This week marks the 37th anniversary of Elvis Presley's death. For anyone old enough to remember that summer day in 1977 when news broke that Elvis had died (that excludes this examiner), it was a moment that is hard to forget. In the mid 1950s, Elvis broke onto the music scene, forever changing it. He didn’t “invent” rock ‘n roll, per se, but he perfected it and was the first to make it a nationwide sensation. The “King of Rock ‘n Roll” may not have even been the most talented of the early rock ‘n rollers (certainly Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis were better musicians), but he occupies a place no one else occupies. His sound was so original that practically every subsequent rock singer was, in some measure, derivative of him.
His was a classic “rag to riches” story, as can be easily seen by touring his birthplace in Tupelo and comparing it to Graceland in Memphis where he died. Growing up in depression era Mississippi and ending his life as one of the most successful recording artists in history naturally leads to the question—did fame change Elvis? He had friends and enemies, so it depends on to whom the question is addressed. Certainly something even those who loved him most can concede is that fame isolated him.
1. The isolation of fame
At the height of his fame, Elvis said he never could tell his true friends were. Were the people he thought were his friends really his friends, or did they merely want to be close to Elvis the celebrity? Was he loved for who he was as a person, or rather because he was such a marketable commodity? One can understand why someone in Elvis’ shoes would be plagued by such insecurities.
The problem Elvis faced is even more acute today for current celebrities. We live in a celebrity culture, even more so than was the case in the 1970s. C.S. Lewis once suggested that America’s obsession with celebrities could have something to do with the fact that America doesn’t have a monarchy—a class of people that are the proper objects of reverence and admiration. In the absence of princes and princesses we can rightly pay homage to, we look for others to fill the void, such as film stars and singers.
2. The blessing of being “ordinary”
When Elvis wanted to go with friends to Liberty Land, Memphis’ famed amusement park near his home, he had to rent the entire facility so that he and his friends could have it all to themselves. He couldn’t just take an ordinary vacation with his family and expect to maintain any level of privacy.
In an age where being a celebrity is held up as an ultimate ideal, it is helpful to remember all the benefits of not being famous. All of us ordinary, non-famous people can take a stroll through our neighborhoods without fear of being mobbed by autograph seekers. We can go to the grocery store in peace. We can rest at ease that photographers aren’t chasing us or our family members. We can live our lives peacefully “under the radar”.
One is reminded of the Proverb which says that while the sleep of the laborer is sweet, the prosperity of the rich won’t allow them to sleep. They lie awake, tossing and turning, worrying about not losing their fortune. Those who have no fortune to lose in the first place can go to sleep.
Athletes and coaches have their every move critiqued on sports talk radio. Singers and film stars have their latest work reviewed and picked apart by critics on a regular basis. Aren’t you glad, if you’re not famous, that you don’t have to worry about turning on your radio in the afternoon and hearing someone critiquing your work day’s every move, for all the nation to hear? The pressure of always being “on”, never being out of the spotlight is enough to send anyone into an ocean of stress.
Elvis did immeasurable good for the landscape of American music. He did it all while maintaining a down to earth, clean cut image. He was generous to the point of being irresponsible with his money. Fame didn’t appear to “go to his head”, but in some ways it did go to his heart, and it broke it. It’s nice to have fans, but surely Elvis and most any other celebrity would agree that, if given the choice between the two, it’s better to have friends than fans.
When Christians offer up prayers on behalf of the lonely, there’s a good chance that celebrities are not often on the minds of those offering up the prayers. Churches think of the homeless, orphans, and shut in widows. At least individuals in those populations are known to be lonely, and so they are on people’s radars. The tragedy of the lonely celebrity is that his or her loneliness is so internalized; not only do they not have anyone to help them, they don’t even have people who know that they need any help.
At the end of the day, famous people are human beings with the same basic needs as everyone else. Fame and fortune is no substitute for good, solid friendships. May God bless all of us with such friendships and may God enable us to be good friends to those in most need of friends.