Developments in Elvis Fan Culture: An Interview with Nigel Patterson (part 2)


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 second part of a three part interview. Click for part one and part three

Elvis fans form a living culture around a dead celebrity. Does that ever seem like a contradiction?
To some it will (laughs). However, throughout history people have worshipped their idols, both religious and profane. It appears to be a natural human reaction or need in at least some of us. It is interesting that in the expansive body of research and literature around Elvis as a religious symbol, consideration of the phenomenon as contradiction is largely, if not completely, missing.

An interesting aspect of the living culture around Elvis is its potency and longevity relative to interest in other dead celebrities. The Elvis experience resonates with greater power and at a higher frequency.
You have taken delight in describing Elvis not just as a person, but also as a social phenomenon. In your view, what does that phenomenon encompass? To put it otherwise, what are the boundaries around the phenomenon?
I am not sure if I’ve taken delight in recording Elvis’ ongoing impact in terms of it being a social and cultural phenomenon rather than a music phenomenon, but I agree I have strongly put this view on many occasions.

The concept of Elvis being essentially a ‘music’ phenomenon does not satisfy me. I have long thought he is clearly a socio-cultural phenomenon. Undoubtedly, his music is the core element which drives fandom around him but his impact goes way beyond his songs.

However, on any given day you will notice a direct or indirect reference to Elvis: from an ETA visiting your area, or the use of his catch-phrases like “Thank you, thank you very much” and “Elvis has left the building” (often amended to someone else, for example in the film Ant-Man, “Ant-Man has left the building”), to another star celebrating Elvis, for example teen idol Justin Bieber’s recent profile photo shoot, where his quiff and high collared shirt mirrored an early shot of Elvis. Another recent example is Miley Cyrus donning her white jumpsuit in a tribute to Elvis.

In the entertainment area, Elvis has been celebrated as the primary or important sub-theme in numerous films.

For example, Finding Graceland; 3000 Miles to Graceland; Elvis and the Colonel; Elvis and the Beauty Queen; Elvis and Me; Eddie Presley; Bye Bye Birdie; Sing Boy Sing; The Idolmaker; Elvis Meets Nixon; Bubba Ho Tep; Evil Elvis Christmas; Elvis’ Grave; Elvis Has Left the Building; Honeymoon In Vegas; Lilo & Stitch; It’s Only Make Believe; The Game Plan; The Woman Who Loved Elvis; Touched By Love; and Heartbreak Hotel.

There are also several Elvis-related projects, apparently either in or about to enter production – including films based on Peter Guralnick’s seminal two volume biography, Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love, and Alanna Nash’s fascinating book, Elvis and the Colonel.

In the television medium, a multitude of shows have been inspired which were heavily influenced by Elvis, or incorporated an Elvis-related episode. For example, Memphis Beat, Sun Records, Elvis, Miami Vice, Sliders, Alf, WKRP in Cincinnati, Designing Women, Quantum Leap, Johnny Bravo, Sledge Hammer, 7th Heaven, Las Vegas. The list is endless. In addition, variety programs will often feature performers dressed as Elvis (the white jumpsuit has particular resonance).

In the area of literature more books have been written about Elvis than any other 20th century celebrity, with those about his music a minority. Every aspect of Elvis’ life has been written about, from the expected to the unexpected – the latter including releases about Elvis and the John Deere tractor, Elvis as a spiritual guide, Elvis and UFOs, Elvis and the ‘John Crow’ sessions, and arguably the most unusual and intellectually challenging release, Christopher Byrnes Mathews’ three volume set, The Name Code: The God of Elvis. The Name Code, which comprises more than 1,600 pages, is the Elvis world’s Da Vinci Code, a meticulously researched and frustratingly confounding analysis of hidden messages not only Elvis’ full name but also those of American presidents, British prime ministers, names in the Bible, and more.

The ‘Elvis is alive’ conspiracy story occupies a library shelf in its own right, as do comic books, children’s books, art books and cookery books all based on Elvis. There are several hundred novels featuring the Elvis character (often portraying him as a private detective).

In the area of philosophy there are titles such as What Would Elvis Have Said? and What Would Elvis Do?

Pleasingly, the academic section in the Elvis library is also of formidable size, thanks to your work and that of professors Cantor, Doll, Doss, Denisoff, Plasketes, Chadwick, Rodman, and many others.

More than 30 books have been published about the Elvis tribute artist phenomenon, which itself is another symbol of how Elvis has transcended just the music. Certainly, when fans attend an Elvis tribute artist performance, they do so on one level to experience Elvis and his music, but the sheer number of ETAs in existence, which far outnumber the tribute artists for any other celebrity individual or group, suggests another dimension to their role. Consider the number who have their own fan clubs or who are invited to speak at civic functions.

On the subject of ETAs, I always find it interesting that in articles, fan club meetings, on Elvis forums, etc, many people are critical or dismissive. Such fans are singularly focused on what they see as the most important aspect of the Elvis Presley legacy, his music. They seem not to appreciate the ongoing cultural significance of others imitating him.

The widespread use of ‘Elvis’ in a book’s title, even when there is very minimal Elvis Presley content, is instructive of the power of his name in selling books.

Another example of the socio-cultural resonance of Elvis is the vast array of folk art. ‘Elvis on velvet’ is only a sub-genre of a much wider body of work. In Mexico, where they celebrate the Day of the Dead, there is a proliferation of Elvis-related full body skeletons, calaveras and the like. There is even a sixteenth century fresco in the Augustinian chapel at Malinalco, Mexico, which features the grim reaper standing beside a religious figure surprisingly resembling Elvis. Readers can make of this what they will.

The point is that Elvis fandom or worship, whatever people want to call it, has long shifted from being just about his music to a much broader and more complicated mosaic of what Elvis means within society and how that meaning is celebrated. Unlike the experience of fan worship for other celebrities, with one or two exceptions, there is a material case that the psychological and emotional forces at work in relation to many Elvis fans are much more dynamic and deep seated than exists in the case of most fans of other performers.
Do you think Elvis fans have an unwritten charter – a shared, collective ethics or morality – and if so what does it include, or is that an over simplification?
Mark, another excellent question. You are taking me back to my days studying psychology and philosophy at university. The terms ‘ethics’ and ‘morality’ have strong underlying assumptions and discourse around conduct. Your question concerns whether the latent or overt tension between the rules (‘ethics’) of society/group and what a person (individual) considers to be right or wrong (‘morals’) manifest itself positively or negatively in the Elvis context. I suspect opinions will be polarized.

From my perspective, I think you could easily argue there was generally a ‘collective understanding’ or ‘charter’ in the early days of Elvis’ popularity. At that ‘pre-Internet’ time Elvis was the new idol and fans were joined together by their shared reflective enjoyment of his music and career, and life was not as complicated as it is today. I need to qualify my comment about that shared enjoyment: the nature of Elvis fandom meant that it was shared in the context of ‘local’ gatherings of fans rather than in a broader sense, even though the emotional and psychological experience was similar.

Fast forwarding to today, there is another dimension, as fans can share their enjoyment as part of their ‘specific Elvis interest group’ either in person or over the Internet, and for some the experience is as part of the group of fans who make the annual pilgrimage to Graceland for Elvis Week. 

As you draw attention to in your fascinating book, Understanding Fandom, fans congregating together often experience a subconsciously recognized, shared connection, one that Émile Durkheim described as ‘effervescence’ (I hope I have described that correctly).

However, as happens with other things that are new or enjoyed by many, over time there is a maturing and changing of relationships – a function of the group life cycle. In many cases, the self-interest(s) of the individual start to percolate in competition with the group or collective interest(s). The ‘honeymoon period’ wears off and the powerful psychological drivers of ego and need for control surface causing tension between people.

The operation of locally based Elvis fan clubs well illustrates the issue. While people initially work together with a common aim, when the ‘honeymoon period’ ends, not unusually there will be different views on what direction the club should take, resulting in a splintering of interests and often the formation of a competing club in the same area. The “life cycle” is such that clubs can operate in competition with each other until membership numbers dwindle and/or the personalities driving the club retire or move on.

The experience since 1956 around the establishment of centrally run Elvis fan clubs reinforces an aspect of the issue from a different angle.

Attempts to establish a national fan club in America – there was an EPE (Colonel Parker) operated fan club in the mid-1950s – were unsuccessful as a long term proposition. Arguably, trying to get 50 plus State-based fan clubs to work together under one umbrella organization was ‘too big an ask.’

A centrally run (controlled) fan club worked in the UK because the tyranny of distance was not such a factor and Albert Hand had the foresight to establish and nurture fan interest from the beginning. The Hand organization was adept at satisfying fan needs for information, images and regular communion with other like-minded people.

Of course, in 2018 the UK has other very active Elvis fan clubs and organizations besides the Todd Slaughter run British Fan Club, the ‘competition’ largely a result of the ‘global connection’ offered by the Internet.

Timing is also an important consideration. In the late 1990s Sony Australia floated the idea with EIN of a national fan club in order to focus its marketing directly at fans, but it was agreed that the time was long gone for such an arrangement, with the major Aussie fan clubs well entrenched in their regions and fan interest not as potent as it once had been. Instead, a Coalition of Australian Elvis Fan Clubs was formed to provide regular ‘Elvis’ news from Sony to the major Australian fan clubs.

The difficulty in establishing and/or sustaining a centrally coordinated fan club network is hardly surprising. The experience reflects what happens across all areas of shared interest in all societies when ego and politics come to the fore, and fragmentation occurs with breakaway organizations, be they new political parties, sporting codes or competing Elvis related organizations.

While the Internet has allowed fans to ‘bond’ with fans in other countries it has also allowed them to gravitate to those fans with similar interests rather than to ‘generalist’ Elvis organizations, ie. the access to a worldwide community of Elvis fans has facilitated the growth of ‘splinter’ groups focused on a particular area of interest, as I touched on earlier – be it Elvis’ music, his films etc, and, dare I say it, even ETAs. This ‘splintering’ works against a cohesive shared purpose, although not against a commonly shared appreciation of the importance of Elvis.
What debates, in your view, divide Elvis fans the most?
An obvious issue is what is Elvis’ best musical and/or performing period.

Older fans, who grew up when Elvis broke nationally in the US and internationally tend to favour his Sun and early RCA recordings above his 1960s and 1970s output. Younger fans who discovered Elvis in the 1960s or 1970s tend to prefer recordings from those periods. Similarly, the young Elvis in his gold lame outfit, versus the more mature, white jump-suited Elvis period in the 1970s, both have their admirers.

Elvis’ films also elicit considerable debate among fans. Were they all inconsequential celluloid fluff or did some have merit?

Another issue was the ‘Elvis faked his death’ conspiracy theory which was especially prominent within fan circles and the mass media in the late 1980s to early 1990s. You were either a ‘believer’ or you thought it was all a load of nonsense. But, boy, did it sell books and records and generate vigorous debate among fans!
In years, now thankfully long past, academics aimed to preserve ‘objective’ critical distance from fans, while fans dismissed what they saw as an outside, over-intellectualization of ‘their’ subject and/or decried academic elitism. Academia, however, also formed a way to legitimate fan objects… Expanding your interests, you ran a module on Elvis’s feature films at Canberra College called New Perspectives on Elvis Cinema, which morphed into a distance learning course. Tell me about how that was received.
Mark, that was a fun time. The seed for the course was a weekend exploration of Flaming Star by the Australian National University (ANU) Film Group around 1980. Years later I read Professor Susan Doll’s ground breaking book, Understanding Elvis: Southern Roots vs Star Image, which analysed Elvis’ films in the framework of film theory, and it was this release that motivated me to consider Elvis’ much maligned films in a more even and analytical light.

The commonly expressed view that Elvis’ films were all the same, inconsequential and sub-standard, is far from the truth, with there being four distinct periods in his film canon, each with its own set of narrative structure, recurring themes, and political intonations. For instance, saying King Creole, Blue Hawaii and The Trouble with Girls are similar films is erroneous. They may have a few similarities – Elvis is in all of them and there are songs – but there are many important narrative and structural differences between them. Undoubtedly, various Elvis films from 1956 to 1969 have artistic and musical merit.

The course, which was completed over 8 or 12 weekly sessions, was run a number of times at the Canberra College during the 1990s and early noughties before being run solely online for a year or so. Most of the students were Elvis fans. I did have one or two who were students of film wanting to broaden their knowledge base. Sessions used basic film analysis concepts such as narrative structure, themes and texts, camera techniques, editing, and the role of incidental music to analyze how Elvis’ films were constructed, not only to present entertainment but also to influence the viewer. Of course the concepts were transferrable and participants could use them in deconstructing any film or television program.

New Perspectives on Elvis Cinema had the distinction of being the first subject offered by the Canberra College that was run both in class and online. I was asked to present the course again at the College but I felt that it was too narrow a subject to attract much more interest – at the time Canberra had a population of less than 300,000. In total, New Perspectives on Elvis Cinema was conducted six times and was well received. I still receive feedback about it and Elvis’ films today, and there are still calls for it to be offered again. Maybe… if I can find the time.

As far as my role was concerned I’d like to think I was perceived as an ‘aca-fan,’ but pragmatically I fit the ‘scholar-fan’ mould. As with any teacher, I had a knowledge and understanding beyond those who were participating in the course, and I think the students viewed me as such. Many of the concepts we discussed were quite ‘film technical’ and as such foreign to most students, and, in the case where students were familiar with a concept, it was often a ‘lay person’ understanding rather than a technical understanding. I never perceived that my role as an Elvis fan interfered with what I was teaching. I found that course participants were eager to learn and expand their appreciation of ‘Elvis film.’

Click for part three.