Inventing Elvis: An American Icon in a Cold War World
by Mathias Haeussler
Reviewed by Nigel Patterson, December 2020
Bloomsbury Academic, Great Britain, 2020, Hardback/Paperback/ePDF/ebook, 209 pages, Not illustrated, ISBN13: 978-1350107656 (paperback)
This new (academic) book by Mathias Haeussler, Assistant Professor of Modern European History at Regensburg University in Bavaria, is a challenging, but thought provoking exploration of Cold War political-cultural history, the growth of trans-national youth culture, and how changing perceptions of Elvis Presley played out during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.
Hauessler’s expressive narrative highlights how Elvis’ identity reflected attitudes around US culture. His book also touches on important, and often contentious issues that existed, and in some cases continue to exist, around Elvis, such as race (discussed disparately as the alleged appropriation of Black American music by Elvis in the 1950s and the absence of race - non-white American characters - in Elvis movies in the 1960s).
A strength of the author’s research and writing is that the outcome is a multi-varied and importantly holistic account, accounting for contrary views. Key themes underpinning the narrative are Elvis being the first star to be successful on multi-platforms and the move from a “passive” mass culture to “active” popular culture, where the recipient (consumer) has “agency” in pushing what they like and want onto the market.
Haeussler look at Elvis’ role as a protagonist in Cold War politics and the rise of a global youth culture is complex and evolutionary:
- in the 1950s, the establishment viewed him as a threat to the morals of youth and by implication, a threat to security as was communism;
- in the 1960s, after his Army service, Elvis became the “patriotic, boy next door” with his identity very closely aligned with American ideals - his films promoting American cultural ideals of affluence, materialism and carefree activity; and
- in the 70’s it was the Elvis in excess image at the same time as America struggled with its identity.
While Elvis first became a star in his home country, his appeal quickly spread around the globe. Haeussler gets to the nub of the reason:
It was not only the novelty of Elvis’s music that excited teenagers; it was also his unique looks and styles that were projected through countless newspapers and magazines, and which seemed to be completely different to the perceived greyness and boredom of life in post-war Europe.
The theme is reinforced around developments in Western Germany:
Elvis’s association with a new type of American lifestyle gained additional political connotations in light of the country’s more general transition into Western liberal democracy after 1945. Many young Germans embraced American popular culture not just for fun, but also as a bigger symbolic statement of their embrace of US-style consumerism and the bigger notions of individual liberty and freedom of expression that were associated with it.
Professor Haeussler also notes the importance of Elvis’ body movements in his success:
The uninhibited reactions by female fans to Elvis’s on stage gyrations constituted new and unprecedentedly open expressions of sexual desire; often turning Elvis’s concerts into unrestrained displays of teenage sexuality.
One country where Elvis became persona non grata was Cuba, where Fidel Castro launched an ‘all-out attack on Elvis during a speech at the University of Havana’. The outcome was dramatic:
Castro’s speech finished Elvis’s presence in Cuba almost instantly. The public radio station immediately stopped playing Elvis music, no further Elvis records were sold, and the remaining stock of the Elvis Regresa LP was bought up by the Polish import firm Ars Polana, where it became the first official Elvis record on the market.
How important was Elvis’ role during the Cold War? Haeussler’s analysis is measured and he does not consider that Elvis and the Cold War were inter-dependent but occurred at the same time. He does note:
Some [fans] even believed that Elvis had made a sizeable contribution to the bigger Cold War struggle. One US-based fan, for example, claimed that the numerous denunciations of Elvis in East German newspapers only revealed the regime’s “deadly fear of his influence on their young people. Elvis has fans who love him in every country of the world, and the word that the Communists hate most is the word ‘LOVE’.”
Although Elvis had become known in almost all corners of the world during the 1950s, it was only in the 1960s that he truly achieved widespread acceptance.
Hauessler writes that by the time Elvis returns from the Army in 1960, the narrative of him as subversive and a threat to the morals of America’s youth, has played out.
Two key themes in the author’s discussion of Elvis and the Cold War in the 1960s are the growing influence of key Elvis fan club organs and the role of Elvis’ films. On the former element, he comments:
The extent of Elvis’s popularity outside the United States can also be gauged by the professionalisation of his fan scene at the time.
As a primary example, Haeussler notes that Albert Hand’s, Elvis Monthly, within one year of its first issue in January 1960, had become one of the ‘major organs of the Elvis fan scene’. He also comments that by 1962 the Monthly was a major news hub for fans worldwide:
featuring contributions from all over Western Europe (e.g., France, Western Germany, Sweden, Norway, Malta) and far beyond (e.g., Israel, South Africa, Thailand, Hong Kong, Malaya, Chile, the Philippines)
He also records how Elvis Monthly facilitated global fan interest:
As Cold War tensions relaxed with the slow onset of detente in the mid-1960s, fan networks occasionally even stretched beyond the Iron Curtain. Again, Elvis Monthly was a major facilitator of such cross-border contacts, printing letters by fans from Czechoslovakia or Hungary, who wanted to get in touch with Elvis fans from non-socialist countries.
Haeussler notes that Elvis’ four films in the 1950s were perceived, “’not always accurately’, as part of the rock and roll genre. On his return from the Army, the Colonel realised that the most money could be made from Hollywood.
In discussing this issue, Haeussler references Paul Simpson’s book, Elvis Films FAQ, and records:
Colonel Parker was clearly attracted by the financial rewards of exploiting Elvis in Hollywood, as well as perhaps a degree of personal control he was able to exercise as gatekeeper between Elvis and his film producers.
The author pertinently observes:
Elvis movies were highly successful outside the United States, where they often retained their popularity longer than at home.
In considering Elvis’s films in the 1960’s, Haeussler includes various critic and fan reviews that symbolise why Elvis was probably never going to realise his dream of being a serious actor – his audience would never accept this – as evidenced by the far superior box-office receipts enjoyed by films such as Blue Hawaii compared to the less than stellar receipts and fan views about films like Wild in the Country and Flaming Star (despite their respective merits).
The author posits that as highly popular exports of American culture, Elvis’ films projected U.S. ideals of affluence, materialism, freedom and a sense of optimism, to non-western countries, initially to youth audiences and by the early 1960s, to families. Elvis’ films promoted the right messages of the American democratic-capitalist “way of life”, complementing official US government propaganda.
These elements neatly complemented the narrative of Elvis coming from a poor background to achieve incredible success and wealth.
Interestingly, in this context, Haeussler comments about Elvis ‘the person’:
By the late 1960s, Elvis seemed increasingly removed from the realities of life in a rapidly changing America.
To the reviewer, this implies it was Elvis’ image, rather than Elvis the person, that was influential in Cold War politics, at least during his Hollywood years.
While Elvis’ role in the Cold War context is, arguably, less well defined during the 1960s period - largely due to how quickly Elvis’ films became passe and Elvis’ reclusiveness from the public and the absence of him touring – the author’s analysis of this period is still thought provoking.
Appropriately, Haeussler notes that set against the background of a burgeoning civil rights movement, the peace movement, and the late 1960s assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, ‘Elvis’s movies seemed merely out of touch; they had become anachronistic relicts of a bygone age.’
To many fans, Elvis’ comeback after years in the Hollywood wilderness, is symbolised by two events – the ’68 Comeback Special and Elvis’ recordings at the American Sound Studio where he recorded the seminal album, From Elvis in Memphis. Haeussler suggests these are only part of the story:
Even more important for Elvis’s artistic rejuvenation was his abandonment of Hollywood and return to live performances.
Referencing last year’s book by Richard Zoglin, Elvis in Vegas, Haeussler clarifies the theme:
If the decision to set the comeback in Las Vegas had astounded observers given the city’s image of raunchy nightclub entertainment, Elvis’ shows too went completely against the grain of establishment routines. Elvis was determined to create A NEW MUSICAL IDENTITY FOR HIMSELF. As he told his friend, Charlie Hodge at the time, his ambition was nothing less than to showcase “the full spectrum of American music….everything that he had ever admired in music,” and he went at great lengths to achieve it.
This frames the final stanza of Inventing Elvis where Haeussler addresses Elvis’ excesses and decline during the 1970s. These mirror a time in American political-cultural history when it was undergoing a period of reflection brought on by several destabilising factors including the disaster of the Vietnam War and the assassinations of JFK, his brother Robert, and Martin Luther King. As Elvis’ excesses and decline were brought on by his fame and status, the tensions in America reflected its unparalleled success in establishing its materialistic culture and imposing its political-military might around the world. Elvis’ decline confirmed the negative side of the materialistic nature of American society. Similarly, America was being confronted by the by-products of its success.
In relation to the significance of Elvis, the author observes that Elvis as a symbol of US culture manifested itself following his premature death in 1977, with two conflicting arguments:
Many commentators could not resist taking Elvis’ death as a cue to reflect more widely on bigger questions of American identity. The familiar rags-to-riches narrative again featured prominently.
The opposing view came from columnist, Mike Royko:
Success is…..Success is what the whole game was about, and if it took a con, that was part of it. Elvis pulled off a marvellous con. And the best part of it was whom he pulled it on.
Traits of such cultural pessimism and critical takes on U.S. identity constructions were also prevalent outside the U.S. Particularly in Western Europe, there was a tendency to focus the coverage of Elvis’ death on the issues of marketing and commercial exploitation that had become so intimately associated with his legacy.
Further, the trans-national importance of Elvis became abundantly clear in August 1977:
The death of Elvis constituted a global media event that transcended national boundaries, not unlike the assassination of John. F. Kennedy………Over the next few days, more than 250 journalists from all around the world descended onto Memphis, transforming the local Chamber of Commerce into a global news hub.
Verdict: Inventing Elvis; An American Icon in a Cold War World is a powerful and intriguing release which offers the reader a fresh perspective with which to consider Elvis’ impact on the world. By framing Elvis’ rise and career in the Cold War context and interweaving the rise of a global youth culture, Professor Haeussler is able to paint an intricate picture of how changes in both western and non-western countries were influenced by factors beyond just the political.
Coming soon to EIN - an interview with the author, Mathias Haeussler
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Book Review by Nigel Patterson.
-Copyright EIN January 2021
EIN Website content © Copyright the Elvis Information Network.
Buy Inventing Elvis: An American Icon in a Cold War World
'Elvis Films FAQ' Book Review: Elvis' Hollywood years are full of mystery, and supposedly 'Elvis Films FAQ' covers them all! Elvis Films FAQ by author Paul Simpson explores his best and worst moments as an actor, analyses the bizarre autobiographical detail that runs through so many of his films, and reflects on what it must be like to be idolized by millions around the world yet have to make a living singing about dogs, chambers of commerce, and fatally naive shrimps.
After all if Elvis Presley had not wanted to be a movie star, he would never have single-handedly revolutionized popular culture.
Yet this aspect of his phenomenal career has been much maligned and misunderstood – partly because the King himself once referred to his 33 movies as a rut he had got stuck in just off Hollywood Boulevard.
It is a mightly entertaining book - but go here as EIN's Piers Beagley investigates to see whether this new book by author Paul Simpson really answers all the questions you need to know ....
(Book Reviews, Source;ElvisInfoNet)