NEW PERSPECTIVES ON ELVIS
A One Day International Conference
21 August 2017, University of Memphis
16 August 2017 will be the fortieth anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley, probably the most influential, controversial and popular music performer of the twentieth century. ‘New Perspectives on Elvis’ is a day-long international event held at the University of Memphis. The aim is to offer fresh perspectives on the icon, grounding him in the context of his place and time, and also interpreting him in relation to developments both inside and outside the academy.
Michael Bertrand, Tennessee State University
Claude Chastagner, University Paul Valery, France
Sara Cohen, University of Liverpool
Neil Nehring, University of Texas at Austin
ELVIS PRESLEY AND THE IRREPRESSIBLE INFLUENCE OF SOUTHERN EVANGELICALISM
James Goff, Jnr, Appalachia State University
Forty years after Elvis Presley’s death, untold millions recognize him by his first name alone, the mention of which conjures up an immediate set of images and sounds. Yet the real man remains elusive precisely because of competing images and sounds. Nowhere is this more true than in the realm of religion, where Presley emerged even in life as an enigmatic mix of American religious values and hedonistic excesses. Enamored by the gospel music stage, his earliest musical heroes were gospel singers—both black and white performers of the genre. He was likewise influenced and haunted by the decidedly evangelical and Pentecostal strictures of his youth. As he grew older, he broke most if not all of the rules of this early church training as well as the stated wishes of his mother Gladys—a woman who pampered, spoiled, and sheltered him as long as she could. Her death in 1958 marked a major turning point in Presley’s rather fragile family structure and her funeral marked the last official connection he had with the Assemblies of God, the most important denomination of his youth. Even so, religion and gospel music remained important. When Presley died on August 16, 1977, two things of religious portent stood out: the book he was reading at the time of his death, A Scientific Search for the Face of Jesus, and the album on his stereo (presumably the last one he played), an unreleased copy of the Stamps Quartet’s Sweet, Sweet Spirit. This paper will examine the religious moorings that both propelled and challenged Presley’s adult life. While recent scholarly work, most notably that of Randall Stephens, has argued that Pentecostalism helped give rise to the sights and sounds of early rock ‘n roll, missing is the degree to which Presley came to drink more broadly from the well of southern evangelicalism, in large part because southern Pentecostals were themselves in the midst of major transition.
Professor James R. Goff, Jr is Chair of the Department of History at the Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. His research interests include American religious history and gospel music. Professor Goff Jr’s publications include Close Harmony: A History of Southern Gospel (University of North Carolina Press, 2002) and “Conflicted by the Spirit: The Religious Life of Elvis Presley” Assemblies of God Heritage 28 (2008):22-31.
POSTHUMOUS REPRESENTATIONS OF ELVIS: FROM CULTURAL ICON TO TRANSPROPERTY
Daniel Downes and June Madeley, University of New Brunswick St John, Canada
Elvis Presley died at the age of 42 in August of 1977. Since then the King of Rock and Roll has embodied a number of after lives. A number of processes of mediation have prevented the King from resting in peace since his death. Fans and impersonators have kept him alive via interactive performance and personal memory and through visits to the Graceland Memorial, and in recent decades his translation into fictionalized form embodying a broken, refracted and often voiceless Elvis usually nameless or referred to as “Bubba.” These representations draw on various post-mortem understandings and portrayals of Elvis as a signifier of contemporary cultural issues. We would argue that these mediations are also responses to fear of trademark infringement and right of publicity laws. This paper will explore the posthumous and continued use of Presley’s image, rather than his music. Elvis resonates because of a range of cultural myths that encircle him, ‘and the multiple and contradictory ways in which he is articulated to those myths’ (see Rodman, 1996 p. 40, emphasis added). However, the commercial use of Elvis’s image by his estate, in the form of Elvis Presley Enterprises (EPE), and their concentrated efforts to control the meanings of those images, transforms Elvis into a transpropertied commodity form exploiting new uses of the right of publicity. Here, we argue that the image of Elvis propagated and policed by EPE has been highly sanitized and limited. In addition, we examine the practices of Elvis Tribute Artists (ETAs) to show the tensions between the social and cultural appropriation of his image and his status as a corporately-controlled, transpropertied cultural commodity.
Daniel Downes is Associate Professor of Information and Communication Studies at the University of New Brunswick at Saint John, and Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. An academic, musician, and broadcaster, Downes has published articles on copyright, the structure of the new media economy, and the role of media in the construction of community and personal identity. His research interests include the relationships between cultural and maker practice and technology, and the role of intellectual property in the regulation of cultural industries and popular culture. He is the author of Interactive Realism: the Poetics of Cyberspace (McGill University Press, 2005) and co-editor of Post-Colonial Distances: The Study of Popular Music in Canada and Australia with Bev Diamond and Denis Crowdy (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008).
June M. Madeley is Assistant Professor of Information and Communication Studies at the University of New Brunswick in Saint John, Canada. She is interested in the content, production and reception of various communications media and applies a focus on class, gender, ethnicity and racialization to her work. Her current research centers on reception among fans of anime and manga (Japanese comics) and she has published work on this topic in The Journal of Popular Culture and the Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics. In addition to research in the area of fan studies, science fiction and Japanese popular culture she has contributed to research analyzing Shrek, The Rolling Stones and Elvis.
THE GREAT ELVIS PRESLEY INDUSTRY: TRANSMEDIA STARDOM IN POSTWAR HOLLYWOOD
Landon Palmer, Indiana University
Since at least the early sync-sound era, motion picture companies have recruited music stars for film roles, adapting their existing presence on radio and the stage to the spectacle of the big screen. Following the decline of the studio system, motion picture companies extended this practice to casting rock stars for screen roles. In this case, such casting served to structure cinema’s emergent relations with competing media industries such as recording and television. By forming a bridge between a postwar Hollywood and the growing recording business, Elvis Presley’s screen career demonstrates how film stardom during this period could serve extracinematic and cross-industrial goals for media industries. Placing Presley’s screen career at the intersection of celebrity studies and media industries studies, this paper details how the old guard of the studio era developed Presley into a film star in order to adapt to challenges posed to Hollywood’s power, forming around Presley a system of commodity production wherein filmmaking served as a vehicle for music recording and vice versa. By surveying the production histories of Presley’s films at 20th Century Fox, Paramount, and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer between 1956 and 1961, this paper illustrates how studios utilized Presley as a means to draw from content outside of cinema in hopes of integrating a former assembly line mode of production into the expanded media landscape of the 1950s. Challenging the narrative surrounding Presley’s film career as a block of interchangeable titles, this paper (which is part of a current book-length project on rock stars in film) contextualizes his filmography within Hollywood’s postwar efforts to adopt and compete with new media – including television and long-playing records – as well as emergent cultural developments and modes of consumer practice in the form of youth music.
Landon Palmer is a PhD Candidate studying Film and Media in the Department of Communication and Culture at Indiana University currently finishing a dissertation on the cross-industrial history of casting rock stars on film between 1956 and 1986. In addition to articles on popular music and media culture in iaspm@journal: Journal of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music and Celebrity Studies, he has published on Elvis Presley’s early film career for Music, Sound, and the Moving Image and a forthcoming anthology on the work of director Michael Curtiz.
ELVIS: A VIEW FROM NORTHERN EUROPE
Bertel Nygaard and Rasmus Rosenørn, Aarhus University, Denmark
Elvis Presley became a transnational cultural phenomenon already in the weeks following his famous ‘gyrating’ performance of Hound Dog on Milton Berle’s television show on June 5, 1956. While no-one abroad could actually watch Elvis on TV, and only very few had yet heard his records, journals and newspapers in faraway countries echoed the commotion caused by the Elvis phenomenon in particular ways, reflecting different outside approaches to the US and its significations. There are only few and brief studies of the patterns of foreign reception and use of Elvis as part of specific, historical constructions of cultural meanings and practices. This paper studies the transnational establishment and early transformations of Elvis as a transnational cultural phenomenon through a close look at the flows of relevant information, rumours and signs from the specific vantage point of the Danish public sphere. Through newspapers, journals, radio programs, movie theatre programs, records, and early fan club activities, we intend to map several modes of relating to Elvis, roughly corresponding to temporal phases in the cultural reception and in Elvis’ own stylistic changes: (1) initial demonizations and exclusions of Elvis and rock’n’roll from the sphere of culture; (2) more tolerant (though often condescending) conceptions of Elvis as ‘low-brow’ culture; (3) acceptance of Elvis as part of hybrid conceptions of culture (i.e. as part of a specific youth culture); (4) normalization of Elvis as a part of mainstream culture. These different modes and phases all emerged within a short span of time, from 1956 till the late 1960’s, all in specific forms and with peculiar ‘timings’ shaped by the receiving Danish context. Each mode and phase contained specific configurations of more fundamental and general negotiations of boundaries between noise and music; music and the human (sexual) body; generations; ethnic identities; gender roles; and social classes.
Dr Bertel Nygaard is an Associate Professor in Modern History at Aarhus University, Denmark. His academic work focuses on the social and cultural contradictions of modernity. He has written extensively on modern social revolutions, utopian constructions and temporality as well as on the cultural construction of politics in Europe after the French Revolution.
Dr Rasmus Rosenørn is curator at Ragnarock: The Museum for Pop, Rock and Youth Culture. His academic work focusses on youth cultures of 20th century popular music, especially Danish and European receptions of American styles, from early jazz to 1950’s rock’n’roll to contemporary dance music.
ELVIS OUTSIDE US: A DARK SHADOW IN THE TOTAL COLD WAR
Marilisa Merolla, Università di Roma, Italy
On September 9th, 1956, CBS broadcasted the first of three Elvis Presley appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show. Even before his voice, his deliberate walk and intense body movements emerged from the darkness of the studio and marked a dramatic discontinuity with the past. When he started singing ‘Don’t Be Cruel,’ it was clear that Sam Philips’ prophecy was fully realized: “the Negro sound and the Negro feel” had won over the white public, and not only in the United States. Elvis was the dark made visible. Examining the Italian case, this proposal moves from two separate perspectives: one inspired by the psychological interpretation of Elvis’ impact as a sort of white archetype of the blues on European societies, and another one anchored to the current debate among historians about music and international relations during the Cold War. This paper uses these two separate categories to investigate the impact of Elvis’ rock’n’roll music on the European and Mediterranean landscape of Post-World War II, when – with Eisenhower’s People to People program – blues, jazz, soul and rock’n’roll were used by the US Department of State as “sonic weapons” to combat the perception of the US as a racist society. In fact, paradoxically, a more authentic representation of Elvis as the “dark side” of the American way of life arrived in its raw version through the military model launched by the soldiers in charge at the AFSouth (Allied Forces Southern Europe) Headquarters, the NATO command centre for the defence of France, Greece, Italy and Turkey. Overcoming filters and censorship of the local political and cultural institutions through the military model, Elvis embodied the explosion of rock’n’roll music, which was considered a real threat by Italian political parties (Catholic, Socialist and Communist). In the political contest of the Cold War, the threat for the main traditional political parties was the “laicization” (secularization) of the youth.
Marilisa Merolla is Associate Professor in Contemporary History at “La Sapienza” Università di Roma. She is the founder and the director of Music Making History Research Unit which co-operates with several Universities and teaching facilities throughout Europe and United States. Her degree dissertation in political science was on psychology of music, while her doctoral dissertation in contemporary history was on the Italian mass media. She has taught and made numerous conference presentations on Italian contemporary history, the history of mass communications and sound as historical source. Her publications include the monograph Rock’n’Roll the Italian Way.
ELVIS BEYOND BORDERS: CELEBRITIZING IMPERIALISM AND THE WESTERNIZATION OF THE GLOBAL VILLAGE
Kalemba Kizito, University of Memphis
The iconic figure of Elvis Presley is not only a celebrated marker for Memphis City tourism, it also stands in enduring testament to the power of celebrity legacies. The tendency to defy mortality and live on in the grandeur of historical embellishment is a compelling reason to pay attention to the cultural significance of celebrities. Elvis was at the pioneering intersection of the mediated celebrity iconography, built to command several personas as a sex symbol, rock star musician, film actor, and fashion star, all of which are the associated attributes that society has come to expect of celebrated cultural icons and personalities. In this paper at the 40th anniversary of his death, I use this commemoration to reflect on the the meanings of celebrity in global culture today. Using a cultural studies approach, I extrapolate a critical reflection from the biography of Elvis to ponder on the question of the social utility of celebrities as products of a highly mediated culture industry. I argue that the cultural construction of the celebrity is not only a consequence of market logic that seeks to profit from the glorification and commodification of individuals, but that at its root, it is a reflection of an aspect of western culture that yearns for superiority of and over a constructed other. The other is a result of the attendant parasocial dynamics that result from a manufactured hierarchy of human value placing the few as culturally superior over the many who participate in this mediated economy of social relationships. As a benefit to scholarly inquiry, this paper invites a critical reflection on nuanced connections between celebrity as a trope and its relationship to concepts of ideology that transcend just social hierarchies into an analysis of a globalized cultural phenomenon of western cultural superiority over the rest.
Kalemba Kizito is a second year doctoral student at the University of Memphis. His research interests are in critical media and cultural studies. A primary focus of Kalemba’s research and scholarly work is the role of emergent technology as cultural force: how and what ways technologies of the digital era are mediating both local and global social and political relationships. Currently he is looking at how surveillance and its extensive apparatuses function to propagate and monitor differences in society. Through his research, he hopes to understand the cultural dimensions of mediating difference, and the role different technologies play in this regard.
ELVIS IS IN THE BUILDING: THE KING, RCA STUDIO B, AND THE PERSONFICATION OF MUSICAL PRODUCTION
Robert Fry, Vanderbilt University, Nashville
This presentation explores the relationship between sound, celebrity, and place as manifested in Nashville’s music tourism industry, focusing specifically on the guided tour of RCA Studio B, Nashville’s only studio tour. Beginning with a bus ride from the Country Music Hall of Fame, fans are transported from the museum space that preserves history to the studio space where that history was made, as if they are traveling back in time to a storied location within the historic and mythologized Music Row. Because they are taken there by bus, and the studio is not otherwise open for walk-up tours, the studio’s location seems hidden or undisclosed, providing visitors with the sense that they are traveling into historic Nashville and allowing them to immerse themselves in the space that fully established Nashville as the home of country music. The emotional experience of interacting with the famed studio is enhanced through stories of celebrities and the recording process, best represented by the studio’s focus on Elvis Presley. As the tour narrative unfolds, fans are allowed to stand where Elvis recorded, touch the very piano heard in his recordings, and hear intimate stories of Elvis’ interaction with the space. During the tour, the atmosphere of Elvis Presley’s legendary creative process is recreated, reanimating the myths of both Elvis and RCA Studio B. Through the RCA Studio tour, Elvis’ songs and creative process come to life, authenticating both musician and studio.
Dr Robert W. Fry is Senior Lecturer in Music History and Literature at Vanderbilt University’s Blair School of Music in Nashville, TN, where he teaches courses in global music, jazz, blues, music in the American South, and music tourism. His current research focuses on music tourism and the role of fan culture in the production of a musical place, which he writes about in his forthcoming book, Performing Nashville: Music Tourism and Country Music’s Main Street (2017), part of Palgrave Macmillan’s series, Leisure Studies in a Global Era.
#OperationBlueSuedeShoes: Race, Place, and the Evolution of Elvis’ Meaning for Memphis
Amanda Nell Edgar, University of Memphis
Each August, fans converge on Memphis to memorialize and celebrate Elvis Presley. Like all fan pilgrimages, the ceremonial visitation of Graceland is important to Presley’s loyal audiences, providing a spiritual sense of connection with “The King.” When Black Lives Matter protesters gathered outside the home-turned-museum in August 2016, an act dubbed #OperationBlueSuedeShoes, the demonstration highlighted Memphis’ historical racial tensions and equal treatment in public spaces including the area just beyond Graceland’s property boundaries. After three protesters were arrested and ordered to leave the area, Senator Harris pointed out that if “a crowd is allowed to enter … humming Elvis Presley tunes — then another crowd that is chanting ‘black lives matter’ must also enter.” Last August’s event highlights two coordinated frames of analysis: race and place. On one hand, much has been written about the racial influences of Elvis’ musical style. The perception that Elvis performed “Black music” but received substantially more financial benefit than his Black colleagues remains a lasting legacy in Memphis. This critique is rooted in place as well, since in the context of Memphis’ de facto segregation, space continues to influence the ways racial equality is understood. Eventually unsubstantiated rumours that Graceland planned to respond to #OperationBlueSuedeShoes by continuously playing Elvis’ “In the Ghetto” to drown out protesters, therefore spoke to long-standing tensions regarding both race and place. This presentation uses the frames of race and place to offer an analysis of personal accounts and public discourses surrounding the August 2016 protests to argue that musical context travels with audiences, including non-fans and anti-fans, so that issues like Black Lives Matter and #OperationBlueSuedeShoes become important considerations in our understandings of the contemporary meaning of Elvis and his music, particularly as these meanings are situated in proximity to Graceland and the annual fan pilgrimage and celebration.
Dr. Amanda Nell Edgar is an Assistant Professor of Communication at the University of Memphis. Dr. Edgar’s research explores the entanglement of sound and identity in popular culture. Her work has appeared in Women’s Studies in Communication, Critical Studies in Media Communication, Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, and other journals, and has been featured on the National Communication Association’s Communication Currents.