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Elvis Presley: Understanding the Successes, Contradictions of the Foremost Musical Icon

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Elvis’ mother-identification may have also been responsible for his popularity and the almost mystical experience of his concert presence. As a great all-powerful mother figure, Elvis could induce his fans to a religious-regressed state of infancy marked by hysterical ecstasy and a sense of identification with someone greater than oneself. Elvis’ latent homosexuality also seems to have had a peculiar tinge of motherliness to it. His life is truly fertile ground for the psychopathographer. Elvis’ compulsive drug use had its beginnings in his arrested object relations development analyses Ashoka, a practising psychiatrist, in an in-depth profile of the singer exclusively for Different Truths.

The last century has provided us a vast multitude of musical icons. But if one had to make a choice as to who would most deserve the appellation ‘The King’, for my generation there would be a near total consensus – Elvis!

It would perhaps be difficult for the present lot of youngsters to accurately fathom the popularity this icon enjoyed across the globe. His mansion Gracelands is one of the top tourist attractions in the United States and those who have had the good fortune of having visited it are engulfed with fascination.

He died a very premature death at the age of 42, in 1977, almost exactly 39 years ago. Every year thousands of his fans gather on his death anniversary, which falls on the 16th day of August to pay tribute to a phenomenon that had taken the world like a storm. There is also a large group of individuals who still refuse to accept that he is no more and ‘Elvis sightings’ is an active cottage industry that refuses to die down.

Given his popularity, which had acquired unprecedented stratospheric dimension, it is hardly surprising that professionals have made an effort to understand the man and what shaped his persona. Nearly four decades after his demise, this columnist is making an analytical effort to present the salient influences that gave us the one and the only true ‘King’ of the musical arena.

Elvis Aaron Presley was born to a poor white southern family. Elvis was the younger of a set of twins. His brother who preceded him by a few minutes was stillborn. Elvis’ young parents were devastated by the loss of their first child and had not realised that there were two babies.

Consequently, Elvis’ normal birth was greeted with much happiness.

By most accounts Elvis was well cared for and perhaps even spoiled. Although his family was poor, Elvis’ parents, especially his mother, indulged him. Elvis grew up as a polite and respectful child.

Because of the Presley’s poverty, the family lived in close proximity and Elvis shared a bed with his parents until his teens. Elvis remained close to his parents throughout his life.

According to Hammontree (1985), an often repeated part of the Elvis legend is his closeness to his parents. It is quite true that a strong bond existed among them. Vernon Presley stated after Elvis’ death. “It is hard to describe the feelings Elvis, his mother, and I had for each other. The three of us formed our own private world”….This closeness was a powerful influence in Elvis’ life.

Elvis was also close to his extended family and surrounded himself with family and friends throughout his life. In fact, Elvis generally preferred to stay at home surrounded by a retinue of family and friends rather than going into the world outside. This pattern of having ‘gatherings’ at his home began when Elvis was a young man and continued until his death.

Elvis did not stand out as a teenager or a young man with the exception of his clothes and hair. Later on Elvis’ clothes, hairstyle and use of makeup would lend him some flair and distinction. Rather than seeking popularity or isolation at school, Elvis had his own group of friends with whom he spent time. He had picked up the guitar a few years earlier and enjoyed playing and singing for his family and friends.

Much of Elvis’ interest in music can be traced to his family’s involvement with a somewhat MTE4MDAzNDEwNjYwNjU2NjU0charismatic church sect in which strong emotions would be experienced and expressed during the service. Music was an integral part of the church service. It is, therefore, not surprising to find that for Elvis, the expression of emotion was intimately related to music.

Elvis eventually got a chance to make a record. Due in part to talent, luck, and the marketability of a white singer who could successfully imitate black music. Elvis began a meteoric rise to stardom.

Off-stage Elvis was shy and withdrawn. Once on stage, however, Elvis became possessed by the emotion of the music resulting in the gyrations that were to become his trademark. An interesting aspect of Elvis’ musical career was his association with his manager Tom Parker.

While Elvis was generally soft-spoken, generous, hard-working and respectful of those around him, Parker was “an obese, crude, cigar-smoking man" (Hammontree, 1985). It was reported that Parker hated music and musicians and was clearly in it only for the money.

Elvis, on the other hand, was fairly indifferent to money matters and somewhat of a musical perfectionist, concerned primarily with putting on a good show for his fans.

Elvis connected with audiences in such a way as to guarantee that their interaction became almost a mystical experience of oneness. No doubt Elvis’ ability to communicate and bond with his fans accounts for his tremendous popularity. It is said that Elvis lived to perform and that audience contact recharged and invigorated him. It is strange, therefore, that for close to ten years, Elvis gave up live performances to make movies. From 1960 to 1970 Elvis made over 30 movies at an astonishing rate of 2-3 per year. At the end of this period Elvis returned to live performances, both in Las Vegas and on tour around the country (Cotten, 1985).

During the 1970’s Elvis maintained his touring schedule. When he was not performing, he lived at Graceland with a large extended family made up of relations and a retinue of close friends. As Hammontree (1985) comments, “Elvis’ intense need to surround himself with the familiar ironically contributed a destructive element to his life: he was too much insulated from reality…leading a kind of fantasy existence without financial or household worries of any kind. It is sometime during Elvis’ ‘fantasy existence’ that he began to use drugs.

Although no exact date for the beginning of Elvis’ drug use has been recorded it is possible to guess that his drug use probably became increasingly frequent throughout his career. Elvis had a paradoxical attitude towards drugs. He was strongly opposed to the use of illegal drugs.

Yet, at the same time, he compulsively used a wide variety of prescription drugs which included amphetamines, tranquilizers, and steroids.”

Hammontree (1985) describes this split in Elvis’ view of drugs: “An irony was Elvis’ intense opposition to recreational drugs, often called ‘street’ drugs….He thought the use of recreational drugs despicable. When his stepbrother Rick Stanley became a heroin addict, Elvis expressed anger and frustration at Stanley’s use of the drug. Stanley considered it astonishing that Elvis would take him to task, force him to enter a drug rehabilitation center to detoxify, while Elvis was at the same time daily taking large doses of tranquilizers, pain-killing drugs, and stimulants…Elvis rationalised his chemical dependence as acceptable because his drugs were all prescription drugs. In his view, taking prescription drugs bore no relationship to drug addiction, Elvis became very knowledgeable about the drugs he took and probably had a good intellectual understanding of the long-term side-effects of his drug use.

Nevertheless, this intellectual knowledge did nothing to reduce Elvis’ drug consumption, although it no doubt served to give Elvis the illusion of control of his habit. Beginning in the 1970’s, Elvis’ health began to deteriorate. In addition to his physical weakening, Elvis also began to have less energy and to become emotionally detached. Although he was hospitalised a number of times, Elvis insisted on maintaining his exhausting touring schedule. It can be speculated that the worse Elvis felt, the more drugs he took to maintain his ability to perform.

Finally, on the morning of August 16, 1977, Elvis’ body and perhaps his mind, could no longer stand the strain.”

Elvis demonstrated many characteristics common to compulsive drug users. At first, it appears that Elvis’ relatively stable family life and good relationship with his mother and father would contraindicate the development of a drug habit. Closer scrutiny, however, reveals that Elvis may have suffered early object trauma. A little known fact is that Elvis’ father was arrested and jailed on a check forgery charge when Elvis was three years old (Cotten, 1985). Elvis’ father was in prison for three years during a crucial period in Elvis’ development. Given the fact that Elvis was already regarded as special by his mother and pampered almost beyond the means of his family’s modest income, the loss of his father during his infancy resulted in a strong identification with his mother.

Elvis’ obvious latent homosexuality, evident from his use of makeup, clothes and intimacy with his closest male friends (whom Elvis kept around him at all times) are signs of his mother-identification. Elvis remained fixated at the separation-individuation stage of development.

While Elvis was driven to succeed and try new adventures, he worked diligently to maintain a constant emotional environment in which he was nurtured and cared for in every way. Like a small child who wanders away from its mother for a moment, only to run back and make sure she is still there, Elvis would strike out on tour, make movies, travel to Hawaii and then turn back to his familiar environment for support. Elvis brought this familiar environment with him at all times. At first it consisted of his parents. Later, after the death of his mother, Elvis surrounded himself with a retinue of male friends, family members and hanger-ons whose job it was to keep Elvis’ emotional life stable and unchanging. Whether he was in Memphis, Hawaii, or Hollywood, Elvis was always in a situation which was controlled and stable.

The loss of his mother was an extreme blow to Elvis and it can be guessed that his drug use escalated after her death. Drugs came to play a role in the maintenance of a constant environment around Elvis in a more reliable way than his family and friends. The main advantage was that drugs (possibly along with musical performing) maintained Elvis’ internal psychic environment, allowing Elvis to be in control of his affective states.

Elvis displayed primitive defenses such as splitting. His views on illegal and prescription drugs is a clear case as was his relationship with his manager Tom Parker. Elvis was also capable of demonstrating narcissistic rage, although he could not be deemed a true narcissist (Dodes, 1990). Elvis could very easily put himself into the position of the ‘common man’ and sought his approval. This attitude came out in his great effort to put on a good performance, even when it drove him to physical collapse. Elvis’ concerts, and indeed much of his interaction with others often included the distribution of gifts. This gift distribution was reminiscent of Elvis’ childhood which was marked by much gift-giving by his mother (Cotten, 1985).

Elvis’ mother-identification may have also been responsible for his popularity and the almost mystical experience of his concert presence. As a great all-powerful mother figure, Elvis could induce his fans to a religious-regressed state of infancy marked by hysterical ecstasy and a sense of identification with someone greater than oneself. This is the same feeling an infant has towards its mother which Elvis was able to recreate over and over again for his fans. Elvis’ sexuality also seems to have had a peculiar tinge of motherliness to it, being more related to inclusion in his extended family than phallic-narcissist penetration as seen in so many other rock stars.

Elvis’ life is truly fertile ground for the psychopathographer. Although many other aspects of Elvis’ life would make for an interesting psychoanalytic exploration, this would require another essay. It is enough to comment that Elvis’ compulsive drug use had its beginnings in his arrested object relations development and that Elvis’ object relations dynamics are similar to those of other compulsive drug users.

©Ashok Jahnavi Prasad

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