Tuesday, May 3, 2016

3/8: Elvis Sightings: Whiteness, Taste, and Southern Boys (Arielle Sitrick Core Post #3)


Elvis and Marilyn are two separate stars of a similar condition. Each had and continues to have a cult following and a lasting visual iconography in culture. They were working class and gave themselves to their fans. Sex appeal and charisma were their strongest suits, they are remembered for these qualities after their premature deaths.

Western culture is visual. In Elvis, elements of Brando, Dean, and Valentino are present –Brando and Dean’s with Elvis as a “bad boy” of sorts, and Valentino in the hyper-feminized look and feel. He is a pstiche of those before him, and unique to himself as well. “When Elvis adapted Black music, dress, and style, he also appropriated some of the sexuality and scandalizing power of Black bodies. Elvis, the White boy who sang Black, was doubly dangerous because he could appear so innocuous and polite: reporters always commented on how Elvis always said ‘Yes, ma’am’ and ‘No, sir’ (in much the way of ‘good negroes’) and was so soft-spoken–right up until he began to sing and cause the daughters of Suburban America to have public orgasms” (253 Sweeney). These contradictions in his persona made it impossible to pin Elvis down; they contributed to his existence as a powerhouse and the father of rock n’ roll. “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…it was what took place between Elvis and his audiences that really accelerated his popular culture hold” (2 Doss).

“Elvis wore his hips in his eyes, on his lips, and within his heart” (256, Sweeney). Elvis’s hip swinging made girls scream, wet their seats, cry and made Christian groups and parents wring their hands. The function of unruliness to culture is to provide release so that order is maintained in a given setting. Sanctioned chaos is instrumental in societal upkeep. “The pleasures of the carnival are subordinate pleasures: unruly and lower-class, vulgar, undisciplined. During carnival, the working classes are not working; they are out of their place and out of line…Carnival is the place of laughter, bad taste, loud and irreverent music, parody, free speech, bodily functions, eating and feasting, a place where excess is glorified. Carnival is a world not without rank, but one where rank is allowed to be reversed, showing the potential of society without hierarchy (Sweeney 254). Mass culture is a machine for showing desire, including the desire to rebel, and certainly including the desire for sex, a repressed desire in Western culture. Elvis opened the sex discussions in a time when national tensions were high (with the Cold War and Korean war impending). He served as an outlet for the masses and a controlled chaos-creator. Ultimately, he was more object of the spectator than he was a spectator himself, and suffered for it, while his legacy lives on. 

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