Saturday, November 12, 2011

Elvis Syndrome

Once considered the height of tackiness and excess, Elvis is now viewed as a role model and arbiter of taste.

Elvis Presley, when he died, was at least 50-100 pounds overweight and in bad health. He lived on a diet of junk food – his favorite meal being 1000-calorie peanut butter and fried banana sandwiches. He drank too much and took pills for every perceived illness or discomfort.

Back in the 1970’s, that was a description for someone living on the edge – in a bad state and in a bad way. Today, it is the description of the average male living in America.

And Elvis’ taste in clothing, furniture, cars, jewelry, and the like, was considered, back then, to be tacky and tasteless. Only an idiot from a trailer park would consider a “jungle room” to be tasteful, or have a penchant for gaudy and poorly-made cars. And let’s face it, who wears rhinestone-studded jumpsuits and capes?

But today, again, the tackiness and excess that was Elvis is reflected in the architecture of our time, as well as our over-the-top clothing styles. Shopping malls and office buildings are awash in a sea of slathered gaudy – looking more like casinos. And we eat it up. And while the rhinestone-studded jumpsuit has yet to hit the mainstream, equally as outrageous getups – tattoos and piercing, for example – are now considered the norm. And clothing has, well, fallen a long way from the staid suits we all used to wear.

And there is one more parallel to Elvis and our modern way of life. Elvis, when he died, was mired in a sea of debt. Wanting to have this or that piece of eye-candy now, Elvis hocked much of his life, and mostly for gaudy and junky trinkets. His vaunted car collection is really a lot of junk, including kit cars, golf carts, and dune buggies. And he went in debt for this crap. It was only after he died, and his estate was professionally managed, that he made real money.

(And today, we are seeing the same thing with Michael Jackson, who eerily followed in Elvis’ footsteps. Actually, the parallels are startling, when you consider that Elvis first started dating Priscilla when she was only 14. Same shit, different day. Jackson is now dead, and his estate is poised to make Billions. During his lifetime, Jackson struggled with debts, due to his penchant for buying gaudy crap and engaging in serial cosmetic surgery.)

But getting back to Elvis, many folks today are unwittingly echoing his life – popping pills for every ailment, drinking too much, eating too much, consuming too much (and all in the worst of taste) and worst of all, borrowing too much. We live in a sea of debt so we can be as unhappy as Elvis. What’s the point of that?

What has happened to our society? What was once considered wanton excess is now considered the norm. What was once considered outlier behavior is now considered mainstream.

Perhaps celebrities are some sort of role models, and unconsciously, we follow their leads. Or perhaps, as the Colonel learned, you can keep a young man and his finances captive, if you tether him to a sea of debt and then toss him an occasional trinket or fried-banana sandwich now and then.

I am inclined to think the latter. The banking industry and our consumer retail business establishment has promoted the idea of consumption as the end-all of humanity. And our government has not only gone along with this, but acted as a partner in the deal. Consumption, we are told, is a patriotic duty! And borrowing money is the way we all should live.

Citizens living on borrowed money, who have no assets and are fully mortgaged, are generally docile citizens. They only want to see that the boat is not rocked too much, lest it topple their pyramid of debt into the abyss. And with the recent disruptions in the economy, this is what we have seen in recent years. And both political parties have pointed the finger at each other, trying to use this as a means of getting elected. “Vote for me,” they chant, “and we’ll put you back up-side up on your mortgaged mini-mansion!”

Neither party would dare to suggest, however, that being in debt, all the time, over every thing in your life, from your mortgaged house, to your leased car, to your meals paid for by credit cards, is somehow fundamentally wrong.

Right now, on Wall Street, young people heavily burdened by debt are calling for the heads of the “1%” of the country that is not in debt. This reviled 1% are the people who actually own money and thus control wealth. This 1% are the people smart enough to understand that owning a lot of things is not the same as wealth, and that only poor fools are dumb enough to think that a Platinum Credit Card is any sort of sign of real status.

The answer to our problems, both on a personal and a national level is very simple – Stop living like Elvis. Over-eating, over-consuming, and over-spending are not the answer to anything, but in fact are the problem.

The problem for the over-mortgaged mini-mansion owner is not debt-relief, loan adjustments, or whatever, but rather breaking free of the mindset that owning a tacky mini-mansion is a desirable thing and moreover a right. People are clinging to these monstrosities, making payments on houses worth half what they paid for them, on the hope that “maybe someday” it will all work out. In the meantime, they work like dogs to pay off creditors on loans that paid fat paychecks to the housing industry. Who wins? Not you.

Similarly, over-spending on a car to impress people you don’t know isn’t the answer. Glitzy toys are fun, but not worth the staggering costs involved. And the cost involved is your life – sold off in perpetual debt-slavery to the banks and credit lenders.

And a shiny new “rewards” credit card that allows you to buy all the peanut-butter-and-fried-banana sandwiches is no real bargain either. And yet many people think that such a card is a “reward for all their hard work” (as the congratulations letter that came with it stated). And they go out and rack up debt on junk – and junk food – and pretty soon they look like Elvis and feel like shit.

Well, no problem. Go to the Doctor! He has a new pill you’ve read about in Parade Magazine. Troubled with Elvis Syndrome? Just take our special new pill! It’s only $3000 a month, but no worries, your insurance will cover it. Of course your premiums will go up – and guess who pays for those – eventually?

Yes, health insurance. Yet another reason you can’t quit your job. They’ve a pretty good number on you, haven’t they? In debt up to your eyeballs, sick as a dog, and dependent on your almighty employer for everything in your life. You live in fear of layoffs or being fired. Sort of like how the Colonel had Elvis wrapped around his finger, no?

You can blame your slave-masters for your plight. Just as, I suppose, that Elvis could have blamed the Colonel for taking a 50% cut of his earnings. But there is another way. Fire the Colonel. Or better yet, never go to work for him.

You see, all of these pitfalls I have mentioned required one thing – your voluntary cooperation in the scheme. You can wail and whine about your upside-down mini-mansion all you want. But you decided you needed status above financial security. And you are deciding that staying in a bad deal is better than admitting defeat and walking away. It is a choice.

And no one is putting a gun to your head and saying “lease a new car!” or “buy bad food at a chain restaurant and put it on a credit card!” No one.

It takes two to tango. And while we may mourn the loss of Elvis, who died long before his time was due, we also shake our heads at the excess he allowed himself to be sucked into and his foolishness with both his health and his money.

The King is dead. Long live the King!

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