Elvis Presley’s Televisual Clone
By John David Ebert
The crucial year in the generation of Elvis Presley’s first electric clone was 1956, the year in which his agent Colonel Tom Parker helped him make the switch from the tiny independent Sun label to the stellar RCA corporation through which he proceeded to mass produce his first RCA single, “Heartbreak Hotel,” released on January 27. The very next day, he appeared on television for the first time on an obscure little program known as Stageshow, hosted by the Dorsey brothers. He made repeated appearances on this show up until March, when RCA released his first LP record, Elvis Presley, whereupon the album sold an immediate 300,000 copies.
The genesis of this LP, furthermore, coincided with the first of his two appearances on The Milton Berle Show in April, followed by one in June, and then a humiliating appearance on The Steve Allen Show in which he was featured singing “Hound Dog” to a basset hound. On September 9, he was on the Ed Sullivan Show for the first time, followed by another appearance in October, in which his famous rubbery legs and swiveling hips were unveiled for all to see. (This liquefaction of the lower half of his body reminds one of nothing so much as the image of the Greek deity Typhon, whose upper half is human, while the lower half of his body is composed of wriggling, squirming snakes. Typhon is the deity sent by Gaia to punish Zeus for his triumph over the Titans. Indeed, the attempt on the part of the show’s producers to film Elvis only from the waist up on his third appearance is the equivalent of a thunderbolt hurled at the great Titan, which severs him in half). The final appearance on Ed Sullivan in January of 1957 was to be his last television spectacle until 1960 when, upon discharge from the Army, he is featured on The Frank Sinatra Show, his sole television appearance until 1968, for in the interim he was to star in a series of Hollywood movies.
In cataloguing all of these television appearances, the point I wish to make here is that it was not an accident that 1956 was the year in which Elvis’s career hit the big time, for this was the only year in his entire biography in which his image was broadcast via television on so many occasions concentrated so closely together.Â Â It was television that made Elvis Presley into a phenomenon, the first giant TV star in the history of the medium. Without it, he may have become a recording industry star like Hank Williams Sr. or Willie Nelson, but by means of it, he was transformed into something gigantic, a lightspeed deity with magically seductive powers.
Now, the image of Elvis generated by television and by The Ed Sullivan Show, in particular had the effect of splitting him down the middle into a “real” Elvis made out of atoms and matter and a lightspeed Elvis composed of electrons and photons. Thus, Presley was sent beaming at lightspeed simultaneously into millions of households, where he was delivered in an electronic birth through their television sets. His electric twin, now hatched from the egg of the cathode ray tube, burned itself onto the retinas of his audience members as a dancing, jittery homunculus. Hence, the second Elvis Presley–and let us not forget here that he had been born with a biological twin who had suffocated on its way out of his mother’s womb–came into existence at last, taking up its residence in the etheric world of electromagnetic pulsation. And it is this Elvis that will awaken to its own life, become self-aware, and eventually begin to push the real, 3D Elvis out of existence.
For the mythic power of the electronic Elvis was undeniable. He not only evoked Typhon, but more importantly, the Greek god Dionysus. Thus, Elvis’s Ed Sullivan appearances are culturally significant because they constitute the first reawakenings of Dionysus in Western culture since the disappearance of his cult around 400 a.d. The drums and cymbals, the madness and wine, the frenzied ecstatic seizures and the sexual ecstacies that characterized the retinue of this god, whose mysteries only took place at night and only by firelight in secret groves and hills beyond the reach of respectable eyes, are the lineal forebears of rock and roll. The fears of the Roman government at beholding the licentious spectacle of the Bacchanalia, and their attempts to purge the Dionysiac mysteries from Rome, and even from the Italian peninsula as a whole, went on repeatedly over many centuries, and are the counterpart to the fears of the 1950s Establishment regarding the serpentine movements of Elvis’s legs and the raucous fervor that it aroused amongst large groups of young women (the followers of Dionysus, too, were largely female).
Thus, like the Roman anxieties regarding the cult of the ithyphallic wine god Bacchus, the electrically mediated image of Elvis Presley was thought to be a dangerous, untrustworthy figure who could not be left unattended in the presence of one’s daughters. The electric image itself, that is to say, activated archaic residua in the modern American psyche, of ancient mythic strata in which sinister, wandering gods blowing magical pipes cast a spell upon their children and led them away out into the wilderness, never to be heard from again. The effect of Elvis’s electric image upon the American psyche was colossally disturbing, something akin to holding up a powerful magnet against a CRT monitor.
There was an attempt on the part of the producers of Ed Sullivan, as we have already noted, to nullify these effects during Elvis’s third appearance on their show by filming him only from the waist up. However, the electric Elvis on this third appearance is so full of volcanic energy and sexual power that he actually appears to bend and stretch the TV screen like a special effect out of David Cronenberg’s Videodrome.Â Â In fact, far from depotentiating him, the effect of the close-up is to magnify him to the level of a gigantic being whose explosive, convulsive energy actually seems to overwhelm the TV screen and to push upon its convexity, as though he were trapped inside the television set and trying to find a way out. The TV screen, under the impact of Elvis, becomes soft and flexible, like the membrane of a vagina.
Thus, if Elvis was morphologically altered by his descent into electric culture, the converse is also true, for he himself had a mythic power that actually warped and distorted the very electronic instruments that made his rise possible to begin with.
–Excerpted from John David Ebert’s forthcoming Death and Fame in the Age of Lightspeed