Chasing Celebrity: Elvis and Michael as travel destinations.
I recently traveled to Memphis, TN and Elvis Presley’s beloved Graceland. At the end of the Graceland tour is the Meditation Garden where the Presley family is laid to rest. There, at Elvis’ grave, visitors wept. Thirty-two years after he died, people who did not know him except through his public persona, wept. Would they have done so for their own father 32 years on? Celebrity, and our relation to it, is curious.
With Michael Jackson’s recent passing, people are wondering what his Graceland will be. Where will his fans go on their pilgrimage for the King of Pop? And while there is debate on where – most suggesting Neverland Ranch – there is no doubt that there will be one.
As someone born past the Elvis generation, I could not go to Memphis without going to Graceland. Likewise, for over a million Jackson fans, traveling to Los Angeles for his memorial, even if they couldn’t get in, was a necessity.
What is it about celebrity that makes it so important that we not only integrate it into our travels but, sometimes, we make it the focus. Whether it’s the hope of seeing stars in Hollywood, Jim Morrison’s grave or Elvis’ Graceland, almost all of us do a bit of celebrity chasing when we travel.
My attraction to Graceland came second hand.
I was listening to the likes of Santana and Pink Floyd when Elvis was performing his last concerts. I knew his tunes. They’re so danceable that everyone jumps up when they come on. But it wasn’t until Paul Simon’s “Graceland” album came out that Elvis’s shrine and Memphis really hit my radar.
But my visit to Graceland was not what I expected. I was looking forward to being entertained by Elvis impersonator/fanatics who dressed, wore their hair and spoke like the King of Rock & Roll. To my disappointment, I didn’t see one. There was a guy with slightly longer than usual sideburns but I’d be stretching it to say that they were an homage to the King.
So why were so many seemingly normal people there? And, why were they crying? And, really, why did I have to go?
On the Celebrity Worship Scale I would say that the people I saw at Graceland were simply “Entertainment-social” – ordinary, garden-variety, fans. They were not obsessing yet they were genuinely affected.
Cultural theorists propose that the rise of mass media along with the decline of substantial relationships are fundamental to our fascination with celebrities. Essentially, celebrities are like friends and our
“grief over celebrities… the sense of loss is more like that of a friend … of who we are or who we want to be. These are individuals whom one has paid to see or who have been frequent televised “guests” in one’s home. Such individuals are generational totems, reflecting the identities and ideals of those who share their age. People grow old with them and project their own hopes and fears on to them. … And when celebrities die so does a portion of their admirers” [Celebrity Deaths in the Dictionary of Death and Dying ]
So I understand why a person of the generation would grieve over such a loss. But what about me? Why did I have to go to Graceland? If you read about my travels you know that tourist sites are not what I do.
But Graceland is different. It’s not just a tourist destination. It’s a cultural touchstone. And it was at Graceland that I got a sense of why I had to go. The house was – ok. The audio tour – fine. But the Trophy Building is amazing. Television clips, museum pieces and his awards are displayed there. These had a real impact on me. I finally really, really, knew why he was called the King of Rock & Roll. And, fluffy as he may appear to a 70s rocker, why he is an icon.
At Graceland, I was in awe of the man who’s charisma made him much larger than life. Combine those cheek bones with a body that screamed sex as it moved, with a unique musical gift and a “gee, shucks” attitude of the early interviews and you have… well… Elvis!
My conclusion? In the process of chasing celebrities we’re actually chasing ourselves. For those who experienced the celebrity first hand, it’s a chance to relive, regrieve, reexamine… For the rest of us, it’s a chance to better understand our cultural context — and have a lot of fun doing so.