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The Lives of Dead Celebrities: What the Dead Elvis Brand tells us about Posthumous Archetypes

January 22, 2013

 

It could be argued that famous people never die now and they never did die in earlier times. Alexander the Great, Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, and many more, they all live on in the popular imagination, and in media. Julius Caesar? I had to read the Shakespeare play in school. It may not be historical reality except in the most general outline, but it doesn’t matter. It’s the version of Julius Caesar that I’m aware of. Today’s Julius Caesar is a new venture, a 21st century mashup of images, ideas, and memes, merged from the scribblings and interpretations of historians, writers, and commentators from his lifetime through to the present. And visions and versions of each dead celebrity are personalized samplings from the stream of information that like some vast residue still inhabits are world.

Dead celebrities are a bit like Corporations, fictitious people who are treated as if they are people. Sure, IBM is different from Elivs, but they are both brands. According to a tweet that I just saw, the three most recognizable western names in China are Jesus Christ, Richard Nixon, and Elvis Presley.

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The Wikipedia page on Elvis repeated this quotation about his legacy. “Elvis Presley is a supreme figure in American life, one whose presence, no matter how banal or predictable, brooks no real comparisons. … The cultural range of his music has expanded to the point where it includes not only the hits of the day, but also patriotic recitals, pure country gospel, and really dirty blues. … Elvis has emerged as a great artist, a great rocker, a great purveyor of schlock, a great heart throb, a great bore, a great symbol of potency, a great ham, a great nice person,and, yes, a great American.”

I’m not sure that Elvis would have recognized or agreed with this characterization, but it does show the burden of a dead celebrity, coping with all that brand greatness. Perhaps greatness can only be bestowed on the dead, since it is so far away from the mundane facts of everyday existence.

But Elvis was not just the king of Rock and Roll. He has also been described as the King of Social Media (http://heidicohen.com/elvis-presley-the-king-of-social-media/) where 50 top Elvis hits are used to inspire social media advice.

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Here is a recent summary of the power of the Elvis brand in digital media (http://coremediagroup.com/elvis.html):

“He is a powerful force that impacts all areas of popular culture. From Broadway plays and live Las Vegas entertainment to books, movies, television, music, and concerts, Elvis sightings occur every day, all over the world. The Elvis brand leads the way in entertainment and product licensing, as he and his music can be found in advertising worldwide and his name, image and likeness is utilized on merchandise in every category. With over 70,000 official app downloads, six million fans on Facebook, more than five million unique visitors annually to Elvis.com, and significant activity on Twitter, YouTube, Google+ and other social media, Elvis is also now the King of Digital. Each year, as new generations of fans discover their love for Elvis, the power of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll continues to grow.”

It would be strange if the essence of who a person was could be sustained over this onslaught of posthumous digital branding. More likely, dead celebrities converge towards archetypal representations of what a great or remarkable person should be like.

Carl Gustav Jung introduced a psychoanalytical interpretation of archetypes (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jungian_archetypes) as being “ancient or archaic images that derive from the collective unconscious”. Jung stated there were many archetypes, with examples including the persona, the shadow, the anima, the animus, the great mother, the wise old man, the hero, and the self.

The Wikipedia page on Jungian archetypes (probably citing Jung) has this to say: “All the most powerful ideas in history go back to archetypes. This is particularly true of religious ideas, but the central concepts of science, philosophy, and ethics are no exception to this rule. In their present form they are variants of archetypal ideas created by consciously applying and adapting these ideas to reality. For it is the function of consciousness, not only to recognize and assimilate the external world through the gateway of the senses, but to translate into visible reality the world within us (CW8, 342). This could be taken to mean that the archetypes are what makes us, us. All of the beliefs and myths we have are all just part of the archetypes, nothing is new in the universe and everything has already existed and will continue to exist.”

Many human religions involve some kind of hero figure or saviour coming back from heaven or the dead. Maybe that’s why there are so many rumors concerning Elvis being sighted in various places. Perhaps we project our fantasies and needs on to the image of dead celebrities so that they eventual merge into archetypal forms.

Does it matter that dead celebrities live on like Jungian archetypes, far removed from their former, live selves? Are they positive forces in our lives, mentors, therapists and inspirations? Yes, I believe that dead celebrities are in fact hard at work for the rest of us. Labouring in their archetypal form to reduce our uncertainties and create a sense of purpose and order in an otherwise complex and confusing world.

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The above image came from a 2009 blog post by Bob Denham (http://fryeblog.blog.lib.mcmaster.ca/2009/10/01/archetype/).

 
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