Article written by Amy Exton
While researching the notion of fandom, Elvis’ name cropped up relentlessly. Not being a fan, I tackled the mountain of theory on the subject unenthusiastically, but this initial disinterest gradually morphed into an acute fascination as I came to realise the bizarre nature of his cultural presence.
Everyone knows Elvis Presley. Elvis was the King.
Even now, thirty-five years after his death, there remains the invincible Elvis fandom – an impenetrable community still loyally transfixed on their idol.
They worship Elvis like a demi-god, possessing a determination that might single-handedly take credit for Elvis’ ubiquitous reign. Having turned their idol into a phenomenon via their extreme worship, they have now become a phenomenon themselves.
Elvis mania is both multifaceted and global, with traces found in the most unexpected of places. I once stumbled on an Elvis Guesthouse in India’s Holiest City, Varanasi. Our host sported a bees-waxed quiff, had adopted the name Elvis, and fooled guests into believing the King had once stayed ‘in this very room.’
But this Varanasi Elvis is a mere amateur when compared to the extremity of the American fandom. It was for this reason exactly that I embarked on a trip to the states, travelling between Memphis and Vegas, in a journey otherwise known as the Elvis Pilgrimage.
After visiting Graceland – the Mecca for the Elvis faith and the second most visited private home in America – I travelled to the home-cum-shrine of Paul McLeod, a die-hard enthusiast who has transformed his humble Mississippi abode into a crude replica of Graceland. Now a popular roadside attraction, he invites curious visitors to partake in the tour of his labyrinthine home and tackle the hazardous mountains of Elvis memorabilia – albeit at their peril!
This obsessive accumulation is rife within the fandom. It appears the extensive mass of crude merchandise available fuels the fan’s appetite – whose virile consumption in turn then fuels the market. It’s a symbiotic relationship that apparently never tires.
Las Vegas provides the next stop – a place swamped by the universal phenomenon of the Elvis Impersonator (or Elvii as they’re collectively known). Vegas – the home of the Elvis Wedding – has quickly become synonymous with the King. Here, the perma-tanned, jumpsuit-clad Elvis of the 70’s proves most popular among impersonators.
Vegas Elvis Fest is just one of the annual conventions which take place internationally. Providing the thriving community of fans with a platform to express their undying devotion, it is also at these events where Elvii are able to compete for the throne.
While it’s easy to dismiss Elvii as grotesque parodies, impersonation within the ‘Elvis faith’ is seen as both a noble profession and a profound honour. After all, an Elvii encounter is as close as these fans can get to their idol – the more successful Elvii are treated with sheer veneration as if they were the King himself.
Indeed, World champion Shawn Klush (whose stage presence is uncanny) has his own loyal fan base and line of merchandise, illuminating the ever-evolving depths of the fandom.
The phenomenon has bemused cultural theorists for decades. I too admit to being seduced and converted via my own exploration into the subject. Initially indifferent, I was quickly obsessed – not just by Elvis and his inexplicable magnetism, but by the fans themselves and their role in this incredible phenomenon.
Excruciatingly loyal and undeniably sincere, the Elvis faithful must be applauded. In our fast-paced society where culture is superficial and interchangeable, their widespread secular worship is exceptionally rare.
But what impact has their posthumous obsession had upon their idol?
Certainly without the persistence of his fans, Elvis would have been laid to rest long ago in the Kingdom of Pop. But instead, the intensity of the sub-culture surrounding him has retained his tangible presence in the cultural sphere. This has however had conflicting consequences.
The soulless commodification and mass reproduction of Elvis’ image has resulted in an exhaustive sea of meaningless imagery. Elvis has become an archetypal symbol of Kitsch culture, an emblem of nostalgic Americana widely considered overexposed and passé.
However, as with religious worship (equally awash with crass iconography), it is the same imagery which is constantly acquired by worshippers and thus becomes re-injected with value and integrity.
It is this clichéd imagery too which has been appropriated into Pop Art – rescuing Elvis from the obscurity of the gift shop shelf and seeing him elevated onto gallery walls and into the elite domain of the fine arts. Fans have also received critical attention, with Elvii providing a fruitful source of inspiration to post-modern artists.
Though it could seem that Elvis is destined to remain a mass of contradictions, in the eyes of his humble following, his image is static. Though the nostalgic romanticism of his fans long ago transformed him from mortal to legend, it is upon this platform of veneration where Elvis is able to remain untouchable, where Elvis is King.
Long live Elvis! Long live the Elvis Faithful!