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Still, Marcus does have a point when he complains about the way Elvis has been packaged as a cultural product by the American music industry. "It's strange," he writes, "if Elvis Presley sang, looked, and moved like nobody else, which he did, why are all the memories the same? But it is not strange. The reduction of memory to a few infinitely repeatable and exchangeable words is nothing more or less than the result that obtains when people are caught in a loop of pure capitalism-where, within a certain society, a certain market, a certain frame of reference, everything on sale sells everything else. And this process can proceed only if history and fantasy are both excluded."
One can acknowledge along with Marcus the ways in which the music business, with its endless Elvis repackagings, has trivialized Presley's genuine achievements, but one must at the same time wonder if those achievements would have been possible in the first place in the absence of the American market economy and the resources it put at Presley's disposal. (See the excellent chapter "From Bach to the Beatles" in Cowen's book, which deals with music as a business and hence with the cultural vitality of capitalism.)
Though I often disagree with what Marcus says, his ideas are always thought-provoking and I learned a great deal from reading this book, especially about pop culture phenomena I had never even heard of before. I may not run out and buy a CD of the band Pere Ubu, but I am glad to know that a group with that evocative name exists. Greil Marcus offers a model of how to write about pop culture intelligently (and, I might add, elegantly). In his ability to identify phenomena that are significant and worth pondering, he has few equals.