero with extraordinary powers from the moment of birth: the strong protector safeguarding the early frailty of the young hero. Theseus had Poseidon, Perseus had Athena, and Elvis had Gladys. If Gladys Presley were a superstitious woman inclined to mystical intuitions, then that archetype would remain a powerful and potent force throughout Elvis’s life.

The spirit of his manager Colonel Tom Parker also looms large over the legend of Elvis, and you can imagine the old “carny” con outside the exhibition selling 8x10 glossy photos of his boy to the gathering crowd. The rock n roll circus maybe in town, and everything from Elvis fridge magnets and oven mitts to Elvis iPhone 6 covers will be available from the store and online, but all the smoke and mirrors in the world cannot diminish the power of the music. Forget the dreadful movies and trashy Vegas shows, because the good work is as good as it gets.

The Sun Sessions remain some of the most exciting and extraordinary recordings ever made. Check out Baby Let’s Play House, as the kid from Tupelo hiccups his way through a rocket fuelled intro and inadvertently invents rockabilly along the way. Or to the haunting rendition of Blue Moon, and hear the dreamy seductive undertones rising to the gender bending tremor of the lonely boy falsetto.

Truth, as they say, is often stranger than fiction, and the hard facts about the life of Elvis Presley are often more remarkable than any myth you might care to spin. When he turned it on, Elvis sang with the spiritual fervour of one who spoke in tongues, not so much communicating with the listener, as communing.

Our continuing fascination with Elvis is testament to both his charisma and his voice. The details are secondary. To paraphrase the literary critic and poet Al Alvarez, all that matters is that you hear the voice. When this happens, Elvis Presley doesn’t just “hold a mirror up to nature”, he creates an eternal moment, leaving the sound of his voice on the airwaves as distinctly as Leonardo Da Vinci forever fixed the Mona Lisa smile in time.

Elvis at The O2: The Exhibition of His Life is at London’s O2 from December 12 2014 to August 31 2015.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 179,400 academics and researchers from 4,902 institutions.

Register now