Inventing Elvis. An American Icon in a Cold War World

Häußler, Mathias
London 2020: Bloomsbury
Anzahl Seiten
240 S.
€ 79,95; £ 58.50
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Julia Sneeringer, City University of New York

In this concise and engaging book, Mathias Häußler explores the many meanings of Elvis Presley in the Cold War context. He goes beyond the familiar stories of moral panic around rock ‘n’ roll to show how the image of Elvis – and it is always “Elvis,” as his first name is sufficient to conjure up the man – evolved once he attained respectability through his stint in the US Army. The book covers Elvis’s rise in the 1950s, his 1960s film career, 1968 comeback, physical decline and death in 1977, as well as his cultural afterlives. Häußler, a German historian who has previously published on British-German relations under Helmut Schmidt and transatlantic politics, inserts a global perspective into the narrative. While it uses Elvis to discuss social and cultural change in the United States, the book’s distinctive contribution is to elucidate Elvis’s impact particularly in Europe (East and West) and East Asia. For both his fans and critics, Elvis embodied the American Way of Life.

This work is not a biography but an analysis of the conditions that produced Elvis, “why he came to embody such manifold and diverse meanings to so many people, and what bigger questions of American identity became articulated through his public image.” (p. 3) Chapters proceed chronologically, situating Elvis in the contexts of transnational youth culture, postwar Americanization, changing constellations of race, class, and gender, consumer capitalism, and Cold War politics. Chapter 1, on Elvis as a reflection of Eisenhower-era America, synthesizes what we know from works such as Peter Guralnick’s splendid biography. It also discusses Black artists’ initially positive views of Elvis, which were damaged when the white-owned magazine Sepia falsely accused him of racist comments. Chapter 2 explores competing global meanings of Elvis in the 1950s. It enhances the existing historiography on Cold War cultural tensions by considering fans’ musical practices. Things get really interesting in chapter 3 as we follow Elvis into the army in 1958. His manager, Colonel Parker, and Hollywood producer Hal Wallis crafted a publicity machine (with full cooperation from the Department of Defense) that successfully presented Elvis as a dutiful draftee who did not demand special treatment. Elvis benefited commercially from this image overhaul (which divided early fans), while the army could tout its alleged egalitarianism. Häußler deploys his skills as a historian of international relations to elucidate the risks in Elvis’s service in a tank battalion near the Fulda Gap.

Chapter 4 takes us through Elvis’s lucrative movie career. Häußler treats his formulaic films seriously, using them as a “window into popular self-understandings of the […] 1960s United States as a country of natural beauty, technological advancement, and consumerist abundance.” (p. 14) He stresses that these family-friendly films and their soundtracks made Elvis a truly mainstream star worldwide. (Häußler’s linkage of Elvis’s 1960s hits with Schlager will delight historians of German pop music.) This flips the script promoted by the rock cognoscenti (most famously, John Lennon) that Elvis became insignificant after 1958. Taking Hollywood Elvis seriously also makes new historical actors visible, namely fans. Häußler finds their voices in letters to government agencies and Elvis Monthly, a UK fan-produced publication with international reach. Elvis Monthly facilitated connections across the Iron Curtain and gave fans a forum in which to articulate their own conceptions of Elvis. One fascinating nugget is that Thai audiences loved Elvis’s gaudy movies because they meshed with their own aesthetic of colorful spectacle. But even diehard fans came to see these corny films as disconnected from a changing world. The revolutionary year 1968 witnessed Elvis’s own transformation with his TV comeback special, in which he reconnected with his roots in both Black and white American music. Chapter 5 takes us from that rejuvenation through his Las Vegas residencies and eventual decline. The 1970s saw Elvis transformed yet again, this time into a vehicle for that decade’s 1950s nostalgia. Elvis’s “canonization” completed his journey from “social, racial, and moral” threat to “the very incarnation of an idealized, bygone era of alleged prosperity and innocence that many Americans were desperate to recapture.” (p. 142) Elvis the man came to be seen as a victim – alternately tragic and pathetic – of rampant commercialization and the cult of celebrity. The book’s epilogue ruminates on Elvis’s multiple meanings and transfiguration into a secular saint following his death.

Häußler reads the voluminous popular literature on Elvis, as well as contemporary media reports, with a historian’s eye. Unlike Greil Marcus (whose early writing on Elvis set a high standard), Häußler grounds his work in the archives, making particularly good use of the US National Archives’ Elvis-related holdings. I also appreciated his sustained engagement with both Elvis as a person and his creative output. Häußler presents Elvis as a flesh-and-blood human whose work meant a great deal to many. At the same time, Elvis remains a somewhat passive figure who struggled to assert himself against Parker and Wallis, though we do catch glimpses of him taking anti-racist positions at key points.

Race and US politics surface frequently in Häußler’s analysis. He argues correctly that white fans’ embrace of R’n’B and rock ‘n’ roll did not necessarily challenge the racial order. Indeed, many fans identified particularly with Elvis’s Southernness, which begs the question of how they perceived race over time. Loving Elvis was also fully compatible with American-style capitalism, as fans who were eager for Elvis to win mainstream respect framed his success as an affirmation of “American values” (p. 51). While the book provides evidence that Elvis’s politics could swing both left and right, the iconic photo of him with President Nixon underscores the conservatism he came to represent by the 1970s. Häußler’s comparison of Elvis with Johnny Cash in this regard is insightful.

Häußler also addresses the charged issue of Elvis’s sex appeal, which was toned down in his movies to make them more family-friendly. In one well-chosen example, Häußler illustrates the divided reactions to this post-army respectability with a letter from a female fan frustrated by this less overtly sexy Elvis: “JUST WHO DO YOU THINK BUYS 99.9% OF HIS RECORDS? IT AIN’T MY MOTHER.” (p. 113) But the book misses some opportunities to engage more with gender, such as the loaded symbolism around Elvis’s shearing by the army. The above letter notwithstanding, I was struck by how male Elvis’s fan base seemed. It would be interesting to consider how fandom for this individual masculine idol shaped the subjectivity of male fans, who insisted on their hero’s integrity as they sought validation of their own tastes.

This intelligent, engaging work makes a strong contribution to the scholarship on the history of popular culture. Its compact size and accessible prose make it well-suited for teaching (though the manuscript could have used more copy-editing). Non-specialists will benefit from the fact that Häußler doesn’t assume prior knowledge and patiently explains Elvis’s trajectory, while his sophisticated analysis will speak to scholars of contemporary history and cultural studies. Anyone interested in American culture and its global impact in the twentieth century should read this book.

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