Sunday, 13 January 2019

Fandom, Gender and Heavy Metal: An Interview with Rosemary Lucy Hill

Ten years in the making, Dr Rosemary Lucy Hill’s book Gender, Metal and the Media (Palgrave, 2016) draws on extensive fieldwork with female fans to illuminate their gendered experience of the genre.

The book insightfully pinpoints a series of places where sexism shapes and underwrites heavy metal culture. Mechanisms for maintaining sexism in metal include:

·      Pursuing laddish banter in magazines (and thus maintaining heteronormativity and white masculinity as the assumed norm);
·      Visually objectifying female musicians and fans (and judging them accordingly);
·      Accepting or endorsing gendered, sexually harassing behavior (eg. baring breasts at live gigs);
·      Assuming metal does not involve issues of gender because men are primarily interested in the music;
·      Ignoring women as fans and musicians;
·      Encouraging exscription (the idea that male scene participants have written women out of their culture);
·      Questioning the credibility of women as musicians and music experts;
·      Assuming women have chosen to not become musicians (rather than seeking barriers);
·      Requiring female musicians to be especially good players before being accepted;
·      Assuming that womens’ listening pleasure cannot be both musical and sensual or erotic at the same time;
·      Assuming women are sexually attracted to stars rather than interested in music (and, equally, denying the worth of female lust as a legitimate fannish pleasure);
·      Trivializing any subjects or objects coded feminine (pop music, romance, women’s clothing);
·      Tacitly encouraging women to downplay their femininity;·   
·      Allowing women to sidestep gender only if they accede to male norms;
·      Locating gender difference and femininity as a kind of intrusion;
·      Defining away sexism;
·      Using a defense of the genre to deflect questions of sexism;
·      Using downplaying any experiences of harrassment as 'fun,' and portraying harrassers as jokers who did not pose a threat;
·      Assuming gender equality as a way to silence criticism;
·      Personalizing issues effecting women and deflecting them into individual victimhood;

However, in listening to women's experiences, Gender, Metal and the Media goes beyond critiquing the genre for its sexism. After all, society itself is sexist, so it would be illogical to assume any genre would step outside that (without it being its express purpose, as it was with riot grrrl). Instead the book explains how women find pleasure in the music. It assumes that women love heavy metal to start with, and their experiences differ due to gendered upbringings and sexist representations and experiences.

Dr Hill kindly agreed to an interview…

* * *

You spoke to almost twenty white women across a range of age groups who lived in British cities between 2008 and 2011, recruiting them through snowball sampling and conducting in-depth interviews to discuss their experience of metal culture. Can you pass on any advice about fieldwork and methodology that you picked up from that experience, particularly in the context of working on fandom and gender?

That’s a good starter question. I actually found the interviews the most satisfying part of the research. However, this was the first time I’d done interviews and I was very shy about approaching people. I know now (several research projects later) that there is no easy way to find people and to get them to answer your emails or turn up when they say they will! The key is being polite, persistent and accommodating. Keep following up on emails and messages (well, after the third without a reply you should probably leave it). And not to take things personally – people have all sorts of other things going on in their lives and probably think you’ve got tonnes of other people to speak to. I hope that’s helpful advice for novice interviewers.

When it comes to specifically interviewing about things people are really invested in, things they are fans of, you can generally expect people to be really easy to talk to. People love talking about what they love! But if they are part of what I call in the book an ‘imaginary community’ or what some people might call a subculture, then participants might be a bit defensive. Metal is still seen as an inferior form of culture and metal fans do somewhat delight in our outsider status. This is something to be aware of. I made sure my participants knew that I loved metal too, because it is easier to speak more freely with someone who shares the same reference points. But even then, metal is such a vast genre that we weren’t always aware of the same things. The defensiveness thing … that’s not to say that people are lying about their experiences, but that they might use particular discursive techniques to construct their image of the community or the bands they love.

The definition of metal fan also played a part when I was trying to recruit participants. Metal is male dominated and as you’ve outlined there are numerous actions and ideas at play that work to keep it that way. This means that asking to speak to ‘metal fans’ might well have put some women off speaking to me – because they didn’t see themselves as fitting into the definition of a fan. That definition within metal is riven through with a need for a large quantity of subcultural capital (to quote Thornton). So when women are constantly being challenged about their musical knowledge this is to assess whether they are ‘real fans’. To get to speak to more women, I also called for women who loved bands mentioned in Kerrang! magazine (which was my shortcut definition of metal – and not one without questions to be asked of it!). If one therefore sets out to speak to ‘fans’ of band, sports team, film genre or whatever, then, it really pays off to pay attention to the gendered definitions of ‘fan’ that are at play locally within that fannish community.

Your book questions the assumption that “rock is bad for women” (p.120) by suggesting that the genre is more than “an arena for hypermasculine posturing” (p.121). Let’s start with an over-simplification: if heavy metal is often perceived as a repository of sexist attitudes and behaviours, why do so many women enjoy participating in metal culture? Are they trading off their own empowerment, and in effect disempowering themselves?

Let’s start by thinking about the heterogeneity of metal – there are a bazillion subgenres and there are myriad ideas about what metal should be like. This means that there is plenty of room for women to listen to music that does not obviously use misogyny in its aesthetic. I spoke to women who sought out this kind of metal. I also spoke to women who sought out metal that actively resisted sexism, for instance that which was made by feminists and our allies, like My Chemical Romance.

We also need to remember that sexism is the water in which we swim. Misogyny is so prevalent and normalised that we don’t notice it all the time (and believe me it is exhausting when we are paying attention to it). Therefore some women I spoke to just didn’t see it or misrecognised it as something else (like chivalry or natural differences) and were not aware of how it shaped the culture. And then there were others who didn’t listen to lyrics, didn’t go to many gigs and didn’t therefore come face to face with sexism.

But also, when we are surrounded by sexist attitudes and cultural representations, how do we cope with them when we love the cultural artefact? If you love the riffs but hate the lyrics what do you do? Women are expected to take a stand against this - you suggest women are complicit in our own oppression, but are not men who listen to this music also complicit? Should they not also be asking questions of themselves about being complicit in sexist music even if they think of themselves as feminist allies? I would argue that we should all, regardless of gender identity, be asking these questions of ourselves. But then, not all women are feminists so to ask them to engage in feminist thinking around their musical tastes may be going too far.

There are, after all, other things that metal offers women that are nothing to do with sexism: the heavy music, the anger and hatred, the horror imagery, the difference of metal femininity from mainstream femininity etc. If we live in a sexist world then making one choice which has some sexism with it as opposed to another choice which has some sexism with it perhaps shows that sexism is something we live with, rather than being empowered in one sphere and disempowered in another. 

After the 1950s, anxiety around female music fans suggested they were breaking a taboo by sexually desiring male music makers and – more importantly – publically expressing that desire. (A reason, in part, I think, for anxieties about fandom itself.) In metal, there is a second breaking of taboo, because one of the emotions expressed by music in the genre is, arguably, anger… Is there a role for politicalization of anger in relation to the concerns you discuss in the book?


In the book you cite examples of people who believe metal and feminism were antithetical, yet you identify as a metal fan and a feminist, citing, for example, when you went across Europe to see The Darkness. Can you say a bit more about whether those two things really are so separate and how they come together for you as a fan?

Ellen Willis writes of how timid music made her feel timid, whilst punk felt to her like a challenge to confront her own oppression as a woman and provided her with tools to express her anger.

This is really about how our political anger can find expression in music, even if that music isn't directly about the thing we are angry about. Music that accompanies our rage can give us the strength to express ourselves more freely, by making anger okay. And this is especially important for women since we are taught that anger does not become us. This is why women making metal and feminist metal is so valuable, because it provides a cultural representation of angry women that can help to shift our ideas about what kinds of emotion are acceptable for women. After all, lots of us are angry about lots of things!

One thing I struggled a bit with as I read the book was the question of performance. I agreed with you that metal has frequently been a place where sexism – often the sort that permeates the wider culture – has shaped experience. What I was struggling with was that rather than simply being a place where “the rules are written by straight, white men,” to me, metal culture in the last few decades – vast and varied as it is – actually seems to allow white males to pantomime and parody a very traditional, macho form of masculinity: to take it to absurd lengths. In that sense, I think that metal might mark a certain kind of nostalgia for the end of traditional masculinity: theatrical warriors wielding axes in a context of the decline of secondary industry, the rise of the tertiary economy, the ‘feminization’ of male work roles, and the rise of female liberation, feminism and post-feminism. Through its “perceived hypermasculinity” (118) the genre might then be seen as asserting a kind of rebelliousness, indirectly reflecting anxiety about masculinity, encapsulating both residual and progressive elements.

Evidently, as your book demonstrates, there is still plenty of obvious and less obvious sexism in there, but doesn’t the gendered performativity of metal also open spaces where gender can be expressed and negotiated in less sexist ways?

There is a lot of playing with gender going on in metal – it’s one of the reasons that makes it so much fun. Rammstein spraying an audience with white foam from a massive fake penis is hilarious and certainly says something satirical about the hypermasculinised performance of masculinity. We can definitely think about the performative masculinity of metal – and Amber Clifford-Napoleone does a really excellent job of this. However, to see metal as a nostalgia for a pre-feminist time I don’t find particularly convincing. Walser talks about metal as seeking fantasy worlds without women and I think there is a lot to be said for that argument (although it’s a big genre so, you wouldn’t want to make it universally). I think it’s more useful to think about how gender and age work together. Metal can be read for young male fans as a youthful rebellion about parental authority and a playing at being a man, drawing on particular conceptions of what masculinity is (and those traits will be the most salient in the particular genre that the young male metal fan loves). What is also happening (and this is an area desperately in need of more research, but see Paula Rowe’s most excellent book on growing up metal in Australia ‘Heavy Metal Youth Identities’) is that these boys who fall in love with metal are often those who feel themselves marginalised at school or in the family. Their own masculinity may be challenged by other boys around them: thus metal presents a new version of masculinity alongside collective identity. Metal can be an ‘armour’ in the face of marginalisation.

In the permissive society era, rock developed a mythology that celebrated the sexual encounters between male musicians and their young female fans, in part as a reflection of the seductive aura of the music, and in part as an expression counter-cultural ideal of personal liberation through drugs and sexual excess. Tales of Led Zeppelin’s famous “red snapper” evening offer an archetypal example where the line between coercion and consent was rather ambiguous. To many, the decadent behavior of rock stars appeared seedy at the time, and it was parodied in movies like Performance (Roeg, 1970) and Groupie Girl (Ford, 1970). Looking back, the aura of macho bravura associated with these incidents has given way to an understanding that some of this culture was about sexual predators taking advantage of vulnerable fans. Since you wrote the book, there has been a wave of scandals about the sexual behavior of celebrities, particularly in the 1970s, but very few of those celebrities have come directly from the rock world. In light of the Harvey Weinstein scandal and #MeToo movement, is it time to reconsider those earlier years, or would it be a mistake to read contemporary morality into such historic incidents?

In my view we should be lending a critical eye to such incidents, yes. Not that this would be anything new: feminists have been making this criticism since the 1960s, as you suggest (although maybe you are making reference to more moral critiques of the counterculture?). I’m not sure ‘contemporary morality’ is really the point here. Rather it is about listening to survivors of sexual violence and taking those claims seriously. That is not a moral position, but a political position that is prepared to ask hard questions about masculinity and sexuality.

You spend quite a lot of the book discussing “the myth that all women fans are groupies” (p. 134), the way it effects fans’ lives, and the way they negotiate it. In some ways, it is both sad and surprising that the term still lingers roughly half a century since it became prominent. It is also striking that the nuances and ironies that characterized the ‘groupie’ question in the 1970s seem to have disappeared, in part because society and sexual politics have changed so much. Germain Greer deliberately described herself as ‘a groupie’ precisely because men used the term in a derogatory way. Do you think it can ever be reworked or rescued in ways that might counter assumptions of sexism?

I’m very sympathetic to the attempts at claiming ‘groupie’ as a positive. And yet reclamation does nothing to counter the gender inequality which is prevalent throughout the music industry. In rock and metal this means we hear men’s stories and men’s accounts of love, sex and relationships with women – but only rarely women’s. I’m deeply bothered by this disparity in who gets to tell their own story, who gets to make music, who has access to creative expression.

Reworking ‘groupie’ is only going to be successful, I think, in a culture in which those women also get to be on the stage rocking out.

Dr Hill, thanks for a fascinating interview. 

Sunday, 23 September 2018

Moral Bankruptcy and Fast Footwork: Gaspar Noe's Climax (2018)

On Friday, along with a handful of other people, I piled into my local art cinema to watch Gaspar Noé’s new, darkly absorbing club-related movie, Climax. The plot revolves around a talented, multi-cultural group of dancers who rehearse in an abandoned French school, only to find their after-party turning sour because someone has put LSD in their punch bowl.

What follows is an impressionistic descent into human misery, marginally less jarring than Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! (2017), and less venally depraved than Darko Simić’s notorious A Serbian Film (2010). The grim and grubby panorama that Noe paints, however, has moments which are, at times, equally as shocking and cruel.

To understand such recent descent films, I think we have to look not to cinema, but to society in an era of neoliberal capitalism: a time where the rise and rise of ubiquitous internet, reality television, vacuous talent shows, and always-on entertainment is counterbalanced by an accelerating free fall - one reflected in a crisis economy, disenfranchised citizenry, desperate daily life, failed democracy, managerial politics, dismal predictions of collective suicide, and glimpses of emerging nightmare fascism.

After some last ditch, closing credits, Noé’s film starts (!) with interview footage from the dancer’s auditions, shown on a normal TV set, surrounded by prescient books and video cassettes. 

Evoking a strange kind of nostalgia, the interview footage cues us to the present absence of the internet. It is a lovely touch, and reminded me of directors like Michael Haneke. Soon we are led into sexy and spectacular dance scenes, sequences worthy of judgement by Simon Cowell. Everybody, however – the director, cast, and us spectators - goes careering off once the after-party DJ cranks up the music and the group slowly descends into selfishness, cruelty, and various grim subspecies of animosity. As part of this, we also wander off-stage (ob-scene) into a seedy underworld of dim-lit corridors, dilapidated toilets, neglected cupboards, and grubby dorms - places where it seems more natural to unleash the human monstrosity on display.

The controversial director’s work makes few concessions to the mainstream. Part of me was surprized; I was – in the horror fan tradition - expecting people to die in ironic and creative ways. Noé offers that in the plot, but gives little genre-based spectatorial pleasure. Instead, he delivers lingering, absorbing, sensory cinema that slips into an increasingly horrifying whirl of affective moments. Climax touches on many genres – the whodunit, teen film, dance musical, horror flick – yet it answers to none. (I was reminded of the increasing number of academic papers I’ve seen, at all levels, which flatly eschew any critical engagement in favour of pursuing their own elaborate vision. What results is arrogant, audacious, and so much the poorer for it.)

The thing that I found interesting about Climax, however, was how clearly it held me in my seat and tested the sensory boundaries of cinema.

In an age where digital technologies are increasingly attempting to pull us into a fluid, sensory, embodied experience, it seems that cinema can now be understood as a pioneering medium. Students still gravitate towards it perhaps for that reason, as if they know that writing is old hat, an idiom not equipped for the instant immersion of the posthuman era. Yet cinema, even more than TV, remains guardian of the transition.

What Noé deliberately demonstrates is that the cinematic project can only go so far.

The Argentine director regularly chooses immediacy over naturalism. Rather than shot-reverse-shot, for instance, there is a lot of handheld footage. Deprived of cinema’s standard pleasures, I felt I was being overcompensated by deep hues and subtle sound design. The result was engaging: to some extent, I was enveloped into Noe’s nightmare world, and couldn’t escape. Deliberately, though, he refrains from showing inside character’s heads, or if he does, he refuses to announce it by departing from a kind of other focused, dark club realism. As I followed characters into the outer-recesses of the school, I witnessed their suffering, both internally (as the drugs intoxicate them) and externally (as shared madness possesses each)…

I couldn’t help feeling, though, that Noé’s Sartre-eque message (this is a contemporary ‘No Exit,’ after all) starts wearing thin underneath some of his more artful gimmicks.

Gaspar Noé’s club kids are drifters, postcolonial hipsters who have realized that they can achieve something through all the tools offered to them by contemporary youth culture. They’ve got attitude, they’ve got style. They act cool, they dress cool, they dance amazingly well, and they embrace sexual freedom and hedonism with a kind of weary duty. In other words, they both do all that is required, and have an attitude that is also required: a slacker’s distance from it.

From their starting point of being socially marginalized (by youth, by class, by racism, by nationalism, by sexism, by heteronormativity) they have deployed youth culture, and used their illusion to “buy in.” Yet the bargain has failed. The other side has betrayed them. Since their worlds have already been so diminished, Noé implies, their vengeance comes more easily. The LSD in the sangria bowl, in that sense, is a mere nudge rather than a full-on onslaught: beneath the veneer, these are people already simmering with hatred and fear. It is already expressed in the nihilism of their dissociated, party-hard attitude.

In a postcolonial, online era, dancing is “what they’ve got,” but it is also a way to conform to the faux individualism of the X Factor / YouTube world, a place where making a spectacle of oneself is entrepreneurial work for thousands of youngsters: techno-colonized subjects who soon become burned out by high competition, diminishing returns, and the urgent necessity to perform their funky individualism.

Behind the beat-up sofas, the peeling wall paper, and the tressle tables of party treats, lie strewn the nubile, tattooed crumpled, bodies of vloggers, sound cloud rappers, street kids, and ghosts.

“Hey guys, what’s up?... Make sure to leave a comment below this video, and follow us on social media.”

When the line breaks down between work and entertainment, what else can you do except dance the night away?

As the sangria starts to kick in, and you begin to realize the extent of your style drudge work, all your free labour… the conformity and exploitation beneath that mirror ball of flashy, hip, guerilla consumerism…

Is it too late? Is there any possible escape from hedonistic diversion, from infantile thinking, sexual selfishness, mental cruelty, and unjustified violence?

From the enveloping, social media echo chamber?

From hell?

Tuesday, 18 September 2018

Developments in Elvis Fan Culture: An Interview with Nigel Patterson (part 3)

Nigel Patterson works for the Australian government and has been a dedicated Elvis fan since 1969. 

His participation in organized fan club activity in the Australian Capital Territory from the mid-1980s onwards led him to start the Elvis Information Network in 1999. It rapidly became a prominent and respected Elvis site. EIN recently reviewed my book Counting Down Elvis, so I took the opportunity to interview Nigel, hoping he might provide a fully-fledged ‘insider’ account of Elvis fan culture. He is living proof, however, of the idea that academia and Elvis fandom are somehow fully separated is a myth: Nigel once ran an academic course called ‘New Perspectives on Elvis Cinema’ at Canberra College. He has also kept up with academic writing on the Presley phenomenon.

This is the third and final part of a three part interview. Click for part one and part two...

You may be unusual as a fan for taking an active interest in the few academic debates around Elvis. The government asks us to justify our research on the basis of behavioural change in the real world. Is there anything you have read in my work that has caused you to change what you do at EIN?

That is an interesting question and not one I’ve previously considered.

I think the value of academic commentary such as yours is that it provides us with a better understanding of the dynamics surrounding acceptance/non- acceptance of Elvis and how ‘connection to Elvis and other fans’ operates on a subliminal level. In this sense it necessarily informs at least some of our articles and commentary.

For example, in your book, Understanding Fandom, you address the issue of whether Elvis fandom was or is religious practice and enlighten the reader to the relevance of Emile Durkheim’s study of the social ecology of Australian clans engaged in totemic religion; the function of the division between the secular and the sacred in society; and as mentioned earlier Durkheim’s concept of ‘effervescence,’ where crowd members (read ‘Elvis fans at Graceland’) experience is so strong that they subconsciously recognise their shared connection.

Also, your work is appreciated by many people as it dispels the notion that ‘fans’ are an overly obsessed group when in fact there is only a small proportion of fans who are obsessive, and in the context of changes in media technology and production, fandom has become a central mode of consumption for people with a shared interest or passion.

In your view, what aspects of the Elvis phenomenon has existing scholarship underplayed or missed out on?

What an interesting question. The only issues that spring to mind are Elvis as an agent of social transformation and the power of Elvis fans to come together to aid those in need, are often not given adequate recognition.

In the case of Elvis’ socio-cultural impact, a number of academics have argued the case but generally it seems to be an understated and under-appreciated issue by many academics and music journalists, although this is slowly changing. In my opinion, it contrasts starkly with academic and music journalism discourse around the Beatles and the social change they ushered in.

Academia has published (and I suspect will continue to publish) many thought provoking volumes which educate, challenge and position the Elvis story in an objective, rather than subjective, framework involving rigorous and analytical consideration. 

Your books on fandom - as well titles such as Elvis Culture (Doss); Images of Elvis Presley in American Culture (Plasketes); Elvis AfterElvis The Posthumous Career of A Living Legend (Rodman); Graceland: Going Home with Elvis (Marling); InSearch of Elvis (Chadwick); Dead Elvis (Marcus); and A Sociological Portrait (Leasman) - offer a broad variety of aspects to and perspectives on how Elvis is perceived and should be viewed in the context of academic analysis.

Regarding the second issue, Elvis fans (through fan clubs) have a rich history in raising money for charities and other worthwhile causes. It would be interesting to compare these efforts in relation to similar undertakings by fans of other celebrities. The findings also may be instructive in informing the issue of a shared morality or charter among Elvis fans.

You are a very avid Elvis reader. Can you tell me about that – do you see that as part of or a separate thing to your music fandom? How do they work together? By what criteria do you judge outstanding additions to the Elvis library?

I have always been a reader – in my youth I devoured adventure and science fiction novels such as Robinson Crusoe, Black Beauty, Tom Sawyer, and Journey to the Centre of the Earth. By my late primary school and early teen years, when I was expected to read often dense and slow moving books for high school – think Bleak House by Dickens, my tastes diversified and reading pulp fiction and film/television related books became a favourite pastime. I read all of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, found pleasure in many of Whitman Publishing’s television related releases such as The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Circus Boy, Lassie, Spin and Marty and even its series of books targeted at girls, particularly the Donna Parker and Annette series, the latter of Mickey Mouse Club fame and who I had a big crush on as an eight year old. The Whitman books had a generally formulaic but engaging narrative style that appealed to both sexes.

Those genres were a welcome relief from the more complex and less adventurous books dominating school curriculum. I was more interested in exciting adventures that took me away to exotic places far from the humdrum of school lessons.

In relation to my Elvis reading I have quite eclectic musical and literary tastes so I can often find pleasure or things of value in publications others may find not as interesting. I don’t get to read as often as I would like these days. Work is often busy, I am employed in a policy area with the Australian Government, and other interests have increasingly encroached on my time for ‘things Elvis.’ I have many Elvis books I’ve only skimmed though and I expect when I retire I will have time to properly explore them.

When I read an Elvis book I am usually interested in either refreshing my knowledge and understanding of the Elvis story or otherwise looking for something new or something that has historical significance.

I have been an advocate for books written by Darrin Lee Memmer. Some have taken exception to this claiming Memmer’s books are biased and challenged his often controversial conclusions. Personally, I find the books stimulating and a much needed counterpoint to the somewhat tiresome ‘generally accepted’ stories published in most new Elvis books.

I don’t agree with everything Memmer has written or concluded, but I do appreciate his research and often fresh perspective on his subject matter. In particular, some of his most recent books have added significant historical records of ‘things Elvis’ through word-for-word interview transcripts and in relation to the death of Elvis, the author accessed official documents archived in the University of Memphis. These records included fascinating material from the Jerry Hopkins archive and the actual police, medical examiner and hospital reports from August 1977 and transcripts of the official interviews with the paramedics and doctors.

But getting back to a core of your question, to me the intertwining of my appreciation of Elvis’ music and deep interest in books written about him is a complementary thing, although I have to admit I listen to much less Elvis music after nearly 50 years as a fan compared to the number of Elvis related books I regularly read.

What do you think Elvis’s interests in reading and/or film viewing said about him as a person?

By all accounts (and his personal library) Elvis had a voracious appetite for reading. While Elvis may not have been well educated in the formal sense, he was certainly well read and knowledgeable on many subjects. In a sense Elvis was, like many others, ‘self-educated,’ had an inquiring mind, and could converse on a wide range of subjects.

In his younger days he was an avid reader of comics, his favourite being Captain Marvel Jr (with his cape!) and western novels. In his adult years his personal library was an eclectic collection comprising books on American and British politics, history, war, guns, and a range of sports including martial arts. As most fans know, he also had a substantial collection of spiritual/religious and metaphysical books. 

One of Elvis’ favourite books was The Impersonal Life  - he was so taken with this book he bought bulk copies and gave them away to his family, friends and other people he met.

He certainly wasn’t “tsundoku” as the Japanese would say - acquiring reading materials, but letting them pile up without looking at them.

Given the breadth of Elvis’ interests and reading I think it is fair to say that he was a person interested in the world and interested in bettering himself as a human being.

What widely accepted stories about Elvis do you think are false?

The first story is the recurring theme that ‘Elvis was racist.’ The theme largely arises for two reasons: the view that Elvis ‘stole’ or ‘appropriated’ Black American (race) music without properly repaying his dues to that community. The second reason is the long discredited article in Sepia magazine that claimed Elvis said “the only thing Negroes can do for me is buy my records and shine my shoes.” The theme has recently resurfaced due to Eugene Jarecki’s documentary film, The King, which compares the current state of America to Elvis’ demise and is currently screening in American cinemas.

Two articles (here and here) provide a reasonable overview and debunking of the issue.

A second theme is that Elvis was not well educated. This issue regularly appears in online commentaries, on TV, and in scholarly articles. While the claim may be true in a formal academic sense, as discussed in my previous answer, when we consider how ‘well read’ Elvis was, and the breadth of knowledge he had on a wide variety of topics from politics to history and spirituality, it is untrue. Elvis became self-taught and could hold intelligent conversations on many different subjects. In any case, the theme is, by nature, value laden.

The third theme is that Elvis didn’t die on August 16, 1977 and faked his own death. I briefly touched on this in an earlier question. That a national survey in the US in the 1980s identified that more than half of the American population thought Elvis was still alive may surprise some people, but reflects the strength of the idea in its heyday. The theory once sold millions of books, generated more than a dozen different newsletters, many online discussion groups and countless mass media articles.

Today, there are only a handful of websites still promoting the theory and there is at least one Facebook page, but otherwise it seems most people have now accepted Elvis did die in 1977. For those who still believe Elvis didn’t die in 1977, I recommend they read True Disbelievers: The Elvis Contagion by Professors R. Serge Denisoff and George Plasketes.

Do you think the people closest to Elvis have been straight with fans about what he was like? To what extent do you think people like Joe Esposito have slanted or even made up stories? How can we discern what’s true out there?

First, let me say the Elvis world has always been full of fanciful stories.

I do understand the motivation for those who were close to Elvis to write books. There is a high level of demand for these releases, albeit on a lesser scale than around 1987, which seems to have been the peak for Elvis-related book sales. And people have to make a living. Several of Elvis’ Memphis Mafia only knew working for Elvis and found it very hard after he died. Only a few, for instance Joe Esposito and Jerry Schilling, had a career they could move to after Elvis’ death.

I have had the great pleasure of meeting and/or interviewing many of Elvis’ inner circle, including Vester Presley, David Stanley, Joe Esposito, Jerry Schilling, Charlie Hodge, Lamar Fike, Marty Lacker, George Klein and Dr Nick. They were all great people to talk to, and usually they presented a very positive view of Elvis. That is often quite a natural thing to do in relation to people we are, or have been particularly close to.

Undoubtedly, a few people were very adept at changing the subject if they were asked a difficult question. Others were/are very adept at repeating the corporate line strategically promoted by Elvis Presley Enterprises.

Have any of those close to Elvis made up stories? Pragmatically, one would expect some would have, as we all know people who do make up or embellish stories. In fact, surely we are all guilty of this at times.

In the case of Elvis the situation is muddied by the fact the media will pay for interviews that ‘sell,’ ie. they need a juicy piece of information to attract readers or viewers. This can be attractive to those who may be struggling financially.

Separating truth from embellishment can be difficult. Consider for example the different accounts of the same incident(s) in Elvis’ life, as recalled by Billy Smith, Marty Lacker and Lamar Fike in Alanna Nash’s great book, Elvis Aaron Presley: Revelations from the Memphis Mafia.

In a world that is ever increasing in complexity and shades of grey, it is wise to consider the possibility of falseness and critically assess claims by asking questions and reading/researching widely in order to improve one’s chance of finding the truth.

Priscilla Presley and Jerry Schilling now seem to be some of the chief curators of Elvis’s image. What did you think of their HBO documentary, Elvis Presley: The Searcher, in terms of the way it portrayed its subject?

Generally, Elvis Presley: The Searcher was an excellent two-part documentary which examined the Elvis Presley story with an emphasis on his musical influences and music.  

It was somewhat let down by the involvement of Priscilla Presley and Jerry Schilling as Executive Producers as it meant the viewer received a sanitized version of Elvis’ life. For instance, his declining health and over-dependence on drugs in his final years was glossed over. I understand the motivation from a marketing perspective, but from a historical perspective it is disappointing that a full and proper account of the Elvis Presley story was not expressed. In my opinion the documentary was a rare opportunity sorely missed.

I have a few Elvis mysteries you might be able to help with… To your knowledge: Did Elvis play on Roy Orbison’s Odessa, Texas, TV show in the 1950s? Did William Faulkner really write to him?

That Elvis appeared on the Roy Orbison Television Show is one of those myths that periodically crop up in the Elvis world, in blogs and on fan forums. I am sorry to have to disappoint, but the story is just a myth. EIN published a detailed article on the issue by noted Elvis researcher, Shane Brown, which can be found here.

The William Faulkner issue is interesting, and one I can’t answer. That Faulkner came from a privileged, well-educated upper class background while Elvis came from one which was working class suggests there should have been a wide chasm between them in socially conservative 1950s’ America. However, when Elvis broke nationally in the US, Faulkner, nearing 60, may have observed a shared sense of rebelliousness with Elvis. While I personally don’t think Faulkner would have written to Elvis, it’s not beyond the realms of possibility, and like the claimed telephone conversations between Elvis and opera icon, Mario Lanza, it makes for a very good story which is yet to be substantiated by ‘hard evidence.’

On the subject of Elvis and Faulkner, Professor Joel Williamson in his excellent and controversial biographic study, Elvis Presley: A Southern Life (Oxford University Press, 2015) noted that Elvis and Faulkner were born within seventy-five miles of each other in north-eastern Mississippi. He posited that perhaps Sam Phillips and William Faulkner who both spent time in the Gartley-Ramsey Hospital and who both “struggled with racial and class orthodoxies in their native South, sat in rocking chairs on the broad front porch of the Gartley-Ramsey [Hospital], watching Elvis Presley, the shambling teenager, making his less-than-eager way down Jackson from his home in the courts to Humes High.”

I find Williamson’s thought to be an interesting one.

What Elvis mysteries do you think are left to solve?

One could proffer the view that what mysteries about Elvis are left to be solved might better be left unsolved. Once the mystery is gone interest wanes.

Issues that spring to mind are Elvis as an agent of cultural change/social transformation and the power of Elvis fans to come together to aid those in need. These important issues are often not given adequate recognition. I discussed them earlier in our interview and it is interesting that was in the context of issues existing scholarship/academia has underplayed. One could posit that there is a correlation between them remaining unsolved and that academia has underplayed them.

Thanks, Nigel, for a fascinating interview.