Two Men Who Would Be King

Bill Clinton vs. Elvis Presley vs. America


Double Trouble: Bill Clinton and Elvis Presley in a Land of No Alternatives, by Greil Marcus, New York: Henry Holt, 248 pages, $25

this was the turning point in Clinton's campaign, the moment when he began to find a way to appeal to the American people, which eventually led to his victory over the exceedingly un-Elvis-like George H. Bush. Marcus goes on to explain the many parallels between Presley and Clinton and in the process explores America's fascination with its flawed icons, figures who manage paradoxically to embody both the hope of youthful idealism and the threat of moral corruption.

"As white male southerners without family money (hillbillies, no-counts, white trash-the source of course of much of the identification made between Bill Clinton and Elvis Presley, and of Clinton's own heartfelt or cynical identification of himself with Elvis)," writes Marcus, "Presley and Clinton always had to prove themselves-and they never could, not without abandoning themselves in some essential way, some way that one or the other or both could perhaps desire but never master…. Both Elvis Presley and Bill Clinton reaped all the rewards available in American society except one: moral citizenship….Our attraction to both is inseparable from our need to prove to ourselves that we are different from them-to prove that if we will never rise so high, we would never sink so low."

Double Trouble is a selection of Marcus' '90s journalism-chosen from his monthly column in Interview magazine, along with articles he wrote for such venues as The New York Times, Die Zeit, Esquire, and Rolling Stone. The most sustained piece in the volume, which neatly sums up his thesis, is the 20-page text of a talk called "The Last Laugh" he delivered as the keynote address at a conference on "Elvis: The State of his Art" at the University of Memphis in 1998. Some readers may at first have trouble seeing the connections between individual sections of the book and be put off by the way Marcus' argument appears to fragment. But in fact he orchestrates the book like a musician, turning what seem like abrupt transitions into subtle comments on cultural/political parallels.

The subtitle of Marcus' best and most ambitious book, Lipstick Traces, is "A Secret History of the 20th Century." In that 1989 volume, Marcus began with the phenomenon of the Sex Pistols and punk rock in general and went back to trace the obscure history of revolutionary utopian thinking in modern Europe and America, including such artistic movements as Dada and Surrealism. That is Marcus' great talent-he has a way of rooting around in cultural back alleys and backwaters, identifying seemingly minor trends that have larger implications for society as a whole.

As for Double Trouble, who but Marcus could have identified actor Bill Pullman as the face of American film in the 1990s? If you are having trouble placing Pullman, he is probably best known for playing the president in the 1996 hit movie Independence Day. If you still are having trouble placing Pullman, that is precisely Marcus' point. Pullman's face is not memorable; it embodies a lack of character, a kind of emptiness, a facelessness that was perfectly suited to the Clinton era, when the behavior of the real president led the media systematically to downplay character as an issue in public life. Though Marcus tries to defend Clinton whenever he can, he cannot help relating his presidency to an all-pervasive cynicism in American culture in the '90s.

In the kind of bizarre juxtaposition of which he is a master, Marcus compares Bob Dylan's Time Out of Mind (1997) to Pullman's film performances. Marcus writes, "The same cynical, damaged, sardonic, utterly certain acceptance of one's own nihilism has been all over Bill Pullman's face in the last few years, in Malice, The Last Seduction, Lost Highway, and especially in the recent The End of Violence-for just as Time Out of Mind is an end-of-the-American-century record, closing with a fantasy of a retreat to the Scottish highlands, to the border country where some of the oldest American ballads first came to life, Bill Pullman, in this last film, is the ultimate end-of-the-American-century man. His face has the cast of entitlement, an expectation of triumph and adventure, as the movie begins; like the narrator in Time Out of Mind, he knows soon enough that in some essential way the story he has to tell ended before he even took the stage, and that knowledge only increases his wariness."

This is Marcus at his best, both as a writer (he is a superb stylist) and as a cultural commentator. He is known mainly for his expertise on pop music (this book contains, for example, some brilliant pages on Kurt Cobain and Nirvana as the poster children for '90s nihilism). But I want to stress how shrewd his observations on American movies can be. The book includes a marvelous and in its own way moving retrospective on the film career of the character actor J.T. Walsh (though the term lack-of-character actor might be more apt in view of Marcus' analysis).

This essay builds up to another one of those revelatory moments when Marcus suddenly puts his finger on something in pop culture that mirrors larger political developments-this time an extended comparison between Walsh's fictional character in Red Rock West and the real Bill Clinton.

"Watching this odd, deadly scene in 1998," pens Marcus, "I thought of Bill Clinton again, as of course one never would have in 1992, when Red Rock West was released and Clinton was someone the country had yet to really meet. In the moment, looking back, seeing a face and a demeanor coming together out of bits and pieces of films made over the last dozen years, it was as if-in the blandness, the disarming charm, the inscrutability, the menace, the blondness, moving with big, careful gestures inside a haze of sincerity-Walsh had been playing Clinton all along. He wasn't, but the spirit of the times finds its own vessels, and, really, the feeling was far more queer: it was as if, all along, Bill Clinton had been playing J.T. Walsh."

It is at odd points like this-and not in the sections explicitly devoted to the president-that one gets a feel for the complexity of Marcus' response to Clinton. As a good Democrat-or perhaps more important, as a staunch anti-Republican-Marcus feels obliged to come to Clinton's defense against his critics. Try as he may, though, his heart is not really in it.

Indeed, it is only in a world where Marcus perceives no alternatives that he can muster up the energy to come down on Clinton's side. But by the time he is through weaving Bill Clinton into the cultural fabric of the 1990s, Marcus has served his own indictment on the president. He finds signs of corruption wherever he looks in the '90s. At best, one could say that Bill Clinton was just one more reflection of this spiritual rot, but at worst it seems reasonable to wonder whether he was one of its principal causes.

Though Marcus generally intends the parallels he draws between Presley and Clinton to flatter the president, in the end they mainly expose the degree to which his presidency was just an act and ultimately a hollow sham. Marcus leaves it to an unnamed Clinton speechwriter to deliver the obituary on his presidency. Talking to Marcus about Clinton's televised sax playing, the speechwriter is blunt in his assessment: "That night on the Arsenio Hall show might have won him the election, but it ruined his presidency." In a sense, Marcus' book contains a useful warning to all politicians: He who lives by the television dies by the television.

Double Trouble can be recommended for its many insights into the 1990s, but I have reservations about some of Marcus' intellectual preconceptions. His work grows out of the Frankfurt School of Marxism, and his intellectual heroes are Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno. Interest in pop culture does not lead Marcus to celebrate the power of free markets to stimulate artistic creativity, as it does, for example, Tyler Cowen in his In Praise of Commercial Culture. On the contrary, in the manner of Benjamin or Adorno, Marcus views capitalism as the enemy of "authentic" culture. He complains about what Marxists call the commodification of culture under capitalism, a process which he feels reached a peak in the 1990s.

"The audience," says Marcus, "has been organized, or organized itself, into market segments-complex and recombined segments of age, race, class, and gender-efficiently predictable, containable markets that can be sold identity, or anyway self-recognition, packaged as music." With his words "has been organized, or organized itself" Marcus glosses over an all-important distinction. If capitalism somehow organizes the pop culture audience into segments, then it may be the sinister enemy of artistic expression. But if the audience organizes itself, then isn't capitalism simply responding to what people spontaneously desire? What is wrong with that?

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.