Three kings for Christmas 2009

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The three that I am talking about are, of course, Elvis, Michael… and Orson. Elvis is enjoying his usual festive attention, with an upcoming night of television shows and celebrations on January 8th of what would have been his 75th birthday. Michael Jackson’s name has been prominent on TV schedules too, with retrospectives and concert re-runs. Finally, BBC 4 have been having an Orson Welles season.

So what do the Kings of rock’n’roll, pop and film have in common? I will start with Welles, the portly genius whose kingly presence both fascinated and scared Hollywood. It is clear from the documentaries that his downfall was his obsession with control. Perhaps because he began his career as an actor who got into directing, his interests extended into over-seeing the whole process of film making. The studio system, with its ornate division of labour, was not in tune with someone who took so long to edit his own movies.

Welles is always painted as an artist, his hefty weight reflecting his huge appetite for life. In that respect his his vehicle was his own build; something that his personality and screen image always played upon. Whether he was acting as a media mogul, hustler or corrupt police officer, his larger-than-life presence authenticated the role in question. (He wanted to play in ‘The Godfather’ – can you imagine how great that would have been?)… Welles was therefore a kind of opera singer who happened to be working in the movies, a king-pin.

What is interesting here is to compare Welles’ obesity to that of Elvis’, because Elvis’s portly physique was always seen as a stumbling block – in part because of his nimble youth and in part because he was never quite seen as a genius. Elvis was seen as a phenomenon, sure, but not an artist. What the two kings had in common (apart from their success with younger women) was that they were both reduced to playing cameos of themselves, disappearing into their own weighty parodies.

Michael Jackson, meanwhile, was a king without the weight, as he too was a phenomenon. One commentator on a retropective by BBC2’s Culture Show noted that the journey of black identity was always from object (of white fears and desires) to subject, and that Michael made everyone else – black or white – into pawns in his world. He was like Welles in that sense – a king-pin – but one could also see him as a dandy, a flaneur, perhaps the ultimate American consumer, isolating himself in his own selfish kingdom, disregarding the norms and mores of his own society. He had certainly been taking notes off Elvis about how to grow your legend.

When Michael died, it was only about six months after Barak Ombama had been inauguared. The striking thing about coverage of Jackson’s death was the extent to which the black community claimed him as their own. Back in his 1980s heyday, in the aftermath of the civil rights movement, disappointment with the lack of change sometimes meant that those with separatist agendas questioned any cultural icon that seemed to represent assimilation. Elvis had a (posthumous) tough time, and so did Michael. He was lightening his skin (if verbally claiming an Afro-American identity) and selling out black music, turning it into acceptable white-bread pop. Yet years later, the grounds for debate have shifted. Musically, Michael Jackson inaugurated an era of urban music which featured the message that it was a black-led party anybody could join. This played into an agenda of black embourgeoisment (which had begun as far back as disco, if not before). With the election of a distinctly non-separatist black president (and a sufficient time-lapse since any mention of child abuse), Michael Jackson was distinctly “in”… Ironically, so now is Elvis: The Guardian have just published confirmation from his childhood friend, Sam Bell, that they would go and see movies at the Lyric theatre. The mixed race pair would ignore the rope that separated the races and sit on the black side of the room: a point taken as evidence of Elvis’s proto-typical race mixing.

With this as the preview, 2010, one hopes, will be a year of cultural assimilation endorsed by people of both races.