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It doesn't matter how you remember him—rockabilly rebel, all-American boy, B-movie idol, patriotic G.I., or Las Vegas superstar. Elvis Presley is the most enduring image in American popular culture. This book explains why.
Other authors have explored Elvis's life and music, but Erika Doss now examines his multifaceted image as the key to understanding the adulation that has survived his death. She has talked with fans and joined their clubs, studied their creations and made pilgrimages to Graceland, all to explore what these images mean to those who gaze upon them, make them, and collect them.
In researching Elvis Culture, Doss discovered that the visual image of Elvis endures because it was so carefully constructed from the start. Sifting through the visual glut of Elvisiana, she looks at how fans collect, arrange, and display Elvis paraphernalia, make Elvis artwork, and participate in the annual August rituals of Elvis Week. By engaging in these acts, she explains, they continually reinvent Elvis to mesh with their own personal and social preferences and to keep his memory alive.
Doss examines Elvis in specific contexts: as a religious icon honored in household shrines, as a focus of sexual fantasy for women and men (both straight and gay), as an inspiration for countless impersonators, and as an emblem of whiteness held in disdain by many blacks—despite his having crossed racial lines with his music. She also looks at how Elvis has become a sanitized, legally protected image controlled by Elvis Presley Enterprises, Inc., which bans the sale of black velvet paintings and licenses his likeness around the world.
As engrossing as it is informative, Elvis Culture strikingly demonstrates the power of pictures in our visual culture and reveals much about American attitudes toward religion, sex, race, and celebrity—as well as about the construction of American identity in the late twentieth century.
"Elvis is everywhere," chanted rock wits Mojo Nixon and Skip Roper in a 1987 semihit single that plumbed the depths of Elvis Presley's abiding cultural presence a decade after his death. Today, judging from all the pictures, plates, stamps, and refrigerator magnets bearing various images of the King of Rock and Roll, and the tribute concerts, greatest-hits re-releases, biographies, art exhibitions, movies, and conferences cashing in on his music, his appearance, and his life, Elvis is still "everywhere" and shows no signs of disappearing any time soon. The future of his image is ensured, too: in 1995, his ex-wife and widow, Priscilla Presley, remarked that she and the folks who run Elvis Presley Enterprises, Inc. (Elvis Inc. or EPE, the corporate outfit that owns Graceland and claims legal copyright on Elvis's name and face), are working "to bring Elvis into the twenty-first century." Already, folklore has it that the three most recognized words around the world are "Jesus," "Coca-Cola," and "Elvis."
Elvis fans are everywhere, too. Some belong to one or more of the 500 or so official Elvis Presley fan clubs that can be found around the world, more than half of them in the United States. Others habitually visit Graceland, Elvis's Memphis home for twenty years, making it the second most popular house tour in America (after the White House). During Elvis International Tribute Week, a Memphis phenomenon that occurs annually on the anniversary of Elvis's death (August 16, 1977), the city swellsas thousands of fans gather in grief and celebration around Elvis's grave site at Graceland's Meditation Gardens, displaying a kind of emotional intensity and reverence that clearly intimates his popular culture canonization.
Why Elvis? Why has Elvis Presley become sanctified as the central figure in what some are calling a quasi-religion? Why not some other popular culture martyr who died young, like John Lennon, Buddy Holly, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, or, more recently, Kurt Cobain or Selena? Why is Elvis—more so than Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and J.F.K.—consistently held up as an "icon of the twentieth century"? why is it Elvis's image that we see on the surface of every conceivable mass-produced consumer item, from black velvet paintings and ceramic statuettes to laminated clocks, liquor decanters, ashtrays, oven mitts, address books, earrings, checks, flags, key rings? Why does Elvis's image prevail in contemporary visual culture?
More to the point, why should any of this be taken seriously—why should any of us even bother with looking at and trying to make sense of Elvis Culture? The answer, quite simply, is that Elvis Presley occupies a big space in the daily lives of many Americans. For some, the space that he—or, more specifically, his image—occupies is not especially broad or deep. But for others, especially for fans, Elvis has sweeping significance in terms of personal, social, and even national identity: Elvis is who they want to be, who they most admire, who they mourn for; Elvis is their image of an ideal American. In a contemporary culture where images dominate (some estimate we receive three-quarters of our knowledge from visual sources), it is worth wondering why Elvis's image seems to dominate most of all.
It is worth wondering about because while Elvis's image has been fixed in national popular culture for more than forty years—ever since millions watched him gyrate on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1956—there is no particular agreement about what his image really means. Elvis's multifaceted image—rockabilly rebel, teen angel, army private, B-movie idol, family man, Las Vegas superstar, Nixon admirer, drug addict, dead icon—is ambiguous and contradictory, solid but unstable. American popular culture has always been unstable—"a site of conflicting interests, appropriations, impersonations," says Eric Lott—and ever since the mid-1950s, Elvis's image has been continually renegotiated and remade in order to mesh with individual and institutional preferences.
This book asks why Elvis Presley remains the most popular icon in contemporary America more than twenty years after his death. It finds answers in Elvis's image and his fans. Clues to Elvis's abiding cultural symbolism are not to be found, in other words, only in his music or his biography, but among his many diverse and conflicted images and what they mean to the people who look at them, make them, and collect them: his fans.
What Elvis's image means to his fans is predisposed by his history and presence in popular culture, and articulated by the diversity of their responses to his image and his music. Many fans were turned on to Elvis when they first saw him on television. Elvis turned up thirteen times on TV in 1956, each time drawing more viewers, more critical attention, more teenage fans. His first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in September drew the highest ratings in then-TV history, with over 82 percent of the American viewing public (54 million people) tuning in to watch Elvis sing "Don't Be Cruel" and "Love Me Tender." By the time of the second Sullivan show in October (the third aired in January 1957), Elvis's records were selling at the rate of $75,000 a day (accounting for more than half of RCA's profits). Fans mobbed his concerts (he performed live 161 times in 1956), followed him everywhere, ripped bits of upholstery from his pink and black Cadillacs, and organized "I Love Elvis" clubs.
Reporters could not get enough of Elvis either; magazines and journals from Modern Screen to the New Republic paid an unprecedented amount of anxious attention to this "whirling dervish of sex" who was making more money than the president of the United States. It wasn't just Elvis's music, in other words, that made fans gush and critics moan: it was the way he moved, it was his body, it was his image. The new medium of television helped facilitate Elvis's mass attention, drawing squeals of desire from fans and prompting howls of protest from critics and clergy: New York Times writer Jack Gould said that Elvis had "no discernible singing ability," Daily News critic Ben Gross complained that popular music had "reached its lowest depths in the `grunt and groin' antics of one Elvis Presley," and Francis Cardinal Spellman, the most vocal public spokesman for postwar Catholics, warned that Elvis embodied "dishonesty, violence, lust, and degeneration." But it was what took place between Elvis and his audiences that really accelerated his popular culture hold.
Elvis's music was, of course, absolutely pivotal to his popularity. If he had been only a teen heartthrob and B-movie star, Elvis would never have attracted the adulation that continues unabated. From the start, he courted a singing style that bound his fans and himself in an intensely emotional relationship. From the rocket-fueled and raw-voiced rockabilly energy of the 1950s performances to the gospel repertoire of his 1967 album How Great Thou Art and the slick pop of his 1970s arena acts, Elvis's music was always sensual (if not downright erotic) and utterly captivating. Rough and unpolished in the early days and rich and often uncomfortably desperate in the later years, it hinged on Elvis's own personal need to provoke, please, and communicate, and on the reciprocal desires of his fans to respond and become a part of something explosive and experiential, something liberating and connective all at once. Yet if music gave Elvis his start and remains a part of the relationship that fans have with him today, listening to Elvis is never far from looking at him.
Sight is the dominant sense in modern Western culture—how else can we explain the phenomenal popularity of television compared with radio?—and Elvis, perhaps more so than any other performer in the 1950s, recognized this. Just as he skillfully mixed black and white musical forms to create his own influential brand of rock and roll, Elvis consciously blended sound (the rhythm and pulse of his music, the vibrato of his voice) and sight (the look of his body, the style of his movements) into sensual and seductive spectacles. His performances were gestural and affective, the "real physical absolute" that Antonin Artaud imagined for a new kind of modern theater keyed to visual immediacy and felt experience. Shattering musical and theatrical conventions, Elvis set the pace for the predominantly visual aura of contemporary popular culture: within a decade or so of his mid-1950s debut, flamboyant stage acts with Spectra-Color light shows and glitzy special effects became the norm for rock bands ranging from the Rolling Stones to the Grateful Dead. Today we talk about going to "see" Sting or Prince or Madonna, which tells us a lot about how profoundly visualized contemporary popular music has become.
Elvis's manager, Colonel Tom Parker, most sagely recognized his single client's visual appeal. Promoting him as the "Atomic Powered Singer," Parker appropriated Cold War rhetoric to call attention to Elvis's explosive on-stage energy. Others labeled him the "male Monroe" and came a little closer to the sexual aesthetic that had such an electric effect on his fans. Look magazine tried to classically contain that sexuality, explaining that the twenty-one-year-old Elvis (who in 1956 weighed 185 pounds and stood just over 6 feet tall) looked a lot like Myron's Discobolos or Michelangelo's David. Life more astutely reported that Elvis was "a different kind of idol," who used "a bump and grind routine usually seen only in burlesque" to "set off" his young audiences into "shock waves of hysteria, going into frenzies of screeching and wailing, winding up in tears." "He isn't afraid to express himself," said one fifteen-year-old fan watching Elvis perform. "When he does that on TV, I get down on the floor and scream."?
The 1950s saw an explosion of body-centered performance art. In Japan, Europe, and the United States, in small-scale venues at art schools and alternative galleries, avant-garde artists—including the Gutai group, Georges Mathieu, Yves Klein, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Robert Rauschenberg, Allan Kaprow, and, later, Carolee Schneemann—challenged traditional boundaries between theater and audience. Many declared their bodies a new zone of aesthetic experimentation: replicating the action painting of Jackson Pollock, Japanese artist Kazuo Shiraga used his body as a brush and made art by rolling around in piles of mud; organizing the Orgies Mysteries Theater, Austrian artist Hermann Nitsch staged elaborate, participatory acts that urged audiences to liberate themselves from repressive sexual and religious mores via "intoxication, ecstasy and delight."
Elvis did the same with his body in his performances but he did it in front of millions, on national television, in the realm of popular culture. Pouting and sneering, winking his eyes, licking his lips, wiggling his hips, shaking his legs, Elvis was excessive and emotional and defiantly erotic, openly violating mainstream standards of social restraint and cultural refinement. "His legs weren't solidly planted then, as they would be years later," writes critic Michael Ventura:
They were always in motion. Often he'd rise on his toes, seem on the verge of some impossible groin-propelled leap, then twist, shimmy, dip, and shake in some direction you wouldn't have expected. You never expected it. Every inflection of his voice was matched, accented, harmonized by an inflection of muscle. As though the voice couldn't sing unless the body moved.
Elvis's was a spectacular, rhythmic body, and it was offered for consumption and imitation to millions of visually fixated and physically responsive postwar teens. "It's impossible to sit still while Elvis is on the stage," Janie Butterfield of Beaumont, Texas, told the editors at Life. "His belting style drives us wild. We have to do something. Kick the seat in front or let out a 'rebel yell or something."
"Seeing" Elvis, in other words, was never simply a matter of looking at him. Elvis was never just a picture or a statue, a beautiful object that his fans gazed upon and contemplated. Elvis demanded reaction and response, the physical and emotional participation of an audience that was urged to become more than a body of listeners or viewers, but "an audience of performers." Whether seen and experienced in concert or on TV, Elvis gave his fans "shared access to feeling" in a postwar culture that aimed to keep "people separate and feeling at a distance." Drawing audiences together and encouraging their emotional response, Elvis challenged Cold War containment and invited his fans to do the same. Critics of the 1950s viewed Elvis's body, image, and performances, and the bodies and performances of his fans, with dread: it all blatantly symbolized the sensual subversion of reason and control. But for 1950s fans, that was what it was all about: Elvis's body moved, their bodies; Elvis's image mediated their needs and desires.
Fans who saw Elvis in concert or on television in the 1950s especially remember what he looked like, how he moved, how he made them feel. "He was innocent looking but also sexy. His eyes and his voice just thrilled to the bone. When he sang it would almost seem it was directly to me," recalls Georgene Knecht of Los Alamos, New Mexico. "He was the first man to totally excite me; I loved his music but I fell in love with his eyes, his beautiful hair and his creamy, blemish-free skin," says Joyce Noyes of Saginaw, Michigan. "Elvis was drop-dead gorgeous," writes Joann Tumelavich of Bridgeton, New Jersey, who adds that his "singing and gyrating hips were great too." "He was young, charismatic, charming, a rebel and sooooooooo handsome, all the things that would sweep a Southern girl off her feet," recalls Judith Adams of Johnson City, Tennessee. Looking at mid-1950s magazine pictures of Elvis, says Rae Gagnon of Duluth, "awakened in me the sort of fuzzy desire to kiss those lips and somehow touch him romantically." "It was love at first sight, and sound," remembers South Carolina fan Kathy Ruff. "I somehow knew instantly that his smile, his expressive eyes, his voice, his attitude, his whole persona would receive my unconditional love til the end of time."
Newspaper accounts imply that the largest number of fans at the 1950s concerts were young teenage girls, but Elvis's body moved men and boys, too. As Ventura comments, "Presley's moves were body-shouts, and the way our ears heard his voice our bodies heard his body. Girls understood it and went nuts screaming for more. Boys instantly understood it and started dancing by themselves in front of their mirrors in imitation of him." Many boys were lured by how television framed Elvis's body, and immediately set out to copy that look. As Ken Kolarz of Lake View, New York, recalls, Elvis "was the coolest guy I had ever seen." Austin fan Edwin Richison had the same reaction: "It wasn't until Elvis appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show that I got to place a face with the music. What a night to remember. His clothes, the way he moved and talked.... He became an instant icon of rock and roll. After seeing him, his music became secondary."
Contemporary fan feelings for Elvis continue to hinge on his image but now, after forty years of history and mythmaking, Elvis's image is far more nuanced: Elvis the rockabilly vies with Elvis the patriot and Elvis the philanthropist for fan favoritism, Images of Elvis are seemingly direct, providing information and disclosing the "real" Elvis. But if they embody the historical memory, the likeness, of the Elvis that once was, they are hardly uncomplicated. Rather, they are ambiguous and contradictory, straightforward yet confused, substitutes and hallucinations, a tangled hybrid of fact and desire. All of this might suggest that Elvis ultimately "means" nothing but, in fact, the versatility of his image is directly linked to his widespread cultural significance. Elvis's multiformity illuminates the emotional relationships that continue to exist between Elvis and his fans, who insist that his image has significance far beyond simple form and fact.
Today's fans "see" Elvis on many different levels, each of which corresponds to their own constructions of personal and social identity. Most view Elvis as a great entertainer, a musical legend. "He was and still is the KING OF ROCK AND ROLL," says Judy Adams of Johnson City, Tennessee. "Imagining rock n' roll without Elvis is like imagining the Revolutionary War without George Washington," writes Geri Elsasser of Broomfield, Colorado. "Elvis is one of the greatest singers of ALL time," says Rick Massa of Bayonne, New Jersey. "He was a dynamic performer who put his heart and soul into his concerts," says Sue Haver of Superior, Wisconsin. "Elvis has been said to be the Greatest Entertainer on Earth," writes Ron Graham of Piqua, Ohio. "If you have ever been to an Elvis concert you would understand and be a believer or fan also."
Yet if fans celebrate Elvis's legendary rock-and-roll status, his singing, performance style, and musical talents are often less important to them than the strong personal bonds they feel they have with him. Many fans talk about Elvis's charisma and "animal magnetism," about how he "connected" with them individually, or seemed to. "Even in those big sports halls and even on TV," writes a fan from San Jose, "I just knew he was looking and singing just to me." ("Every word of every song that he sang was for you," Alannah Myles croons in her hit single "Black Velvet" , a song that's all about Elvis.)
Some of this sense of intimacy and closeness corresponds to the ways in which many fans claim Elvis on familial terms—as kin, as blood. Minnie Hamlett of Paris, Arkansas, echoes other fans when she remarks that Elvis has always been an essential element in her life: "I remember when he was drafted in the Army, when his Mom died, when he married. It just seems like he was part of my family." Other fans reveal that when Elvis died, it was as though someone in their own family had died: "I cried for days," recalls Gloria Winters of Elizabethton, Tennessee. They talk about how Elvis made them feel like they were always part of his family by bonding with them during concerts, by politely signing autographs and inviting them into his home, or by talking with them as though he really liked them and really wanted to get to know them. Now that he is gone, fans complete the family circle by embracing Elvis as an important member of their families, by remembering and honoring him, by recalling his extraordinary presence in their lives. Even those who became fans only after Elvis's death tend to shape their fandom around his broader familial image, seeing Elvis, themselves, and other fans as one big "Elvis Family" and claiming the private Elvis—his tastes, his things, even his ex-wife, Priscilla, and his daughter, Lisa Marie—as the stuff of their own personal devotion.
Elvis, in other words, has long-term constancy in the lives of his fans, who often speak of their relationship with him as an intensely personal commitment—the kind of commitment one has to a family member or best friend. Austin fan Jim Rosenfeld best captures the sense in which fans image Elvis as a close acquaintance when he writes, "Every Elvis fan sees what they want to see in the man and his various incarnations. To me he was simply the greatest talent of the century and a person that I would have loved to have known and really feel that I did know even if he never knew me." Elvis's image as an intimate, as someone who shares their secrets and listens to their problems, not only drives the devotion of his fans but shapes their sense of self. As Florida fan Mary Cartaya says, "Elvis not only was the single most driving force in the history of Rock 'n' Roll music, but the single most driving force in my life."
Closely attached to Elvis's image as a rock god cum family member and personal friend are fan readings of Elvis's rags-to-fiches life story. Again and again, many fans recite how Elvis started out as a poor white nobody and wound up with money, fame, and a mansion in Memphis. But their accounts of his achievement of this ultimate American dream always include this twist: Elvis stayed the same "real decent, fine boy" that Ed Sullivan introduced on TV in the 1950s; Elvis stayed "true" to his roots. Elvis was a "gentleman who truly loved his mother, believed in family values, never forgot his true friends or his humble upbringing," writes Charles Stevens of Flint, Michigan. "He started out poor, loved his mom and dad, served in the U.S. Army. He seemed honest to me," says Andy Kohler of Westminster, Colorado. "He was always polite, he never cussed," another Colorado fan remarks. "Growing up in a very close knit Italian-American family, we could relate to Elvis's kindness towards his mother, father, family, and friends," writes Hoboken fan Alexander Corrado about himself and his brother. "He loved his fans," writes Cara Striff of Gainesville, Florida. "You never heard Elvis call them fans though. He was too modest to assume that anybody was a fan."
Ascribing to Elvis the honesty, decency, humility, generosity, respect, politeness, and familial devotion that they also ascribe to an idealized American working class, many fans see Elvis as one of them, as a "blue-collar guy in blue suede shoes." They admire, and many certainly envy Elvis's social mobility, but they also believe that he stayed "true" to them, that he rejected the status and privilege of wealth (if not all of its attendant materialism) in deference to his family, his friends, and his fans. "He did not forget where he came from," notes Virginia Blizzard of Bridgeton, New Jersey, echoing the sentiment that Elvis "stayed loyal" to his working-class roots—and his working-class fans.
These fan constructions of Elvis's and their own working-class loyalties correlate to their perceptions of his patriotism. At the peak of his popularity in the 1950s, Elvis was drafted. Trained as a tank driver, he was assigned to Company D, First Medium Tank Battalion, Thirty-second Armor, Third Armored Division, stationed with the U.S. Seventh Army at Friedberg, West Germany. For two years, from 1958 to 1960, he drove a jeep. Almost overnight, Elvis the Pelvis became Elvis the G.I., a responsible citizen, a regular Joe who could stand up to military discipline. For many fans, Elvis's image as a draftee who rose only to the rank of buck sergeant is central to their understanding of Elvis as a working-class American. Many recount that Elvis "served his country with honor" and "did his duty," rejecting (for whatever reasons) offers of special status and military privilege. For those fans who likewise "did their duty" in Vietnam or the Gulf, Elvis's army stint (reluctant though he apparently was, according to biographer Peter Guralnick) is claimed as proof of his, and their own, allegiance to America. Elvis as a soldier dignifies them as soldiers; Elvis's image as a soldier braces the image of working-class Americans as virtuous, loyal, and self-sacrificing folk who countenance no special favors.
Elvis's image as a soldier broke John Lennon's heart; his remark "Elvis died the day he went into the Army," which he made when he heard of Elvis's death, was Lennon's way of explaining how the revolutionary potential of rock and roll had fizzled into the benign schmaltz of pop by the late 1950s. But New York newspaper columnist Hy Gardner captured both the rah-rah spirit of Cold War patriotism and the class consciousness of many contemporary Elvis fans when he boasted in 1958, as Elvis shipped out for Germany, "in what other nation in the world would such a rich and famous man serve alongside you other draftees without trying to use influence to buy his way out? In my book this is American democracy at its best."
Elvis's image as a working-class guy who never really strayed from his down-home roots corresponds to his image, too, as a philanthropist. Reconciling Elvis's material success with how much he "gave," fans especially relish the image of Elvis the "great humanitarian," a rock-and-roll Rockefeller who gave the gift of music, gave himself to his country, gave away scarves, cars, and expensive jewelry to friends and fans, and gave generously to charity. As the authors of a book on that topic proclaim, "Elvis was more than a performer. He was an inspiration, a man who achieved wealth and fame, but viewed his position as an opportunity to help others." Throughout his career, Elvis did contribute to certain charities and in the 1970s, especially, made private donations to police departments and local hospitals, usually around Christmas and usually in the form of $1,000 checks. Most of his giving was, however, tightly controlled by his agent the Colonel, who went berserk when Elvis promised to perform free for charities in the 1950s and who never allowed Elvis to contribute at a level commensurate with his multimillionaire status. Still, fans see Elvis's impulsive giving of Cadillac Eldorados and diamond rings to "total strangers" as proof of his "regal generosity," and delight in recounting "how much he loved to give presents to people, how much he cared." As Albert Chrosto of Hortland, Wisconsin, comments, "Elvis was a warm, loving person who bought cars & houses for his bands' families and strangers. He always gave away things."
Finally, fans hold to the image of Elvis in pain. They often talk about how Elvis suffered, how despite his success he died alone, addicted to drugs, grossly overweight. One fan writes, "I read that Elvis once said, `The three keys to happiness are: someone to love, something to do, and something to look forward to.' I don't think he had any of those things toward the end of his life." Another remarks, "I feel very sad at times for Elvis. Such talent, wealth, and everything going for him and to end up like he did." Some fans blame themselves for Elvis's suffering, feeling guilty that their demands were more than he could bear. "The fans who supposedly `loved' him made his a very difficult life," writes one Michigan fan. "He was mobbed everywhere he went. He could not shop, take a walk, ride a motorcycle, or even go to an amusement park without elaborate security, secrecy and much planning. These restrictions, I feel, were probably the reason he resorted to alcohol and drugs." A fan from California says much the same thing: "They killed him with too much love. He had no private life. The pressure was too much."
Intertwined images of talent, success, familiarity, sincerity, generosity, and suffering are all central to Elvis's abiding American presence and to the feelings fans have for him. Elvis's image is a model of hybridity: different images of Elvis, in other words, or different Elvises hold different meanings for different viewers. George Lipsitz describes the various ways his students "saw" Elvis when he showed them Flaming Star (1960), a Hollywood western in which Elvis plays a young, tanned, and mostly bare-chested mixed-blood Indian. One "working class white woman identified with Presley himself and his character as an emblem of upward mobility for her class .... A radical lesbian viewed Presley as an androgynous image, a heroic subject that was neither completely male nor female." The multiple ways Elvis is seen reveals the plurality of meanings that his image (or any image) can embody. Indeed, Elvis's "longevity as a cultural icon," as Kevin Quain puts it, "is largely due to his flexibility—his willingness to take the shape of what we most wanted to see. Whether our fantasies were psychic, sexual, cosmic, financial, or religious Elvis accommodated all of us."
But if Elvis's iconic flexibility accounts for his abiding popularity, and if his sustenance as an American icon has largely depended on the unrestricted multiplicity of his image, the narrative instability of his image also reveals a number of tensions at work in American culture. Despite the fact that Elvis's music—if not his entire performance style—helped break down some of the barriers of race and class in post-World War II America, today some fans claim an image of Elvis that corresponds to their own racial and class prejudices. In their eyes, Elvis is the perfect symbol of a mostly middle-class white America getting what it feels it deserves: money, fame, a mansion in Memphis. These fans discount, or choose to ignore, how Elvis himself negotiated the nascent terrain of civil rights to participate in the creation of a more democratic popular culture in mid-1950s America.
Similarly, despite Elvis's obvious inability to "just say no" to drugs and doughnuts and sexual adventures with a vast number of female followers, many fans insist on a purer, practically sanctimonious image of Elvis. "Elvis was and is bigger than life," writes one fan from Chisholm, Minnesota. "To me, I saw the kind Elvis that was always giving to people and charities and helping when and where he could. He helped me get through tough times and still does." For these fans, Elvis is a clean-living, Bible-quoting family man who died because of an "enlarged heart," not from a massive overdose of some thirty-seven different prescription drugs.
But their image of Elvis clashes with the Elvis who has been conceptualized, analyzed, and stylized by scores of artists since he first burst on the American scene. Ray Johnson, Andy Warhol, Howard Finster, Keith Haring, Alexis Smith, and Patty Carroll, among many others, have used Elvis's image to explore issues ranging from mass adulation to celebrity sexuality, often taking artistic liberties that some fans find offensive. During Elvis Week 1997, for example, some fans took umbrage over an exhibition at the Memphis College of Art that included various depictions of an infant Elvis with the Virgin Mary, Elvis crucified, Elvis naked, and a photo collage titled Elvis Eaten by Ants. Memphis fan club president Mary Stonebraker complained that the pictures were in "very, very, very bad taste" and informed art college officials that she "would get every Elvis fan in town to picket and take down the building brick by brick and kick in every painting" unless they were removed. The college acquiesced, prompting local journalists and letter writers to a rousing discussion of Elvis's image and free speech. "The debacle over this little exhibition," exclaimed a columnist in the Commercial Appeal, "is one more chip away from the foundation of the importance of creativity, generosity, and tolerance in our culture."
Alternative art-world images of Elvis, and the debates they inspire, accompany those of an eroticized Elvis who is claimed by certain fans—women and men, straight and gay—as a sexual fantasy. Some fans produce paintings, sculptures, and huge room-size installations centered around their sexual desires for Elvis; others write soft-core fiction about a loving, sensual, and intimate Elvis, a liberatory figure who insists on mutually pleasurable sexual encounters. A lesbian Elvis impersonator in Memphis relates that Elvis is the only male she's ever felt sexually attracted to; recent graffiti penciled on the fieldstone walls surrounding Graceland included words of devotion from "the world's only gay Elvis singer." Elvis is a profoundly ambiguous sexual icon, and perceptions of his androgyny have driven female and male responses from the mid-1950s to today.
Elvis Inc., though, claims a sanitized, drug-free, fat-free, and generally more one-dimensional Elvis. EPE is the legal proprietor of Elvis's "official" image and guards and promotes that image with its scripted tours at Graceland, its huge pool of Elvis merchandise, and its "Official Elvis Home Page," all of which conspicuously avoid attention to Elvis's fandom, his sexuality, his important relationships with black popular culture, and his demise. (EPE's "official" line on Elvis's death is that he died of cardiac arrhythmia.) Canny to the increasingly lucrative dimensions of Elvis's image, EPE is currently pursuing a number of new revenue streams, including restaurants, casinos, musicals, television specials, and advertising venues all about Elvis, yet it does so by holding to a relatively restrictive image of its primary product.
Taken all together, these multiple views of Elvis—along with many others—provide a compelling body of evidence to consider conflicted American attitudes about religion, sex, race, and celebrity, and the construction of postwar American identity. Struggles over Elvis's representation reveal the tensions that come into play when other people's images conflict with our own beliefs and when ownership of Elvis himself is claimed through ownership of his image. Conflicts over Elvis's image parallel those over knowledge itself, over how and what American history should be presented in public schools, over who is entitled to certain ideas and information. Knowledge isn't monolithic or static; there isn't one big seamless narrative of American history or one way of thinking about or seeing American culture. There is no single or fixed image of Elvis either, so our knowledge and understanding of what he represents and what he means are generally indeterminate and open to debate. Conflicts over Elvis's chimerical image articulate deeper questions about the personal politics of looking. Who do we want Elvis to be? Rock-and-roll rebel or Las Vegas superstar? Symbol of whiteness or sexual fantasy? Corporate logo or secular saint? If we admit that Elvis is all these images, and more, we recognize that his representation is mercurial and conflicted, making the meaning of the man and answers to the questions of his contemporary popularity extraordinarily complicated.
Much of this complexity revolves around Elvis's canonization in popular culture, and his conscious construction as a religious icon. Elvis shrines and altars abound, and the ritualized behaviors of his fans, especially during Elvis Week, seem to suggest his contemporary religious signification. Along with others, my initial response to the question "why Elvis?" was oriented toward a fairly superficial equation of Elvis with Jesus and of Elvis fans with religious fanatics. In my case, such reductive reasoning was stimulated especially by the specific circumstances in which I first really became interested in Elvis's image—by staring at a large portrait of Jesus Christ one Saturday in September 1992.
Sitting in the dark that afternoon, I listened to a lecture given by art historian David Morgan about the Protestant underpinnings and broader cultural importance of religious artist Warner Sallman's once enormously popular painting The Head of Christ (1940). Suddenly, looking at the gigantic screen projection of Sallman's portrait of an ash-blond Jesus and reflecting on the estimated 8 billion or so reproductions of that picture that once dominated churches, homes, and public buildings across America and around the world, I thought, "I know that image; I grew up with that image. But I don't `see' that image too much any more in America—and not just because I've been a lapsed Episcopalian since about May 1974." As Morgan segued into a persuasive explanation of how and why Sallman's image of Jesus had lost a certain degree of credibility in a multicultural, post-Vietnam America, I asked myself what image, if any, may have taken it's place: "Whose picture, whose face, do I see today, over and over, again and again, everywhere, commanding as much visual authority as that once held by Sallman's head of Jesus?" And in a flash, a weird sort of epiphanic rush, I thought of Elvis Presley.
I don't really know why I flashed on Elvis that academic afternoon, but the sudden obviousness of his extraordinary visual dominance made a strong, visceral impact. A sense of wonder, what Neil Evernden calls "radical astonishment," took over, with a kind of intensity and presentness that far exceeded any sort of rational registration. I suppose I could have shrugged it off as a National Enquirer kind of moment ("Elvis Touches Prof from Beyond the Grave"). But if I was quite unexpectedly struck by this mysterious revelation of Elvis's visual omnipresence, I was even more curious about why and what it all meant. Provoked by the immediacy of my own intuition, I plunged into what has become this book's primary focus: to explore and analyze the meaning of Elvis Presley's image—his face and his body—in contemporary American culture.
I started by recognizing how removed I was from the whole topic. I had hardly even thought about Elvis Presley before, and I certainly hadn't grown up as an Elvis fan. I pledged allegiance to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, hummed "Lovely Rita" at the dinner table, danced to a 45 of "Get Off My Cloud" in my bedroom. Like lots of other kids in the late 1960s and the 1970s, I put Elvis Presley in the past tense: 1950s, fat, finished, forgotten. Elvis wasn't hip. And some of us thought his efforts to "get [back] in touch with youth culture" were really pretty pathetic. I mean, Elvis was sort of sexy and snarly when he dressed up in black leather in 1968 for his so-called "comeback special," a TV variety show that had him twisting those still tantalizing hips with a whole crew of Nancy Sinatra wannabes. But Elvis was way too polite, too TV, too mainstream, for a generation more turned on by the truly subversive sexuality of crotch-grabbing, lip-smacking performers like Jim Morrison and Mick Jagger.
Elvis made a stab at decrying social injustice in AM-radio hits like "In the Ghetto" (1969), but his histrionic balladeering seemed sappy and insincere to those of us listening to the Temptations' "Ball of Confusion" or the underground FM-radio politics of Buffalo Springfield and Country Joe and the Fish. Elvis tried to outdo the greatest kitsch-meister of them all—Liberace—when he donned rhinestone-studded jumpsuits and twenty-pound superhero capes and karate-jabbed his way through hokey arena acts that had thousands of female fans mobbing the stage for one of his sweat-soaked scarves. But this sort of Las Vegas shtick was largely irrelevant to those of us who went to Woodstock (or wanted to).
I remember reading about Elvis's death ("in the bathroom?" "in his pajamas?") on the front page of the Milwaukee Journal on a hot afternoon in August 1977 and thinking, well, not really thinking much of anything. And I remember seeing Elvis's Memphis mansion for the first time one afternoon in 1982, when along with a busload of other American Studies types I gleefully abandoned the air-conditioned confines of our conference hotel and walked around Graceland's magnolia-planted grounds (the house wasn't open yet for tours). And I recall thinking, well, gee, Graceland's not that grand and Elvis's guitar-shaped swimming pool is awfully teeny and, besides, why would anyone want to live across the street from a strip mall, anyway? So flashing on Elvis on another afternoon years later really came as a surprise—a surprise because I'd never given this guitar-player-singer-entertainer-movie-star-has-been everyone else called "the King" more than about five seconds of attention and yet now I suddenly found myself, well, fascinated with Elvis Presley's omnipresent image.
I began sharing my Saturday afternoon revelation with anyone and everyone, finding Elvis's image everywhere—in ads, on stamps, decorating pot holders, glued to car deodorizers—and chatting up friends, family, colleagues, students, and complete strangers on the bus about what all those images might mean. What I found in all those conversations was how eager people were to talk about Elvis, to testify to how important he was in their lives and how long they had been fans. In my research, I learned about the hundreds of Elvis fan clubs, with tens of thousands of members, officially registered with Elvis Inc. I joined a few clubs myself, including one of the largest, the Elvis Presley Burning Love Fan Club, based in Streamwood, Illinois, and supported by more than a thousand members. I also joined Colorado Graceland, a smaller club in Denver, and began to receive fanzines from clubs all over the country: the Spirit of Elvis Fan Club, the Echo Will Never Fade Fan Club, the Snorkeling Elvises (based in Key West).
I made the pilgrimage to Graceland. I trekked to Tupelo and toured the shotgun shack where Elvis was born and lived as a baby, now a state park with a chapel, memorial garden, museum, and glitzy souvenir stand. Each summer from 1993 to 1997, I went to Memphis in the hellish humidity of August during Elvis Week. I participated in the Candlelight Vigil held on the anniversary of his death and watched fans reverently bearing glowing candles, small bouquets of flowers, handwritten poems, photos, and teddy bears slowly walk up Graceland's twisty driveway to Elvis's grave site for a brief, personal tribute.
I plowed through the books, essays, articles, editorials, graduate student theses, short stories, screenplays, and novels that make up the vast Elvis Culture industry, currently estimated at around 30,000 items, just on Elvis. (One writer argues that there's "a pressing need for someone, somewhere, to establish an encounter therapy group for all these emotionally disturbed authors unable to shake off the compulsion to write books about Elvis Presley." I tend to agree.) I looked over hundreds of Elvis Web pages, both personal and "official," and eavesdropped on various online chat sites. I watched Elvis's movies (more than thirty, ranging from Love Me Tender , in which Elvis plays a singing southern farmboy, to Change of Habit , in which he plays an inner-city doctor and Mary Tyler Moore plays a nun). I watched multiple documentaries, docudramas, and bootleg concert videos. I listened to the music, from the mid-1950s rockabilly composites of black gospel and white country such as "That's All Right" (1954), to the jumpsuited revue schmaltz of "American Trilogy," a standard arena show closer at Elvis's 1970s concerts consisting of "Dixie," "All My Trials," and "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." I sat through hours and hours of Elvis impersonator contests, from regional tourneys at suburban dinner clubs to the most prestigious (and long-lived) gig of them all—the "Images of Elvis' contest held each August in Memphis.
I wrote to small-town and larger urban newspapers across America, from the Ripon Commonwealth Press to the Denver Post, asking editors to print my "Letter to Elvis Fans," which asked fans why they were fans and which Elvis image they liked the most. Hundreds of fans from all over the country generously and enthusiastically responded, many sending me photographs of themselves and their Elvis artwork, others mailing me fan club newsletters and various handmade Elvis items (including a shoe bag printed with tiny pictures of Elvis, sent by the mother of a Delta Airlines flight attendant), all relating their deepest and most passionate feelings about Elvis. Admittedly, my inquiries also prompted a handful of cantankerous responses from those questioning the validity of the entire project. "As a teacher I am sure you could find a more moral and uplifting subject to write a book about than the drug addicted, womanizing, pelvis thrusting, sorry specimen of manhood, ELVIS PRESLEY," wrote one woman from Tennessee, offering yet another image of Elvis.
Most of all, I talked with Elvis fans, especially those who collect Elvis stuff(their term) and make Elvis art (mine). In long conversations in homes and hotel rooms, in coffee shops and family style restaurants (like the Shoney's near Graceland, on Elvis Presley Boulevard), in studios and galleries, on airplanes and in bus stations, we talked about what Elvis means to them and why they are fans. I asked "why Elvis?" and they shared their ideas and observations, many providing an exact date for when they first saw him on TV, or first heard him in concert, or bought their first Elvis record. I explained my own fascination with the image of Elvis everywhere and they nodded and invited me into their houses and apartments, into formerly ordinary spaces transformed into special places that they call Elvis Rooms. Proudly displaying their vast collections of Elvisiana, each treasure and trophy embodying in some fashion his face or his body or his name, fans told me about their personal relationship with Elvis Presley.
Centered around those images, objects, and relationships, this book responds to the question "why Elvis?" by looking at and thinking about the wide-ranging ways in which Elvis is everywhere as an icon, how people—particularly his fans—acknowledge those images, and what they mean in contemporary America. It is ultimately less about Elvis himself, his music, or his critics, than about the visual glut of Elvisiana everywhere and the legion of fans for whom the image of Elvis is especially meaningful. In part, this book is about fandom, about how and why people become fans and what being a fan means in terms of personal identity. But mostly, it is a book about the power of pictures in a predominantly visual culture, about the levels of appeal that images of Elvis have for his fans, and for outsiders like myself. Initiated by an epiphanic flash and my own curiosity about compelling images, this book is even more specifically centered around my questions about Elvis's image, and my search for answers. And while I aim to give representation and voice to Elvis fans, I also recognize the problems and tensions inherent in speaking for others.
Some fans, for example, responded to my queries—particularly those about sex, religion, and race—with hostility. Angered by an outsider attempting to understand Elvis's omnipresent image in ways other than theirs, they were understandably paranoid about the appearance of yet another snotty swipe at what some have called their "fanatical" and "cultist" behaviors. As one Ohio fan put it, "I assume you are not an Elvis Fan or you don't know much about Elvis. If you are not a true Elvis Fan, it may be hard to understand our Love for Elvis." Other fans threatened to undermine my project when I made it clear that I didn't necessarily share their particular ideas about Elvis Culture.
During Elvis Week 1994, for example, I had the opportunity to discuss my interest in Elvis's abiding popularity with several longtime fans over a meal at the Gridiron (Elvis's favorite Memphis hamburger joint). Our conversation turned to the topic of "negative" images of Elvis. One fan commented that she, like many fans, was "angry and insulted" that Elvis was often the subject of tasteless jokes about obesity and drugs on late-night TV talk shows. In her opinion, "disrespectful" images of Elvis, including the infamous National Enquirer cover photo of Elvis in his coffin, should be "banned." I countered with a defense of free speech, arguing for unlimited and self-determined expressions of Elvis. The next day, she pulled me aside at a fan club auction to tell me that she was upset with "the points I was making" and had decided to "tell other Elvis fans to stay away" from me. She did, in fact, "warn" some fans about me, and they, in turn, were wary about my presence in Elvis Culture.
Obviously, there were certain class and power relationships at work in my conversations and meetings with Elvis fans; ethnographic encounters are never free of these tensions. I am a middle-class, highly educated, and highly opinionated college professor. Perhaps more important, I'm not an Elvis fan—which I explained in conversations with fans when they asked me who I was and what I was doing. Or rather, if I like some of his music and I'm fascinated by Elvis's multifaceted image, this book aims for analysis, not adoration. My own biases in terms of class, race, and gender equity, and in favor of free speech, conflicted with those held by some (although hardly all) of the Elvis fans I talked with during the course of this project; my status as an Elvis Culture outsider meant that my inquiries about Elvis's image were occasionally met with angry responses from fans who were suspicious of the questions and the questioner.
By self-consciously foregrounding the conflicts and contradictions evident in Elvis Culture, where competition among many fans (and others) about Elvis's "correct" image doesn't engender much tolerance for those who see him differently, I've hopefully invited "judgment, evaluation, even disagreement" about my own interpretations of the ethnographic and visual evidence-and emphasized that they are my own interpretations. Hopefully, too, I've avoided completely falling into the "voxpop style" of audience-based cultural studies scholarship, whereby academic writers breathlessly construct the native intelligence, consumer savvy, and heroic oppositional politics of "the people" and, by so doing, narcissistically celebrate their discovery of living, breathing, postmodern revolutionaries.
For some writers, Elvis Culture, as a key part of the "culture of celebrity" and mass commercial culture in general, is evidence of a profound pathology in contemporary America. Marxist and neoconservative critics alike see much of contemporary American culture "as ugly or dangerous, a symptom of the American decline into decadence, ignorance, and triviality." Theorists ranging from Stuart Ewen and Neil Postman to Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz argue that public life has been sapped and gutted because Americans have transferred their allegiances to commercial culture; have, in turn, inappropriately imposed consumer values onto such a sphere as politics; and have shown themselves incapable of distinguishing between them. Commercial culture is perceived as an opiate of illusory satisfactions, an ideological tool that, as Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer and more recent Frankfurt School descendants argue, distracts, pacifies, and controls the masses.
Following that view, Elvis fans are seen as the unempowered recipients of trivial images and numbing ideologies provided by a dominant commercial culture—especially by Elvis Inc., which aims to control the ubiquitous amount of stuff that circulates in Elvis Culture. Surface, not substance, dominates; image has overtaken reality; imitation has replaced originality; passivity has replaced personal and civic activism. Jean Baudrillard posits that Americans have entered an "age of simulation" where "signs of the real" are understood as "the real itself." All of which raises profound questions about the public sphere and American culture: What happens to meaningful public discourse and civic participation if commercialism dominates as the mode of reference? How can a democratic culture be sustained if authenticity and reality are no longer discernible but are mimicked, stylized, and marketed?
The primary assumption made by these critics is that images control human behavior in unmediated, direct, and closed ways. The prescription suggested by some is to insist that the "empty image" be overthrown and demystified, that the manipulative operations of commercial culture be exposed so that consumers will recognize and, it is then supposed, challenge and oppose them. Michael Parenti demands: "Resist we must. The public is not able to exercise much democratic control over image manipulation unless it is aware of the manipulation. The first step, then, is to develop a critical perspective. When it comes to the media, criticism is a form of defense." An ameliorative offered by more puritanical critics is to shape resistance into abstinence, thus creating a cleaner and essentially monolithic culture that censors or excludes that which is deemed imitative or decadent.
I don't completely disagree with those who see commercial culture as illusory, empty, and trite; I, too, am often disgusted, or more generally bored, with the vacuity of a lot of contemporary American culture (like Baywatch). But the hand-wringing critiques just noted tend to treat people as helpless half-wits completely manipulated by "the media" and their own abnormal desires. They also tend to treat visual culture as something shallow and superficial, "empty" of real significance because it is too full of contradictions and confusion. Stuart Hall, John Fiske, and Janice Radway, among others, challenge these assumptions of an all-powerful mass culture by considering how audiences interpret—or negotiate—texts, images, and objects. In her study of the mostly female readership of contemporary romance novels, Radway explains how women "resist, alter, and reappropriate the materials designed elsewhere for their purchase."
Such critiques call for an understanding of audience reception in the sociology of culture. By and large, however, and mostly because of its roots in literary criticism, reception and response theory remains focused on how audiences derive meaning from texts, especially written sources. It tends to ignore the fact that people understand images in very different ways. Visual culture is very much the product of response, the result of active and subjective relationships that take place between ourselves and the things we look at. Its ongoing construction consists of images and objects, their makers and viewers, and the spaces in between—physical and psychological spaces where we "behold" and respond to pictures and things. The real significance of visual culture is not that it is empty, but that it is overflowing with images that are multifaceted and ambivalent, that fluctuate in meaning because of our own fluctuating responses, and that refuse to be oversimplified into any all-encompassing theoretical construct. The power of images is not that they control us in unmediated ways (if they control us at all), but that they tease certain kinds of emotive responses (desire, hatred, faith, empathy) and that out of our reactions, and commingled with lots of other cultural baggage, we produce meaning. The work of art, writes Wendy Steiner, is "a virtual reality which we invest with value.... Alert to meaning and to pleasure, we go to art for an enlightened beguilement, exercising our freedom throughout."
Most accounts of visual culture concentrate on its form and content: the shapes and subjects of paintings and sculptures, the way they look, the stories they tell. The context of art—who painted a picture and why, when it was exhibited, how much it is worth—has steadily become the primary scholarly focus of art history over the past several decades. Attention to the commercial and social institutions that promote and distribute art, to the interplay between the fine arts and popular culture, and to the ways that art reinforces or resists racism and sexism importantly situate the value and power of images and objects. But only rarely do art historians and critics consider what visual culture means to people, and how they use it in meaningful ways. Without ignoring any of these approaches, this book concentrates on Elvis fans and considers the intensity of their response to his image, it looks at their visual choices and analyzes them in terms of individual agency. It aims to show how visual culture is embedded in everyday social practice and how, by understanding how and why people look at pictures of Elvis, we can learn a lot about the links and gaps between images and identity and making and looking, thereby speculating about why Elvis's image is so dominant in contemporary America.
The social practices of Elvis fans include collecting, arranging, and displaying Elvis images and objects—stuff that is both handmade and mass-marketed—in specially designated Elvis Rooms or Elvis shrines. They include making Elvis artworks. They include making Elvis over through imitation or impersonation. They include participating in the ritual activities of Elvis Week each August. Most of all, they include the aesthetic experience—the sheer pleasure—of looking at images of Elvis. By engaging in any or all of these acts, Elvis fans continually revitalize his popularity, reworking, reimagining, and reinventing Elvis to mesh with their personal and social preferences. Fans do not simply derive meaning from Elvis's image, but actually "make" Elvis in dramatic and deeply emotional ways. These acts of cultural production are significant and charged and, I argue, key to the dominance that Elvis's image holds in contemporary American culture.
If Elvis's best biographer, Peter Guralnick, aims to "rescue" Elvis "from the dreary bondage of myth, from the oppressive aftershock of cultural significance," this book is explicitly focused on contemporary myth and cultural meaning. And if critic Greil Marcus argues that the key to understanding the cultural symbolism of "a dead but evanescent Elvis Presley" lies in his music, the music alone doesn't explain the abiding visual dominance of Elvis's image. That can be understood only by looking carefully and thoughtfully at Elvis pictures and objects, by talking with Elvis artists and fans, and by seriously reflecting on the power—religious, political, personal—of popular culture imagery in late-twentieth-century America.
Seeing and saying that Elvis is everywhere, that Elvis is iconic, that Elvis is a saint, and that Elvis fans have constructed what may amount to a quasi-religion is fairly obvious. A more profound issue remains how and why certain popular culture figures become American icons, and how and why Elvis is such an icon. Looking at images of Elvis and reflecting on their origins, their audiences, their appeal, and their authority, this book aims to unravel the tangle of meanings that Elvis has and holds in contemporary American culture.
List of Illustrations
Images of Elvis
Paying Homage to Elvis
Who Owns Elvis?
Elvis Is America