Suspicious Minds

1997 was the 20th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death. It was also the year after Elvis After Elvis was published. And so I found myself talking about Elvis a lot that year. In August, I gave one version of the talk below in Memphis, at the third (and also, I think, the last) Annual International Conference on Elvis Presley. In November, I was invited to something that was officially described as the “Routledge Book Fair,” that (I think) was not so much a fair as it was several days of events involving Routledge books and authors at an academic bookstore in Orlando. The (long) text below is the talk I gave in Orlando . . . which contains the core of the Memphis talk, but also some reflections on the Memphis event.

Suspicious Minds: The Politics of Elvis Studies

The year is 1974. Nixon resigns. Ali defeats Foreman. And RCA releases the worst Elvis Presley record ever made.

The album is called Having Fun With Elvis on Stage, and it consists entirely of between-song patter from Elvis concerts. No singing. No music. Just Elvis talking. And not always coherently. It’s arguably not just the worst record ever released under Elvis’ name, but the worst rock ‘n’ roll record ever released by anyone, anywhere. Such, at least, is the “honor” bestowed upon this album a few years ago by rock critics Jimmy Guterman and Owen O’Donnell. And, even as an Elvis fan, I’m afraid that Guterman and O’Donnell may be right: while I’ve certainly heard more than my fair share of musical dreck over the years, I’m hard-pressed to name any album that has ever been more painful to listen to than this one. Listening to Elvis sing is fun. Listening to Elvis play guitar is fun. Listening to 45 minutes of these fragments of Elvis talking, however, is not fun. No matter what the album’s title says.

In spite of all this, Having Fun spent nearly two months on the Billboard charts.

Jump ahead 23 years. It’s March 1997. I’m talking on the phone with Vernon Chadwick, organizer of the annual International Conference on Elvis Presley, and he’s encouraging me to have fun with the presentation he wants me to give at this year’s edition of the event — serious fun, mind you, as this is still an academic meeting and not a fan convention, but “fun” is clearly the watchword of the day. And I can certainly understand the sentiment behind his request. Scholarly conferences, after all, are many, many things — but “fun” is typically not one of them. No one looks in the weekend section of the paper on Friday morning and says, “Hey, cool! The American Sociological Association is in town! Let’s go down to the Hilton tomorrow and listen to some papers!” Even those of us who regularly participate in these things tend not to think of the conference proceedings themselves as “fun”: the sightseeing side trips, the group dinners, the drinks with old friends — these are the things that academics typically describe as “fun” about conferences. Sitting in hotel meeting rooms and listening to people give papers may be enlightening, educational, inspiring, and so on (maybe) but — as is the case with Elvis’ worst album — listening to someone talk for 45 minutes is not an experience that most people (academics and non-academics alike) generally think of as “fun.” [SIDE NOTE: I’ve done what I can to make this something other than a traditionally boring academic paper . . . but I’m afraid it will still involve me talking for about 45 minutes. If it’s any consolation, I can guarantee you that this will be less painful than if I tried to sing.]

Three months go by. It’s now a Sunday morning in late June. I open up The New York Times, pull out the “Arts & Leisure” section, and find a huge feature story by Karal Ann Marling on Elvis sprawled across the top two-thirds of the first page. Marling, too, is concerned with the question of having fun with Elvis. “Americans have not given up on Elvis,” she tells us, “despite determined efforts on the part of academia to render him unappetizing and dull.” From there, she goes on to trash the previous two incarnations of the Elvis conference — which she didn’t attend, mind you — as “pretty dreadful affairs” that were mired too deep in scholarly jargon to “get” Elvis properly. “Professors are viewed as dull, long-winded, badly dressed and out of touch,” Marling writes, “And therein lies the self-evident humor of an Elvis conference. Elvis was the most deeply cool human being who ever wiggled across this planet in spangles. How could a professor in elbow patches and tweeds ever hope to comprehend that profound, unspeakable state of grace?”

Of course, the great irony here is that Marling is herself a professor at the University of Minnesota, her most recent book is on Graceland, and her article is filled with the same “dull, long-winded” prose — though admittedly without the specialized jargon — that she complains about from other Elvis scholars. Now since she doesn’t actually name names, it’s not entirely clear who the tweed-clad scholarly geeks that bother her are. Especially since the best academic work on Elvis that I know of — Simon Frith, Lynn Spigel, Gary Vikan, Mackenzie Wark, and Sue Wise all come to mind here — manages not only to take Elvis seriously, but to make it clear that the allegedly stuffy, out-of-touch scholars behind all this serious analysis are also fans. Reading any of the critics I just mentioned, for example, I can easily imagine them listening to the Sun Sessions CD or watching Comeback Special video for the sheer pleasure of the experience alone. Reading Marling, on the other hand, I don’t get anything close to that feeling. She may very well be the most passionate, most enthusiastic, most devoted Elvis fan in all of Minnesota — but none of that comes through in her prose. If she’s actually having fun with Elvis, she’s not sharing it with the rest of us.

I think that the most serious problem with Marling’s argument, however, is not that she doesn’t follow her own advice, but that her diagnosis of what’s wrong with “Elvis studies” is exactly backwards: if there’s a pervasive, persistent problem with scholarly work on Elvis (or on popular culture in general, for that matter), it’s not that it fails to be fun, but that it doesn’t take its subject seriously enough. Admittedly, this is something of a false dichotomy: there is no necessary reason, after all, why one can’t simultaneously bring the standard tools of critical scholarly analysis to bear on Elvis and convey something of the playfulness, the pleasure, and the passion that fans find in him. Put simply, scholarship doesn’t have to be lifeless, dull, and uninspiring; nor does pleasure have to be mindless, escapist, and unintelligent.

We live in a culture, however, that draws a very sharp line between these spheres — a line one doesn’t dare to cross casually: if what you’re writing is light-hearted or has a sense of humor or — heaven forbid — is intelligible to people outside the academy, then you run the risk of not being taken seriously as a legitimate scholar; similarly, if you go to the movies or listen to pop music or read romance novels, and then start talking about the intricate psychological subthemes of this film or the possible political impact of that album or what those romance novels might teach us about gender relations, then you’re likely to be accused of “reading too much into” — and thus taking all the fun out of — something that’s supposed to be “only entertainment.” Part of what I want to do here today, then, is to make an argument for an approach to scholarship — not just on Elvis, mind, but in general — that manages to be “serious fun” in a way that successfully lives up to both parts of that phrase. Moreover, I don’t simply want to suggest that we can bridge this gap — that it’s possible to do so if someone out there takes it into their head to try such a thing — but that we need to bridge this gap if we want our scholarship and our intellectual labor to be worth anything.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. To bring the discussion back to Elvis and Elvis studies, it’s important to bear in mind that for the past forty-some years, US culture has found it very, very easy to have fun with Elvis — and very difficult to take him seriously. And so I don’t want to take the easy path here and simply have fun with Elvis on this particular stage. Instead, I want to offer a few admittedly fragmented thoughts on the difficulties involved in taking Elvis seriously.

Now for many — and perhaps even most — people, it’s a self-evident truth that Elvis is unworthy of any serious expenditure of time or energy: at best, for such skeptics, Elvis is the butt of a long-running national joke and not much more; at worst, he’s an overrated no-talent who’s respected and admired only by people who don’t know well enough not to think so highly of him.

To give but one example (for now anyway), a little more than two years ago, one of the magazines I subscribe to began a new promotional campaign — one that caught my eye largely because it began with the phrase “Elvis scholars.” Not a common phrase, to be sure, but one that (for obvious reasons) led me to read the rest of the ad more closely. “Elvis scholars,” the text began, “student athletes, well-dressed professors, presumptive tenure, intellectual property, and [this is the kicker] other academic oxymorons lurk in the pages of . . .”

Now there may have been a certain self-reflexive irony here — this same magazine, after all, had run a very favorable feature on Greil Marcus’ book Dead Elvis as it was going to press in 1991 — but in the larger context of the issue where this ad appeared, the implicit claim that “scholarship” and “Elvis” were mutually exclusive concepts was hard to take as just another light-hearted joke intended to boost circulation. For the magazine in question was Lingua Franca — which, with the possible exception of The Chronicle of Higher Education, is the closest thing there is to mainstream journalism about academia — and the issue in question featured a cover story on Routledge (my publisher) that accused them of debasing academic publishing with tabloid-esque material. So I imagine (though maybe “fantasize” is a better word here) that when Elvis After Elvis was published late last year, it was Lingua Franca’s worst nightmare come to life: not only was it published by (gasp!) Routledge, but it’s a scholarly work that dares to take seriously a figure who’s been at the center of more supermarket tabloid stories than anyone else over the past twenty years.

I suspect that, for most people, it’s this last fact (more than the “scandal” of being published by Routledge) that constitutes the truly serious offense against good taste and scholarly propriety. One of the things that became obvious to me during the course of researching and writing Elvis After Elvis is that scholars and critics who take Elvis seriously — as a singer, as an artist, or as a figure of historical and cultural importance — are subject to even more scorn and ridicule than “ordinary” Elvis fans are. Which is saying a great deal indeed, given the thinly veiled contempt that is so frequently present in mainstream media depictions of “ordinary” Elvis fans. But while barely literate rednecks — to invoke one of the most common and vicious stereotypes of who and what Elvis fans are — may be widely mocked for their obsessive devotion to Elvis, their “poor” taste can also (patronizingly) be forgiven. Or at least ignored. Intellectuals and other cultural critics, however, typically enjoy no such immunity, since they — we — are supposed to “know better” than to take Elvis seriously.

Now, to be sure, the mere existence of an Elvis conference — such as the one I attended in August — does, in fact, suggest that there’s something about studying Elvis that has come to be more acceptable within the academy. At the same time, however, the fact that there’s significant media attention around “the academic Elvis” suggests to me that there’s still a sizable aura of “man bites dog” novelty to the idea that academics and Elvis could ever go together.

To make this last point more clearly, there are at least two levels on which I need to talk about mainstream media coverage of Elvis studies. The first of these is anecdotal, to help give you a feel for just how difficult it is to be taken seriously if you take Elvis seriously yourself. And I’m going to give you a few anecdotes here to help underscore that this isn’t simply a fleeting, one-time thing.

The first of these tales dates back to 1995, when I was still a grad student at the University of Illinois and Elvis After Elvis was still a dissertation-in-progress . Thanks to an AP wire story on my project, the local ABC affiliate decided to do a piece on my research. To be frank, my expectations for the interview were not high: this was not, after all, 60 Minutes, and I figured the reporter would ask a few superficial questions, get a few breezy soundbites from me, shoot video of some goofy Elvis stuff around my apartment, and leave. So I was pleasantly surprised at the depth of the questions she asked — about Elvis, about his artistry, about his cultural impact, etc. — and the extent to which she actually wanted to hear a detailed summary of what I was writing. And while I was not so naïve as to think that the weightier parts of our conversation would make it to air — we talked, after all, for close to an hour — I thought the interview went much better than I’d had any reason to believe it would. Until, that is, the finished story was broadcast, when it was something of a shock to find that virtually all of the serious discussion of Elvis and his cultural impact had been left on the cutting room floor. What remained in the end was a fairly vacuous story that made everyone involved — me, my department, the University, the station — look pretty lame: “Is Elvis really dead? A U of I grad student says Yes!” With most of the actual story being devoted to “interviews” with random passersby on campus about whether they thought Elvis was still alive or not.

The second tale occurred a few weeks later, when an oldies radio station in Springfield invited me down to their studio to do an interview during their morning drive show. So I woke up at some obscene hour of the morning and drove ninety miles across the still-frozen prairie to chat with Ken’n’Amy about Elvis for a bit. Now, after my experience with the TV interview, and knowing full well that scholarly prose is not good radio for morning drive time (particularly not for an oldies station), I was expecting to go in there and — as Ken kept saying when we were setting the interview up — “have fun with this.” So I gave a brief, jargon-free summary of what the dissertation was about, Ken’n’Amy threw me some softball questions, and they went to commercial. Coming out of the ads a minute or two later, Ken’n’Amy asked if — as “the Elvis expert” — I’d mind fielding a few questions called in by their listeners. And, since I knew this was coming, I said yes.

Question number one was whether O.J. was guilty or not. As was question number two. Question number three was about whether the Chicago Bulls would win the NBA championship that year since Michael Jordan had unretired. There was a question about wind chill factors and heat indexes. The unique size that oil change wrenches come in. What hot dogs are made of. Etc. All of which I tried to handle with as much wit and grace as I could muster (given the hour and the lack of coffee) and with as much of an Elvis twist as I could manage. Till, eventually, Ken’n’Amy ‘fessed up that, right before I’d entered the studio, when they knew I couldn’t hear them, they’d told their listeners to call in and ask me questions about anything but Elvis. Now I’ll be the first to admit that this was probably much more in keeping with the normal spirit of their show than anything I could have said — no matter how jargon-free it might be — about my dissertation. It was even sort of fun. Sort of. But it also helps to demonstrate how even a hint of taking Elvis seriously can be difficult to tolerate when it comes to mainstream media coverage.

Perhaps more telling than either of these two tales, however, is a pattern that I noticed this past summer as the twentieth anniversary of Elvis’ death approached and I found myself fielding a seemingly endless string of requests for interviews on one aspect or another of the Elvis phenomenon — a pattern where virtually any time the conversation drifted anywhere near “hard news” issues, whatever reporter I was talking to would quickly derail that train of thought. The subject of racial politics, in particular, seemed to drive reporters back in the safer, less serious direction of velvet paintings and tacky souvenirs. One reporter actually stopped typing and interrupted me to say that we needed to move on to his next question when it became clear to him that I was actually trying to say something serious about Elvis and race relations in the same breath. Another reporter gave me a “C’mon, you must be joking” response to the idea that Elvis’ music (and other early rock ‘n’ roll) might have had any role of note to play in the civil rights movement. Significantly, neither of these incidents ever actually got to the question of what one could (or should) say about racial politics and Elvis: the reporters in each case simply dismissed that whole field of discussion right away as irrelevant or implausible. Presumably because raising the spectre of something so serious, so significant, and so politicized as “race relations” — even in passing — is simply not something one can do in even the most respectful and sympathetic of stories on “Elvis studies” . . . not as long as the bulk of those stories are appearing in the Entertainment or Features sections of the paper.

Now the second level on which I want to talk about Elvis studies and the mainstream media is a bit broader than these anecdotes of mine. Not that I think these stories are purely personal, isolated instances that don’t fit into a broader pattern — quite the contrary, as I suspect that most academics who’ve dared to take Elvis seriously have similar tales to tell. No, the broader terrain I want to look at next is the one related to the press’ relationship to — and coverage of — intellectual work in general.

As I mentioned before, the TV and radio interviews I just described came about as the result of an AP wire story on my dissertation . . . now think about how improbable and incongruous that is: over the past dozen years or so — as a professor, as a grad student, and even as an undergrad — I’ve lived and worked and played and hung out with hundreds of grad students from a wide range of disciplines and from any number of different universities. And I’m hard-pressed to think of one of them who has ever been contacted by a reporter — even from a campus newspaper, much less the AP — to discuss their research. Not one. Now I’m sure that I can’t be the only person who was ever the subject of a news story on their doctoral research . . . but I also know that media coverage is not a typical part of the graduate school experience.

For that matter, it’s not a typical part of the academy at any level. I know tenured faculty, widely respected in their areas of specialty, and with a half dozen books to their names who — in twenty years — haven’t fielded the number of requests for interviews that I did in the twenty days leading up to “Tribute Week” this past August. Lest I be misunderstood here, I’m not pointing to all this press attention as a form of bragging: quite the contrary, as I know that these interview requests typically had nothing to do with the quality of my research or the strength of the arguments I make in the book: to be sure, many of the reporters I talked with seemed friendly, respectful, and interested in what I had to say once I started saying it. But I also know that if my project had been on something — anything — other than Elvis, no matter how sharp or insightful or ground-breaking it might have been, I would probably still be waiting to field my first request for an interview. What’s attracting media attention here, then, is not a serious interest in Elvis as a subject for intellectual discussion, but the quirky, fringe-feature notion that there are people in the academy who actually talk about Elvis seriously.

And the Elvis conference did attract major media attention — I gave my talk, for instance, with a Good Morning America crew shining bright lights in my eyes . . . but, again, I know that if this had been an academic conference about anything besides Elvis — from film studies to Flemish painting, from race relations to rock ’n’ roll — in 99 cases out of 100, there wouldn’t have been a single journalist within earshot of the building. I don’t have hard numbers on this, of course, but I suspect that there were more representatives of the press present on any single day of that conference than there have been at all the conferences I’ve attended over the past decade combined . . . and I’m no stranger to conferences either, since I attend three to four per year. I also think it’s significant that the majority of the press at the Elvis conference were found in the corridors upstairs and on the steps outside — but only rarely in the actual meeting room for longer than it took to get a few dozen feet of video footage: as an unusual event, the Elvis conference was news, but the ideas presented there were not.

To provide some more meaningful contrast, I want to compare the Elvis conference to one of the biggest, most talked-about, most star-studded (in the academic sense of stardom, anyway) scholarly conferences of the decade: the 1990 conference, “Cultural Studies: Now and in the Future,” at the University of Illinois. Like the Elvis conference, the Illinois event was five solid days of long-format presentations by invited speakers from around the world. More than 800 people trekked in from as far away as Australia just to be there — and if you’ve ever been to Champaign-Urbana, you know that no one came for the restaurants or the sightseeing side trips. The conference proceedings were published in a massive 800-page volume by Routledge that — by the standards of academic publishing, anyway — was a runaway bestseller, with something like 4000 copies being sold in the first six months alone. The conference was framed from the start as a Major Event in the up-and-coming field of Cultural Studies and, to this day, is still the subject of much passionate scholarly debate and discussion. In short, this was as Big an Event as any single academic conference in the US has been all decade (if not longer). So how many of those 800-plus attendees were reporters? Three. And that, according to Larry Grossberg, one of the conference’s organizers, is probably a high estimate.

What I want to suggest with this comparison, then, is that if Elvis and Elvis studies were, in fact, something that the culture as a whole took seriously, the media attention to the Memphis conference would have been the same as that given to other serious intellectual projects: i.e., nothing . . . or pretty damned close to it. If the mainstream media took Elvis half as seriously as it takes, say, Shakespeare studies, there would have been no CNN reporters clamoring for Elvis scholars to interview, no cover stories in USA Today: there would, instead, have been silence. Or perhaps, on a good day, a three-paragraph blurb tucked somewhere on page D-12 next to the funeral notices.

For we live in a culture that is profoundly anti-intellectual — and growing more so all the time, it seems. It’s not just Elvis scholars who fail to get respect, after all: that’s the rule for most scholarly work these days. Now there are a lot of indicators of the dwindling respect accorded to intellectual work in US culture: the way that education budgets are being slashed and faculty lines are eliminated, even as college enrollment is on the rise, so that educators are forced to do more work for more students with fewer resources and diminished job security; the various efforts around the country to eliminate tenure and/or get around it through an increasing reliance on adjunct and temporary faculty; the gradual disappearance of independent bookstores and the decreasing place of books and reading in people’s daily lives; and so on. Given the time restraints here, however, I want to focus instead on a very different — and far more chilling — example of how intellectual work has come to be viewed, not just with simple disrespect, but with outright suspicion.

The following is the first part of a CNN story from April 1996, which I quote at length because I don’t think that a simple paraphrase could do justice to what’s going on here:

Kaczynski the bookworm

FBI pores over Unabom suspect’s library

April 24, 1996

Web posted at: 11:40 p.m. EDT

From Correspondent Jennifer Auther

HELENA, Montana (CNN) — Unabom suspect Theodore Kaczynski’s tiny cabin in Lincoln, Montana, is described as having two of its four walls lined with bookshelves. His connection to the Unabom murders — or exoneration from them — may lie, in part, with those books and others he read.

Some of his books came from Aunt Bonnie’s Bookstore in Helena. Store records indicate Kaczynski had visited the shop six times since May 1995. According to bookstore manager Anna Haire, he primarily browsed through the non-fiction section. “There’s a little room in the back here that has political science, sociology, science, math,” she said.

Federal agents seized at least 128 books from Kaczynski’s cabin, and some periodicals. No currently employed librarian can discuss Kaczynski’s reading habits; all are bound under a seven-year-old state law on confidentiality of library records. But several libraries in and around Lincoln have been subpoenaed by the FBI.

While in jail, Kaczynski has read about medieval history and at least one newspaper. [emphasis added]

Now, I’m willing to accept that Kaczynski may really be the Unabomber and I’m assuming that the FBI’s case against him is based on much stronger evidence than the simple fact that he reads books — even if those books happen (gasp!) to be non-fiction. And I’m also ready to believe — especially given my own encounters with TV reporters — that there’s more to the tale than what ran on the air or showed up on CNN’s website. But that still doesn’t account for the bizarre nature of this story, which works fairly hard to paint an image of Kaczynski as the sort of methodical, cold-blooded sociopath who would send dozens of deadly letter bombs out over the course of a decade . . . because he owned a lot of books, actually seemed to read some of them, and even — horror of horrors — visited the same bookstore half a dozen times over the course of a single year. It’s only in an environment where reading and thinking and intellectual work are not taken seriously — where using one’s mind is a suspicious activity — that a story like this could be written, much less actually make it to air. If this is the sort of evidence that justifies the exceptionally serious charges that Kaczynski currently faces — he reads, he shops for books — then we should simply shut all the universities (or at least their humanities wings) now and turn them into prisons for all the thought-criminals who currently work in them as faculty and graduate students.

Okay, I’ll admit that this last bit is hyperbole — I don’t expect the US to go the way of mass book-burning and pogroms against academics anytime soon. Still, I think that, sadly, we’re currently closer to that end of the spectrum than we are to actually respecting (much less celebrating) intellectual work in this country. Especially since that CNN story isn’t an isolated example. Just last month, syndicated newspaper columnist John Leo wrote a piece on Drawing Life, a book by Unabomber victim David Gelertner that — according to Leo, anyway — argues that the deterioration of US culture “into our current chaos of fatherlessness, illegitimacy, divorce, violence, deviancy and anything-goes morality” is the result of the “anti-bourgeois intellectuals and artists [who] now dominate the culture.” To be fair to Leo, he admits that “Gelertner’s argument is a bit simple and bombastic” . . . but he does so mainly on the grounds that Gelertner writes in an “off-the-cuff style” and doesn’t provide enough evidence to back up his claims — but, in the end, Leo clearly believes that those claims have merit: that it’s become “routine” for the views of intellectuals “to prevail over the clear wishes of the American people.” We, evidently, are “the elite” who have taken over the country in “manipulative and anti-democratic” fashion. And, presumably, Bill Gates, Ted Turner, Michael Eisner, et al. are merely helpless pawns subject to the cruel and authoritarian whims of the real ruling class: i.e., those of us who do cultural studies and other sorts of intellectual work in the humanities.

Professional academics suffer from two major stereotypes these days. The first of these sees us as irrelevant and disconnected: we fritter our time away on obscure bits of text and culture and theory that no one outside the academy has ever heard of, much less cares about. (This, to an extent, is the stereotype Marling leans on with so little self-reflection.) The other stereotype sees us as dangerous abominations precisely because we’ve connected our work to “the real world”: this is the image of intellectuals as “tenured radicals” whose mortal sin has been to actually think and talk and teach and write about things that do matter in the “real world.” Put the two together and professional academics are caught in a vicious double-bind: one where the only good academic is an invisible one . . . and even then, we’re not to be taken seriously.

Now, in a cultural context where intellectual work is at best, barely visible and, at worst, the object of deep suspicion and hostility, even the most straightforward, sympathetic, and respectful of news items on Elvis scholarship becomes hard for many people to take seriously. An almost picture-perfect example of this showed up in The St. Petersburg Times the week prior to the Elvis conference. Tucked away on page 5-B, there was a perfectly serious ten-paragraph AP story on William McKeen, a journalism professor at the University of Florida, and his argument that Elvis “should be taken seriously as a historical character” for the role his early music helped to play in the civil rights struggles of the 1950s. As a straight news story on Elvis-related scholarship, this was a fine piece of work . . . that was completely undercut by an essay from Times columnist Elijah Gosier two pages before it in the paper. Before the average reader had the chance to get to the wire story on McKeen, Gosier devoted half a column to how ludicrous McKeen’s assertions are. “The real laugher,” Gosier concludes, “is that [this story was] written as serious news. . . . So much of what we call news, like [this story], is the result of flimsy thinking promoted to importance primarily because it is put into print. Most of it deserves little more than to be laughed at. But when you get through laughing at how Elvis’ Blue Suede Shoes helped us overcome, think about it.”

Now insofar as there is a lot of “flimsy thinking” in print — both as journalism and as scholarship, mind you — I think Gosier’s argument is worth thinking about. At the same time, however, I think the argument by McKeen that Gosier laughs away so dismissively is not so easy to shrug off when viewed in the context of solid, serious intellectual work on popular culture, media studies, and US history. And it’s precisely that broader context that is missing when it comes to media coverage of the academy: when journalists become a common and expected presence at the average scholarly conference — and not just the “fun” ones — and when intellectual work is not so readily viewed as something to be suspicious of, then I’ll be willing to entertain the idea that press coverage of Elvis studies is a sign of respect and acceptance.

It’s not just the media, however, who have a hard time taking Elvis studies seriously: to a large extent, the academy does as well — which brings me back around to a point I mentioned early on about how the real problem with Elvis studies to date was less one of taking Elvis too seriously and more one of not taking him seriously enough. For starters, it’s still not terribly common for academics to see Elvis as a subject worthy of their intellectual attention. For example, writing in early 1992, Simon Frith noted that “in its first decade, Popular Music has not published a single article on Presley; in their five international conferences so far, IASPM members have not heard a single Presley paper.” The latter, I know, no longer applies — I gave a paper on Elvis and race at the 1993 international IASPM meetings in Stockton — but, to the best of my knowledge, anyway, Frith’s basic argument here concerning the relative scarcity of Elvis scholarship still holds true.

To give another example, Elvis After Elvis — in its original, pre-publication incarnation — was (again, to the best of my knowledge) the first dissertation ever devoted primarily to the study of Elvis Presley. Mind you, I could be wrong about this, and I’ve got no real investment in being the first person to write about Elvis and get a Ph.D. for doing so. However, I recall that at some point during my research I browsed through the relevant databases for theses and dissertations written on Elvis, and all I came up with at the time was a master’s thesis on working-class Elvis fans and a novella about a cat named Elvis (which served as the major project for someone’s M.A. in Creative Writing). But even if mine was only the second (or third, or whatever) dissertation on Elvis, the fact remains that there simply aren’t that many people in the academy who’ve ever taken Elvis seriously enough to study him at any length. Clearly, that number is growing, but even so, Elvis is still far too rare a subject within the academy to make Don DeLillo’s fanciful idea of an entire field of “Elvis studies” anything more than just a fanciful idea (or, as I’ve used it here, a convenient shorthand way of describing a small body of related work).

So when I hear people say that the “Elvis studies” thing has been done to death — and this is something I’ve heard from journalists, reviewers, and academics alike — I always wonder just what massive body of Elvis scholarship these people know about that has somehow managed to elude me since I first began studying Elvis in 1990. To be sure, I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if some example of serious Elvis scholarship had slipped by me — after all, there’s been an awful lot of scholarly work done this decade, and I’m not going to pretend to have sifted through every last word of it to get at all the Elvis bits that are there — but to hear these people talk, one would almost think that Elvis was the only thing taught at universities these days: as if you couldn’t get a degree even in, say, nuclear physics without taking three or four seminars on Elvis along the way.

Now, writing a dissertation on Elvis (and transforming that manuscript into a book) has a number of curious side effects that distinguish it from other scholarly endeavors — and that help to demonstrate just how hard it often is to take Elvis seriously. Perhaps the most common of these is the almost universal reaction people (especially within the academy) had — and still have — upon learning what I was studying: laughter. From there, the subsequent conversation tended to go in one of two seemingly opposite directions. The first of these found that laughter followed by something along the lines of, “Okay, seriously, what are you really writing about?”: as if the idea that I might actually be doing legitimate scholarly work on Elvis was simply too unbelievable to be taken as anything but a poor attempt at a joke on my part. The second common direction these conversations took was for that initial burst of laughter to be followed by something like, “Wow. That sounds like a lot of fun. And they let you get away with that? Cool.” or “I wish I could write my dissertation on something that fun.” To be sure, this is a far more positive reaction than the other kind — at the very least, it’s supportive and encouraging, where the other is more clearly skeptical and disapproving — but I think that, in the final analysis, both reactions actually stem from the same basic belief: namely, that Elvis and serious scholarship don’t go together. While people who fall into the first camp seem to think that studying Elvis represents the extent to which once-lofty academic standards are in decline (and that Western civilization has been overtaken by barbarous rabble), people in the last camp often seem to approve of my project mostly because they think I must be getting away with something I shouldn’t be: i.e., that I managed to pull a fast one on the academy by slipping a clearly non-serious topic through the system.

Now it should come as no surprise that I don’t think of Elvis as a non-serious topic, nor do I feel that I pulled a fast one on the academy with my research. At the very least, if I was going to try that sort of scam, I’d have done so at someplace for more pleasant to live for seven years than the middle of the Illinois prairie. But, if I were to be brutally frank about it, I would have to say that there is a noticeable and troubling tendency for many — though certainly not all — academics working on popular culture in general (and Elvis in particular) to treat their subject matter with more levity and casualness than they should.

The best example I have of this problem — at least when it comes to Elvis studies — comes from an otherwise solid conference on popular music at the University of Missouri several years ago. For the only time in the course of my research, I found myself on a panel with someone else presenting an Elvis paper — which could have produced some exciting discussion during the Q&A session . . . but it was not to be. For my fellow panelist began her presentation with the claim that Elvis was still everywhere because he was a star and then — having gotten through the theoretical portion of her paper (yes, she described “Elvis is a star” as a theoretical observation; I couldn’t make something like that up) — spent the next 20 minutes reading a dozen or so of the most outrageous tabloid stories on Elvis as if they were hard news items fresh off the AP wire. If she actually had a conclusion or an argument here — which I doubt — time has kindly allowed me to forget it.

Now, to be sure, this is the most egregious example of unscholarly “scholarship” on Elvis (or anything else, for that matter) I’ve encountered to date, and it would be unfair to make sweeping statements about all Elvis scholarship on the strength (or lack thereof) of a single conference paper. But there remains a powerful temptation in doing scholarly work on Elvis and other pop culture to “have fun with this” stuff in ways that don’t balance out the seriousness of one’s intellectual efforts with an appropriate sprinkling of humor as much as they undercut whatever serious insights might be present with an overdose of levity.

For example, earlier this summer, I learned that Ted Harrison was upset at how, in my book, I’d described Elvis People, his book about the religion currently growing up around Elvis. Harrison’s book, I think (and I say as much in print), contains some very solid sociological evidence and persuasive arguments for the idea that Elvis fans relate to their idol in ways that are plausibly indicative of a religion-in-the-making. But he also surrounds his more compelling prose with distracting bits of light-hearted whimsy and tabloid-esque fun — such as using the tale of an innkeeper who’s erected a statue of Elvis near Jerusalem to help support the claim that Elvis is now a holy figure. As if a statue in the Holy Land, placed there by a private individual, sufficed to confer divinity on the statue’s subject. Buried amidst these sorts of “fun” tidbits and loose logic, Harrison’s strongest arguments — no matter how accurate and valuable they might be — lose most (if not all) of the impact they should rightly have. Especially if he’s trying to persuade a potentially skeptical audience.

Now I don’t want to suggest that this is a flaw unique to the scholarly study of Elvis — or even of popular culture. It’s not: one can find unnecessary fluff and misplaced whimsy in any branch of academic work that one cares to name. But while no brand of scholarship may be immune to this disease, I think it’s a much more serious problem — in terms of its ramifications for how our work is received, rather than the degree to which it occurs — for academics working on popular culture.

There are three reasons why I think that those of us who study pop culture need to be more diligent than other academics when it comes to the seriousness and quality of our intellectual work. First, I think that we already start with the disadvantage of working on subject matter that many people — in and out of the academy — don’t think merits serious scholarly attention. Shakespearean scholars, for instance, can get away with research that fails the “so what?” test more easily than Elvis scholars because the act of studying Shakespeare is already deemed to be an intellectually worthy endeavor (even if one does it poorly), while the act of studying Elvis (or hip-hop or Madonna) is not so widely accepted (even if one does it well). Second, having fun with popular culture is something that non-academics already do all the time: if our scholarly work on Elvis is going to have any positive value, it needs to bring something new and different to the conversation instead of simply duplicating the pleasures already present in “ordinary” fandom. Third — and this may be a bit of a limb to go out on — I would argue that Elvis and other popular culture phenomena are more central to contemporary US culture than many other objects of scholarly work and thus we need to take them more seriously. This is not to say that I want to turn the current canon upside-down, putting Elvis on top and Shakespeare on the bottom — on the contrary, I firmly believe that any properly democratic take on US culture has plenty of room for both of these figures (and many more) in it — but that if we truly want to work for a better world, a more just and egalitarian and democratic world, then the need to understand Elvis and Disney and hip-hop and TV and other aspects of contemporary popular culture is more pressing than the need to understand Shakespeare and Chaucer and Brahms and Michelangelo.

And, yes, understanding Elvis properly does require us to have fun with him. I would even say that if you can’t have fun with Elvis — in some fashion or another — you probably don’t understand him very well at all. But having fun shouldn’t be something that prevents us from taking Elvis seriously — or from being taken seriously ourselves. Admittedly, trying to have “serious fun” with Elvis without slipping too far to one side or the other of that line is not a particularly easy thing to do. But that’s also not the point, as the ultimate goal here is not to make our jobs as scholars simpler: it’s to make the work we do as cultural critics better. And that, I think, is the business we need to be taking care of.

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