Presley, Elvis 1935–1977
Elvis Aaron Presley, American singer, guitarist, and actor, was the most successful of the mid-1950s artists who were identified with the new genre of rock 'n' roll. Often called the King of Rock 'n' Roll, Presley was crucial in the formation of the images and sounds of early rock and its mythology. Popular music has often been a generative site for representations of masculinity, sexuality, and race, and Presley's career embodied many of the controversies that circulate around these social categories.
Born in the American South during the middle of the Depression, Presley had many musical influences, ranging from the gospel of the Assemblies of God Pentecostal churches he attended (which were among the first racially integrated congregations) to country, bluegrass, jump blues, blues, rhythm and blues, and popular ballads. His professional career began in 1954 when he recorded the Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup blues number "That's All Right" with the Bill Monroe bluegrass song "Blue Moon of Kentucky" on the B-side. Presley's career is often broken into four phases: his early rock phase, his movie career in the 1960s, the 1968 Comeback Special, and Las Vegas in the 1970s. The first phase of his career, generally considered to have ended in 1957 with his induction into the U.S. military, tends to generate the most praise from rock critics, along with the '68 Comeback Special.
Presley's early image was that of a longhaired working-class greaser with big sideburns who sported clothes from Lansky Brothers on Beale Street, a store with a predominantly African-American customer base. Although he was soft-spoken and unfailingly polite, his image and musical sound were very much in opposition to the crew-cut, All-American standard of mainstream, middle-class, teenage suburban masculinity. He mixed white, working-class, Southern masculine codes with African-American masculine codes and some feminine codes (he wore his hair long and also went on stage wearing eye shadow). While the newly emerging youth demographic, especially teen girls, flocked to his concerts, adults were increasingly concerned with his displays of sexuality. His performances were denounced as devil music from church pulpits and his records were banned from radio stations. Frequently, attempts were made to censor his sexuality and tame the hysteria that would grip audiences who watched him on stage. In August 1956, a Juvenile Court judge in Florida called Presley a "savage" and threatened to arrest him if he shook his body while performing at Jacksonville's Florida Theatre, claiming his music undermined the morals of American youth. His early career was marked by many similar attempts to contain his body, including his famous 1957 appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, where he was filmed only from the waist up. This era symbolically ended with the shearing of Presley's long hair during his induction into the U.S. Army in 1958.
What followed was a period in the 1960s when his sound embraced more popular crooning influences, like that of Dean Martin (1917–1995), and he spent most of the decade starring in successful Hollywood films and releasing soundtrack albums. Although those films were financially successful, for some critics they represented the emasculation and mainstreaming of a rock rebel. However, such views uphold a binary of masculine rock/feminine pop to which Presley never subscribed. After his Hollywood period, he came back into the rock scene through his televised '68 Comeback Special, a much-praised return to his roots as a black leather-clad rocker. Soon after, he installed himself as an extraordinarily successful Las Vegas performer, wearing white rhinestone-encrusted jumpsuits with high collars and courting an older fan base.
In 1992 the U.S. Postal Service announced a commemorative stamp of Presley and asked the public to vote on which image should adorn it, the young rock 'n' roller or the older white jumpsuited Vegas Presley. The public overwhelmingly chose the image of the young Presley. However, the ensuing debate highlighted many of the tensions around Presley and his image. Although many rock critics have praised his machismo, his toughness, and the rebellious sexuality of his early period, there is more to his image than aggressive masculinity. Sue Wise has deconstructed the "butch god" formation of Presley's image, noting that it was mostly a construction of male writers and pointing out that he had other images, such as the sensitive teddy bear of "Love Me Tender."
Yet there are complications even within the butch sex god of songs like "Hound Dog." This song was originally a hit by blues shouter Big Mama Thornton, and the gender ambiguity is still present in the Presley version. Additionally, the infamous pelvic gyrations that were typically featured in Presley's performances of "Hound Dog" came from a Las Vegas burlesque show that Presley and his band had seen while on tour. As Robert Fink has pointed out, Presley's macho performance of sexuality was in part a copy of a female strip show, and in fact, Presley was frequently compared to strippers in 1956, the year of "Hound Dog." In his June 6 New York Times column, the journalist Jack Gould dismissed Presley as a "virtuoso of the hootchy-kootchy," noting that Presley's "one specialty is an accented movement of the body that heretofore has been primarily identified with the repertoire of the blonde bombshells of the burlesque runway."
Marjorie Garber has elaborated a theory of Presley as a female impersonator, situating him on an unmarked transvestite continuum with Rudolph Valentino and Liberace. She analyzes Presley's self-display, his artificiality, his status as object of the gaze, his wearing of makeup, and media focus on his hips, lips, and weight. Garber's focus is on the Vegas-era Presley, and she categorizes him as a type of covert drag queen. However, Presley's status as butch lesbian icon (along with James Dean and Marlon Brando) points to even more complex appropriations of his masculinity and sexuality.
Another important aspect of Presley's position in the discourse of gender and sexuality is the legion of impersonators who copy his look and mannerisms. In addition to drag king Elvis impersonators (such as San Francisco's Elvis Herselvis), there are impersonators of all different ethnicities. As a figure of impersonation he has somehow attained a status beyond race and gender—rather than male or female impersonation, there is Elvis impersonation. Presley seems to have become an ambiguous but affectively intense figure who can personify an almost infinite number of sexualities and gender configurations, from Southern working-class to lesbian to gay male to heterosexual, from tender to tough, from American icon to outsider rebel.
Doss, Sue. 1999. Elvis Culture: Fans, Faith, & Image. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press.
Fink, Robert. 1998. "Elvis Everywhere: Musicology and Popular Music Studies at the Twilight of the Canon." American Music 16(2): 135-179.
Garber, Marjorie. 1997. Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety. New York: HarperPerennial.
Marcus, Greil. 1997. Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock 'n' Roll Music. 4th rev. edition. New York: Plume.
Wise, Sue. 1990. "Sexing Elvis." In On Record: Rock, Pop, and the Written Word, ed. Simon Frith and Andrew Goodwin. New York: Routledge.