- Elvis Presley: A Southern Life by Joel Williamson
What is left to say about Elvis? As a biography, Joel Williamson’s Elvis Presley: A Southern Life leaves intact our basic understanding of the musician’s short, sad, outsized life. More a biographical study than a work of original research, the book takes its overall shape from Elvis Presley’s oft-told story: his common-class childhood in rural Mississippi; his early success with Sam Phillips and Sun Records in the mid-1950s; the rapid nationalization of his fame under the influence of Colonel Tom Parker’s dark managerial arts during the late 1950s; the musically lazy but massively lucrative phase of third-rate moviemaking in the 1960s; and the final “comeback and die” years beginning with the famous 1968 Christmas special and followed by a dissolute slide into [End Page 736] histrionic self-embattlement and drug addiction until his death in 1977 (p. 201). This is the Elvis born to a shiftless, entitled father and a long-suffering, sickly mother, whose son learned to please and sought to rebel in equal measure. No prodigy, Presley nevertheless seemed to intuit a pastiche musical fusion of white and black gospel, blues, country, and bluegrass. The result was an unmistakable style defined as much by the kinetic eroticism of Presley’s stage presence as by the sound itself.
In this familiar story, what most interests Williamson are the “white women [who] went wild,” delirious with desire, “at the sight of Elvis’s body” (p. xv). Indeed, for Williamson, the Elvis phenomenon matters most as a vehicle for the sexual liberation of mid-twentieth-century white women. “Teenage girls in America created ‘Elvis,’” he writes (p. xv). On one level, they were a renewable resource for affirming Presley’s masculine virility, a core component of his self-image. At another level, the national, mass-mediated scale of female desire for Elvis satisfied his insatiable craving for approval that transcended sexual conquest alone. Ultimately, Presley “lost his capacity for loving one girl, one woman, and took up the mission of loving them all” (p. 159). In loving him back, his white female fans discovered a means to “openly express their deepest feelings … giving them a heady sense of power and liberation” and an “escape from cultural restraint” in a highly conventional and patriarchal culture (pp. 48–49, xix). In short, it was “the revolution of the Elvis girls” (p. 48).
This claim is the book’s most original feature. Williamson treats Presley as a historical prism through which the South’s fraught cultural legacy is refracted. To the extent that “[i]n the Southern white mind, race and sex are inextricably mixed,” Williamson frames the Elvis-girl revolution as racialized, seeing in Presley a racial “cross-over” who evoked and surreptitiously embodied aspects of black life and culture (pp. xix, xviii). For white women to express unrestrained desire for this crossover Elvis—his racially hybridized music, his bluesy swagger, and his overtly sexual appeal in a world obsessed with white female purity—was to transgress against the same white male power structure that sought to regulate the lives of women and African Americans alike.
Williamson pursues these broader cultural and historical claims sparingly, in relatively brief but forceful bursts of assertion between extended passages of straightforward storytelling. Written in a popular style, the book relies largely on existing biographies, memoirs, and other historical accounts for its retelling. Footnotes, bibliographies, and works-cited lists are omitted in favor of bibliographic essays at the back of the book summarizing each chapter’s key sources. Nonspecialist readers uninitiated in Elvisology will likely appreciate the unobtrusive nature of the academic apparatus and the looser, more casual, and impressionistic style. Researchers and scholars may have a more uneven experience. Williamson’s thesis emerges from an explicitly dualist theory of identity that is lightly sketched in the preface: “No duality may be more sacred than sexual duality” (p. xx). For...