Yes, the late Elvis Presley will receive the Medal of Freedom from President Trump on Friday.
Yes, Trump is sending a message here.
Yes, Presley is among the most pivotal and controversial musicians of the previous century, so yes, this is another needling MAGA maneuver — a little nod to the good old days, back when black visionaries could invent rock-and-roll, but only a white man could become the king.
Yes, this overture looks ugly to anyone who feels antagonism and regression radiating from Trump’s promise to “make America great again.” And yes, it all feels especially absurd to members of the hip-hop generation — its eldest citizens now past middle-age — who learned how to feel about the legacy of Presley the moment they first heard Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” blasting a hole through our national mood in the summer of 1989. Yeah, you know the Chuck D line I’m talking about: “Elvis was a hero to most, but he never meant s--- to me.” (Yes, Chuck D deserves his own Medal of Freedom, but nearly three decades after “Fight the Power,” America is still afraid of a black planet, so he’ll probably receive his award posthumously, too.)
And yes, there is precedent for bestowing this honor on artists who have already departed our physical plane. Yes, Ronald Reagan awarded a Medal of Freedom to the jazz giant Count Basie in 1985, a year after Basie’s death, and another to “The Music Man” composer Meredith Willson in 1987, a few years after the musician’s death. Yes, these gestures were eulogies of sorts.
Yes, Trump desperately wants to look like a real president — Reagan, Richard Nixon, whomever. Yes, he knows all about that iconic bizarro snapshot of Nixon and Presley shaking hands in the Oval Office, and yes, Trump surely wishes he could have been the president who famously cheesed with the King instead of being the president who nervously accepted a lopsided hug from Kanye West. Yes, it’s all a bit pathetic.
Because, yes, Presley was a hero to most, but does hanging a medal onto one of the most decorated ghosts in popular culture change anything at all about his complicated legacy or how we think about his music today? No. Does it show us how our president continues to use his brazen lack of imagination as a cultural cudgel? Yes.