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C H A P T E R T W O WATCHING ELVIS You could make an argument that one of the most socially conscious artists in the second half of this century was Elvis Presley, even if he probably didn’t start out with any set of political ideas he wanted to accomplish. He said, “I’m all shook up and I want to shake you up,” and that’s what happened. Bruce Springsteen Television was essential to the rise of rock & roll and its transformation of American popular music. Because TV could convey the visual excitement of rock & roll performances, popular music shifted from a primarily aural mass experience to one in which the visual field held equal primacy. Television had a profound impact on everyday life in America; its rapid penetration of American homes was unprecedented, the number of households with TV increasing from 0.66 percent in 1948, to 64 percent in 1955, and to 90 percent by the end of the decade.1 Moreover, those TVs were fed by national networks , meaning that Americans of all regions experienced the same entertainment simultaneously, or nearly so. Television was thus the major factor in producing what Lynn Spigel has called “an odd sense of connection” in the disconnected new suburbia in which “people could keep their distance from the world but at the same time imagine that their domestic spheres were connected to a wider social fabric.”2 Television kept more people at home and out of taverns and movie theaters, but it gave them more or less the same experiences as their neighbors and counterparts across the nation. The profound changes wrought by TV are part of a larger transformation of American culture that was occurring during the 1950s. While the decade has long been misunderstood as a period of normalcy from which the United States began to deviate in the 1960s, the idea that the 1950s were placid, or “tranquilized,” to quote Robert Lowell, is no longer the standard assumption, and indeed is now considered part of the period’s misrecognition of itself.3 Television played a significant role in disseminating this ideology through situation comedies such as The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and Leave It to Beaver. Popular memory of the decade was later influenced by re-creations such as the film American Graffiti (directed by George Lucas, 1973) and the Watching Elvis 25 1970s TV series Happy Days. But television was not only a reassuring diversion ; it also brought political controversy and the dangers of the Cold War into the living room. I’ve already suggested in chapter 1 that movies became more controversial and politicized during the period, partly in response to the blandness of television entertainment. Television, however, was instrumental in spreading the threat of nuclear war and of a communist conspiracy , even as it was also instrumental in bringing down Senator Joseph McCarthy.4 Television news brought pictures of the growing civil rights movement into homes throughout the land, helping to fracture the acquiescence of northern whites to segregation in the South. And it was television that made Elvis Presley a national star and the first rock icon. No one benefited more from television than Elvis, who appeared on national programs at least twelve times from January 1956 to January 1957. This chapter looks at Elvis’s televised performances and argues that the controversy he generated had much more to do with what people saw than what they heard. While it is well known that Elvis transgressed racial boundaries that still largely separated white and black culture in the 1950s, his appearance and behavior on the tube also threatened class hierarchies and reminded people that America’s youth were defining themselves against adult norms. Elvis redefined popular music stardom by his failure to conform to accepted conventions of performance decorum, and the most threatening aspect of his performance was his violation of gender codes. Elvis crossed gender boundaries in several ways, but it is my contention that his most troubling transgression was to called attention to his body as a sexual object. In the history of mass culture, Elvis may be the first male star to display his body in this way overtly and consistently. In violating this taboo, Elvis became , like most women but unlike most men, sexualized. In adopting an explicitly sexualized self-representation, Elvis played out the implications of becoming the object of the gaze. In so doing, he both exploited and provoked...


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