So much depends on whether you are looking up at Elvis from the working poor or working-class or down at him from the middle- and upper-class. When you look at photos of Elvis fans at his funeral or Graceland, they don’t usually look well-off. Their haircuts, clothes, whole demeanor suggest they came from the same class Elvis did, the poor class.
I come from a family of many Elvis fans, and, mostly I’m a fan myself. Just stating that makes me feel uneasy in my stomach. I feel myself going over a line that separates dumb hillbillies, rednecks, rubes and suckers from sophisticated people with taste – well-travelled people who know what’s what, who can judge quality. The virulent disgust and scorn that gathers around Elvis in some circles seems to me to be a class phenomenon.
What was my first encounter with Elvis? I remember it well. A childhood hamlet where I lived for five years had no movie theatre, but on the last day of school, we all got on a bus and were taken to the theatre in the small town of Prentice. There I saw my first movie, So Dear to My Heart, a Burl Ives family flick about a black lamb. To me, it was wondrous, earth-shaking, poignant. I sobbed at the sad parts and came out as amazed as if I had just been converted at a revival meeting.
The next year’s movie Blue Hawaii was more adolescent, and it made me fall in love with Elvis, his beautiful voice and hair, his high-class (to me) clothes. Though I remember disgust and judgment spoken by some, they could not erase his charismatic allure. So much depends on whether Elvis’s clothes and style were aspirational to you or beneath you.
The project of an Elvis detractor, Albert Goldman, was “to altogether dismiss and condemn, … not just Elvis Presley, but the white working-class South from which he came.”
Early Elvis elicited disgust and judgment from church people, conservatives who hated rock n’ roll and hated his movements and singing. Undoubtedly, there was a glimmer of racism in some of that.
Later, sophisticates would judge him for “stealing” black music (much like Eminem is judged today) and for being, to them, a gaudy, unsophisticated joke. They considered Elvis an obvious product of marketing who retained embarrassing piety and love for his mother while falling for an under-age girl (how low-class!). Immersion in sex and drugs was a natural part of most rock n’ roll lifestyles, but Elvis’s drug addiction seemed more disgusting somehow than, say, Keith Richard’s.
Then Elvis Got Fat
Probably Elvis’s biggest crime was getting fat. Fat is not just a feminist but a class issue. Perhaps the biggest source of derision of Elvis fans is the stereotype (to some extent valid) that they are overweight and lack the grooming and clothes and education that money can buy. I have not read Greil Marcus’s book, Dead Elvis, but in an interview he made the very point I’m making here: The project of an Elvis detractor, Albert Goldman, was “to altogether dismiss and condemn, … not just Elvis Presley, but the white working-class South from which he came.”
It seems that Elvis attracts poor and working-class fans outside of the white working-class. He has Latino fans, many of them working-class, the kind of people (like my mom and her husband) who have black velvet paintings of the Last Supper, the Virgin of Guadalupe or Elvis on their living room walls. He has some African-American fans and prominent supporters. (Google “Was Elvis part black?”)
But the most recent experience that made me ponder class and Elvis in the first place was this: I was reading Ian Frazier’s On the Rez, a chapter about mourning all the deaths in the Native American community, our country’s poorest ethnic group. Frazier is talking to a Native American guy who says, “But August 1977 was the really sad time on the reservation. They ran out of black crepe in all the stores … and all the women on the reservation were cryin’.”
“What happened in August 1977?” Frazier asks.
“What happened? Elvis died!”
The Elvis postage stamp outsold all others, and the white working-class isn’t big enough and doesn’t write enough letters to account for that fact. I suspect that in addition to Greil Marcus, Elvis has some secret middle- and upper-class fans, people who think they shouldn’t like Elvis, but do.
Frazier, Ian, On the Rez, New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2000 p. 59