Visiting Graceland

In Sina's Posts, Tamás' Posts, Trips on December 4, 2011 by SN

Graceland. Elvis’ famous crib dominates the image of Memphis. It is both a blessing and a curse.

Our way to Graceland via public transportation was quite depressing. Again, we passed miles of dilapidated houses, closed stores, and empty lots. The large green Las Vegas style sign of the Graceland Inn, for instance, is a majestic sign, but is the only sign left in front of an area of grass and rubble. The only well-maintained buildings along the way are churches inviting the passers-by in to attend their service.

While the way to Graceland is quite remote, Graceland itself appears like a pastoral island in the midst of a sea of urban decay. The visitor center and special exhibitions which are partly in gift shops (!) are across a six-lane boulevard from Graceland. A rather unnecessary tour bus takes the visitors across the street and up the hill of the ranch-like estate.

Welcome to Graceland.

Graceland is smaller than we expected it to be. It is almost a modest building with lots of trees, grass and a white fence. The Graceland tour spanned the ground floor and basement, with living room, dining room, kitchen, jungle room, parents’ bedroom. We also entered buildings on the compound, such as the racquet building, Elvis’ office, the trophy room, the pool, and his final resting place. Later on we visited further exhibitions across the street from the mansion itself, thanks to “Platinum Tour” tickets we got 50% off with an online coupon.

Living Room: Christmas Decorations, Piano, and Stained Glass Peacocks.

Heavy Fabric: The Pool Room.

When entering the house, I immediately noticed the distinctive smell, a mixture of moldy 1950s furniture and shag rags. Is that how Elvis smelled? Dark, strong colors, and heavy wood dominated the house. The jungle room, for instance, is a dim-lit den with a melange of puce and lush green. The lowered heavy patterned curtains reinforce the cave atmosphere.

The Jungle Room: Dark Wood, Green Shag Carpet, and Heavy Curtains.

The Melodramatic Mode: Memorabilia, Clothes, Personal Belongings.

The exhibitions inside Graceland and across the street served to reinforce the myth of Elvis through personalization: They displayed his clothes, personal belongings, performance costumes, memorabilia, and even checks with his signature. Those material artifacts intertwined with Elvis videos and music allowed to be very close to the King.

Costumes of the Late Elvis.

Automobile Exhibit: Elvis' Ferrari.

A group of elderly white women danced and sung their ways through the exhibit, reminded of their youth and what Elvis meant to them at that time. Towards the end of our Graceland tour I was even moved when I reached Elvis’ grave.

Crying in the Chapel (almost ;).

RIP: Graves of the Presley Family in the Backyard.

While I enjoyed the tour and learned about the different narratives that were presented about Elvis, I would have liked a critical account of his stardom. Little credit was given for instance to the African American roots of Elvis’ music. The exhibition acknowledged that Elvis crossed racial boundaries of the 1950s with his combination of African American blues and American country music. I wish I could have learned more about those appropriation processes. Especially when considering his early wardrobe which he bought at an African American clothing store. Elvis is a White American cultural phenomenon which is also underlined in the tour audience: 97 per cent of visitors were white. We only encountered one African American family on our tour. I also would have liked a bit more critical examination of his drug abuse and subsequent downfall. Those narratives are omitted in the mythology of Elvis at Graceland. I would have learned more about the Elvis heritage in American as well as in international popular culture. The exhibits worked to reinforce the notion of his American Dream coming from a Southern rural working-class background and made it to the global icon of the satellite TV era in the 1970s.

All in all, I learned a lot about the narratives around Elvis and the various strategies of constructing the myth. Like it or not, visiting Graceland is important in understanding both 20th century American popular culture and global Capitalism.

Up and Away: Tamás and Sina in Elvis' Private Jet.

And if you want to see even more of Graceland, Tamás uploaded an album to Flickr.


One Response to “Visiting Graceland”

  1. […] like the Statue of Liberty, the Alamo, or Graceland, the Southfork Ranch is much smaller than expected. The tour of the compound took place in a […]

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