Elvis Assemblages: The Doing, Undoing, and Re-Doing of America's King.

Curator's Note

Surrounding Elvis Presley is a powerful, nearly impenetrable, mythology that grips  fans and neophytes. I will explore the assemblages of Elvis: how he exemplified a queer/feminine masculinity in his early period which was  replaced by a “masculine” Elvis, and whose presence is posthumously perpetuated by a gendered impersonation community.

It is vital that I provide  theoretical framework. “Assemblages”, is borrowing from the Deleuzian “Theory of Assemblages” which posits that any social entity (Elvis) is best analyzed through its components rather than its entirety.

 “Queer” is not gay, but rather an identity without an essence.

Early Elvis dually queers masculinity and femininity. Taking makeup lessons from his mother and dance lessons from Wanda Jackson, Elvis mimicked to the world, a young, vibrant, and sexual feminine masculinity previously not seen.  But is he embraced for his feminine masculinity or his androgyny?  By 1968 there is a cataclysmic shift; where he once mimicked female dances, he now oozes masculinity: dressed in full-bodied leather, shooting guns, and speaking against his own fanbase, the Elvis who changed the world through rebellion is now the friend of Nixon. No longer was he the lithe, pretty-boy who titillates, but is the performer who ambles in costume.

Though there are thousands of male Elvis impersonators, the queer impersonators are the most compelling. “In Pursuit of Elvis” is Pelling’s collection where she positions herself as Elvis. She compellingly distances herself from the recognizable signifiers of Elvis “the icon”; yet holds on to the power that his name and identity generates. The result is a bastardization of the familiar Elvis, the impersonation culture, and the non- Elvis elements. Only females impersonate early Elvis; males embody the later Elvis. Hopkins observes, "Any male able perform early Elvis would already be a star."


Ah, territorializations, de-territorializations, and re-territorializations run amuck! Must admit that I never had any interest in Elvis, musical, sexual, or otherwise--perhaps because his "identity" was commodified almost immediately, subverting and containing any rebellion his black-infused early sound could ever assert. Thanks for your post--which has incited me to think again.

To be honest, I was very intimidated by the space allotted. This is ultimately from a longer piece that focuses on the queer performances along with delving into the ways in which Elvis was queerly feminine. I feel I had to explain assemblages but it took precious words. And- your comment did give me something else to consider- the commodification. 

It's interesting that the "young Elvis" was, in his early TV stints, portrayed as a Southern rube ("The Milton Berle Show" where Berle dresses as Elvis' "cousin" and has a Southern accent); the newspaper critics were also very unkind in pointing out his humble upbringing. The masculine commodification, I would say, is ushered in after his 1968 "Comeback Special", heightened during his jumpsuit-era downfall, and peaked after his death. 

Thank you so much for reading this--again, I'm not used to writing short pieces.

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