Elvis: the Legend, the Stamp

THE US Postal Service's decision to create an Elvis Presley commemorative stamp mixes for the first time icons of popular culture with those of public culture. The postal service, for its part, has pushed the idea in a way that would do The King's infamous agent, Col. Tom Parker, proud.

Questions about whether Elvis even belongs on a stamp, as a figure of cultural worth and achievement (a minimum standard), were dismissed by officials who saw how popular the idea was, and how fast stamps would sell.

Instead, the public is engaged in a mail-in vote on which of two Elvis images will grace a 29-cent stamp: the young, fresh, Delta crooner of the hound-dog 1950s; or the more tragic, reclusive middle-aged Las Vegas King of the 1960s, whose career was about to crash from pills, alcohol, and the enormous pressure to "be Elvis." Does this mean a Marilyn Monroe stamp is next?

Still, pop icons have limits. Some standards about public or cultural service ought to be maintained, and distinctions made between pop figures and those whose life or work is worth civic note.

Now the real work: which Elvis stamp to choose?

The irony is that Elvis was always an image. He was part of the huge rise of mass-produced popular culture in the 1950s - a period in which Madison Avenue used the new technology of mass communications to give America, and especially a huge new generation of baby boomers, a steady diet of new images, products, music, movies, and values.

The young Elvis may be more pleasing. But the elder Elvis is metaphorically richer. Elvis was a somewhat shy, raw Memphis talent packaged for the mainstream. Voting for the early Elvis, in a sense, buys into the very created image that led to his demise.

The elder Elvis contains tragic ironies - not all that glitters is gold. Still, Elvis would want to be remembered as a vitalizer of rock roll - creating a unique blend of white country and western and black rhythm and blues. He should be given that.

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