Elvis Lives

Rocky Mountain Book Festival

Elvis fans, you know who you are. You might be a slightly addled, middle-aged white woman -- that's the stereotypical prototype -- but chances are you're not. So says Erika Doss, an art history professor at CU-Boulder and the author of Elvis Culture: Fans, Faith & Image. In reality, Doss notes, Elvis fans range from eight-year-old kids to "corporate lawyers with velvet Elvises hanging in their offices in New York," and she ought to know -- her book is the result of six years of research, spent mostly right in the trenches with the very animal she sought to understand: the fans. Doss will explain her definitive findings this weekend, when she speaks Saturday at the Rocky Mountain Book Festival, backed by an archive of color slides and unforgettable tales.

Doss is not a fan herself. "In 1992, I was attending a conference where they were examining pop images of Jesus Christ," she says, evoking the blond, blue-eyed, upward-looking likeness we're all familiar with. "I grew up with this image, but I realized I hadn't seen it in a while. Like any good historian, I wondered what image has replaced it, and I flashed on the image of Elvis. It was an emotive reaction -- I was never a fan -- but later I mentioned it at a cocktail party, and someone told me, 'We rarely have these intuitive, inspirational moments. Why don't you go with it, find out what it means?'"

So she did, joining numerous fan clubs and traveling each summer to the mystical Elvis headwater -- Graceland -- during Elvis Week, an annual commemoration of the King's death and easily one of the nation's more profoundly bizarre, recurring pop phenomena. "The main highlight of Elvis Week is a candlelight vigil on the eve of his death. Everyone is holding candles, and they all walk up the windy driveway at Graceland -- it's quite a sight. They send offerings and leave gifts on his gravesite, where he's buried next to his father, mother and twin. It's an incredible death shrine," Doss says with the animated enthusiasm of a scientist on the verge of a great discovery. But not surprisingly, Doss returned each year from Memphis loaded with slides and stories and something else -- a kind of respect. "I'm not an elitist," she says. "I don't feel superior to my subjects. The fans always wanted to know if I was going to dis them. I'd tell them I just wanted to explain what their practices and rituals were all about. As a professor, I'm fascinated with public celebration and fascinated with images." In the end, her project wasn't about music or even really about Elvis -- "It's about Elvis fans," she says protectively. So, they opened up to her, and as they did, Doss slowly unveiled a gamut of aspects to their shared mania, ranging from the inevitably distasteful to the downright noble -- many Elvis clubs, she notes, devote time to philanthropic pursuits in the name of the King, raising thousands of dollars for charity.

King for a day: Erika Doss tries on Elvis's black leather jacket for size.
King for a day: Erika Doss tries on Elvis's black leather jacket for size.

That taken, the obvious question remains: Why Elvis? Why not Buddy Holly or John Lennon? "He has lots of sides," Doss explains. "There's the rockabilly Elvis, and the Las Vegas crooner guy, and the Elvis who got drafted, and the horrible B-movie Elvis, and the Nixon Elvis, and the drug-addict Elvis. The answer is that there's a little bit of Elvis for every one of us. We're a diverse American people, and Elvis can be anything we want him to be. Elvis is about all of us -- he's a genuine multicultural American icon, though not all fans want to believe that."

But isn't there something else to it? You bet: "He was a babe," Doss maintains. "Elvis was a gorgeous, good-looking man, and unlike other '50s performers, he was moving his body around. He's erotic for everyone." And the appeal, she adds, isn't gender-specific: "I found out there are a lot of gay and lesbian Elvis impersonators. Elvis is so ambiguous in terms of his own gender. You could say the same thing about Marilyn Monroe."

So -- let's talk about Marilyn. And Princess Di and JFK Jr. Having left no stone unturned in her quest to decipher the true meaning of Elvis, Doss figures it's time to move on. Her interest piqued by spectacles of spontaneous public grieving at Graceland, she's now exploring similar occurrences, including public response in recent times to the aforementioned dead celebrities, as well as victims of the Columbine shootings or Oklahoma City bombing. "I'm interested by what makes people get together and grieve publicly and collectively at the site of a death," Doss says. "It tells me something, that maybe there's been a significant shift in American attitudes about death. It's a way of taking it to the streets -- even with the mass media and the TV cameras right there, there's this incredibly emotive and collective grieving going on."

A visit last summer to the Princess Di death site in Paris reinforced Doss's sense of curiosity and wonder: "I was astounded. There were people from all over the world, leaving graffiti and offerings. Above the tunnel where she died, there's a monument site, where people are constantly leaving photos and flowers and teddy bears at all hours of the day and night. I saw twenty to 25 people there on Thursday afternoon in Paris. There's a whole Princess Di death-tour continuum going on there." Doss, always the scholar, was, well, all shook up by what she saw. She figures there's another book in it somewhere, though there are still many more pilgrimages to be made.

 
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