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Biography 23.2 (2000) 400-403

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Erika Doss. Elvis Culture: Fans, Faith & Image. Lawrence: UP of Kansas, 1999. 289 pp. ISBN 0-7006-0948-2, $24.95.

If Only Velvet Elvis Were Here

"Elvis Lives" reads the bumpersticker on a colleague's car. While most of us are fully aware he does not, it is Erika Doss's contention that for any number of his fans, Elvis culture does indeed live. Infusing fans' lives in highly personal ways, this living Elvis culture runs the gamut from the silly to the spiritual to the crassly commercial. And as Doss argues, the uses to which Elvis--and most particularly the imagined Elvis--are put are varied and often communally shared. What these fans make of Elvis is interesting enough as the object of ethnographic study, yet what distinguishes Doss's work is her accessible examination of how Elvis fandom is a quintessentially American cultural phenomenon. For Doss, the phenomenon of Elvis culture is not simply interesting for the many ways some Americans position Elvis as the repository or imaginary of their dreams, desires, and racial ideologies. It is that the practice of making Elvis such an image is fundamentally American. As an act of faith in the individual--in Elvis and in the [End Page 400] believing self--Doss sees Elvis culture as a late-twentieth expression of the promises of American culture. The question is, what are those promises, and why are they held in Elvis? And which Elvis? The sexy 50s crooner memorialized on a US postage stamp? The sequined Vegas lounge act? The dreamy fan-painted velvet Elvis sharing wall space with family pictures and a liquid-eyed Jesus?

Doss's Elvis Culture goes some way to addressing these questions. Probing the phenomenon of Elvis, Doss was led to the real "stuff" of Elvis fan culture: the intense need of fans and impersonators to pay tribute to "the King's" life; the "religious" and emotional significance of Elvis for some fans; the underpinnings of class and race prejudices among and toward fans; the troubling gender transgressions of Elvis's performance style, and of some fans' sexual fantasies about him; and the corporate and popular struggles over Elvis material and meaning. There seems to be a great cultural need to posit meaning(s) in the images of Elvis. Fundamentally rife with American notions of individualism, of entrepreneurial self-construction, of evangelical belief and racial equity, they have tremendous power for many fans (and for the rest of us who are tangentially touched by them). To the extent that these meanings are also highly contested, they formulate a self-perpetuating culture of production and consumption--the economy of American ideology. Who controls the idea, the image of Elvis, asks Doss, and what does it mean for American popular culture to try to?

As readers might imagine, the "answers" to these questions are multifaceted, provisional, and not always consistent with fans' (or Elvis, Inc.'s) own assessments. But Doss's methodology is to represent charitably fans' meaning-making (and their own astute cultural analyses of Elvis culture), while also critically probing the often unstated or denied assumptions made by these fans (or by Elvis, Inc.) within enough context to provide depth to our understanding of how Elvis culture works. For instance, the spiritual connection some fans feel with Elvis is read within the context of American evangelicalism. The strength of such a methodology is that Doss develops a text most Elvis fans could actually read while she raises questions about some of their more one-dimensional assessments of Elvis. This is particularly evident in her chapters "All White Elvis" and "Who Owns Elvis." In "All White Elvis" Doss considers the racial "white-washing" of Elvis by white fans who not only deny the Black musical heritage of Elvis's music and style, but (with some black readers) view him as the poster-boy for Confederate ol' boy politics. Meanwhile, still other (mostly but not exclusively white) fans see him as a promoter of racial harmony. "Who Owns Elvis" addresses the "white-washing" of the late, great, bloated...


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