Elvis - Roots, Image, Comeback, Phenomenon - Mark Duffett
Mark Duffett [+]
University of Chester
In the 1960s, Elvis’s cycle of teen movies represent a period where the singer is said to have lost his social significance and creative edge. Indeed the contradiction between Elvis performing formulaic songs for children on the movie lot and then meditating off stage allows fans to see him as a figure bored by his own media output; a shift that enables them to collude with Elvis himself in dismissing the worst of his catalogue during this period. Elvis’s Hollywood years raise the issue of the exploitation of labour power, and his complex relationship with the Colonel. The movies nevertheless represent a rapidly evolving genre that greatly extended Elvis’s musical reach, audience base and global brand. As a singer, Elvis made a number of changes during the period, adding a variety of musical styles to his catalogue. He also made his interest in gospel more prominent and gradually shifted into a revamped, funkier, more soulful sound that reflected the changing preferences of the period. Towards the end of his film cycle he contradicted his manager several times, making crucial decisions about his NBC TV special (sponsored by Singer and known then simply as then as Elvis), and then, for example, rebelliously recording ‘Suspicious Minds’ during the famous American Sound sessions in Memphis. Rather than attempting to critically rescue his narrative films, my aim in this section is to understand the extent to which those seemingly apolitical moments of entertainment spectacle were permeable to the historical concerns of their era. Elvis worked as an ambassador for Hollywood in this phase of his career. His films drew upon and inflected his image to carefully address changing gender and class relations. They reference both past roots (cowboys, communities, steamboats, carnivals) and future technologies (media industries, helicopters, racing cars, jet airplanes). Through the chocolate box patina of family entertainment, Elvis’s Hollywood features chart the changing social relations of a particularly tumultuous era of American history characterized by the rise of the baby boomer generation, the emergence of the permissive society and the growing independence of women. The movies frequently portray Elvis as an itinerant Southerner comfortable in a new society. Scholars such as Peter Nazareth (1997) have begun to understand Elvis as an intercultural figure. Beyond the predictable comedy moments and fist fights, a chronological viewing of Elvis’s movie cycle suggests that the singer was carefully positioned as a citizen of the melting pot who kept his Southern charm and could therefore act is an intermediary who could show those of other ethnicities how they might be integrated into the modernist project. Debates introduced in this section will include: • How and why has canonization developed in relation to Elvis’s catalogue? • What agency did Elvis have in his own career, and why does asking that question matter? • How have the diverse aspects of Elvis’s image and music reinforced each other? • How did the Hollywood era position Elvis in relation to the concerns of a rapidly changing modern society?