When it first started, the move to put Elvis Presley on a postage stamp seemed simple enough. Elvis, the fans pointed out, was perhaps the most acclaimed and influential popular musician of his day, a singer whose sound resonated in the hearts of listeners around the globe. All they wanted, then, was a simple memorial of the sort routinely bestowed on poets, painters and politicians.
Some folks didn't want Elvis messing with the U.S. mail, however, and immediately marked the idea "return to sender." Arguing that Elvis was a racist rube whose sins included drug-taking, bad singing and a fondness for fatty foods, cultural conservatives declared the man unworthy of postal immortality and urged that the Postal Service cancel this stamp proposal.
But the postmaster general disagreed. Reasoning that anyone as popular as Elvis would certainly sell a hunka-hunka postage stamps, he announced at a Las Vegas press conference that not only would there be a Presley stamp, there'd also be a contest in which fans could choose which Elvis -- the lean, mean '50s version or the slick, sideburned '70s model -- would grace the stamp.
Voting in this postage-required poll began last week, and with it, the Elvis Stamp saga swung into its circus cycle. By now, everyone has heard at least one thin Elvis/fat Elvis joke (sample witticism: "Maybe they oughta keep both stamps -- the thin Elvis for letters, and the fat Elvis for bulk mail!"), and with two weeks of voting left, Carson, Letterman and the like will surely come up with more.
Even so, it's worth wondering why Elvis -- once the most revered rocker of all -- has become the butt of so many jokes. Has his image lost its luster? Do his records suddenly not sound as good as they used to? Did the magic somehow slip away while we weren't looking?
Not really. In fact, if you look closely at the contention surrounding the Elvis stamp issue, you'll find that, deep down, nothing has changed at all.
America is still ashamed of Elvis.
Granted, we're not ashamed in quite the same way we once were. These days, his gyrating hips are hardly a threat to common decency; compared to the crotch-grabbing antics of Michael Jackson or Madonna, Elvis the Pelvis is practically children's fare.
No, what bothers America isn't what he did so much as who he was. Elvis Presley was a working-class white Southerner, born in poverty and raised on a diet of hillbilly music, gospel-tent piety and deep-fried food. He was po' white trash, in other words, and there are few things the American cultural establishment despises more.
That, of course, has less to do with Elvis himself than with the massive inferiority complex such snobs tote around. In their eyes, the only real culture is European culture -- complex, classically derived and accessible only to the appropriately educated. And though they might admit, grudgingly, that American popular music has its value (jazz, being abstract and undanceable, is a favorite with this crowd), it galls them no end to think that a hick like Elvis would not only be admired by millions, but seen as the epitome of all that is wonderful about American art.
Thus, their carping about Elvis' drug use is pure smoke screen. Elvis, it should be noted, was hooked on prescription drugs, not illegal narcotics, and as such no more worthy of approbation than Betty Ford for her Valium habit. Besides, since when is drug use the final determinant of artistic worth? Louis Armstrong smoked reefer, and Charlie Parker shot heroin -- Does that invalidate their musical achievements?
A more revealing glimpse into the class prejudice at work here can be found in the Elvis-bashers' fascination with his eating habits. Albert Goldman's "Elvis" is a masterpiece in this regard, gorged as it is with stomach-turning accounts of Presley's deep-fat diet.
Even so, it's not how Elvis ate that appalls Goldman so much as what. Had Presley gorged on pheasant and pate, he'd have been considered a gourmand; but since he shoveled mere bacon and grits into his gullet, he was just another low-class slob.
Even the allegations that Elvis was a racist simple and plain -- charges based on a quote no Elvis scholar has yet been able to verify -- seem to have less to do with truth than plausibility. After all, isn't that the sort of thinking we expect of white trash?
All of which misses the point. What made Elvis great wasn't what he ate or how he thought -- it was the way he sang, the way his music spoke to listeners of every background and upbringing. His early singles topped the R&B charts as quickly as they climbed the country listings, and in so doing underscored his uniquely American ability to bypass barriers of race, region and class.
But that moment of respite was 35 years ago, and the status quo has had plenty of time to assert itself since then. Once the exemplar of cultural democracy, Elvis is now "the King," an emblem of class and cultural stratification.
And frankly, it's going to take more than a postage stamp to lick that problem.