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Elvis lives …

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Elvis Presley lives – at least in popular culture and a growing body of serious fiction – according to a Curtin University academic.

“One of the fascinating things about Elvis is that he was such an unknown commodity for someone who was so ‘known’,” explains Associate Professor Paul Genoni (pictured) of the School of Media, Culture and Creative Arts.

“He had one of the most massively reproduced voices and was one of the most photographed men of the 20th century, and yet he never gave a single interview of any substance in his life.”

Associate Professor Genoni says that beyond the many superficial pop-culture representations of Presley there is a growing body of literary fiction about the rocker known worldwide as ‘the King’.

In 2010, Associate Professor Genoni stepped beyond his passing interest in Presley’s music to present an academic paper at a conference on Australian-US literary interaction.

“I guess I’ve listened to his music and been a casual fan for as long as I can remember,” Associate Professor Genoni says.

“It gradually grew into an academic interest as well.

“In particular I am intrigued by the way in which Elvis has persisted as a potent cultural presence after his death, and in this case I examined his unlikely appearance in some recent Australian fiction.”

Elvis Down Under: Simulations of a US pop icon in Australian Fiction garnered a good deal of interest, Associate Professor Genoni says, because of its quirky subject matter.

“But I’m certainly not the first Australian to be interested in this phenomenon,” he says, noting that several other Australian scholars have been influential in documenting the post-mortem phase of Presley’s career.

Associate Professor Genoni says the process of mega-celebrities gaining a new lease of ‘life’ after death is becoming increasingly common.

“I think that you begin to see something similar with other dead celebrities such as Michael Jackson,” he says.

“Whether it will have the same longevity with Jackson as it has with Presley is debateable but there’s that same kind of massive interest in these people that has been generated by an early death.

“In one sense their death has fixed them to the life and career they lived, but at the same time the iconic images they created – such as Elvis in the white suit – begin to spin off in all sorts of interesting and unpredictable ways.”

Curtin News emerged empty-handed from an on-campus poster shop recently after attempting to borrow a poster of Elvis to use as a photo prop. The duty manager explained that most students were not as interested in Elvis as in other figures featured in his poster range, which included Lady Gaga, Pink and Rage Against the Machine.

Associate Professor Genoni says this is natural, given Presley died in 1977.

“I guess that three decades after your death it’s hard to attract a new generation of fans or followers in the same way as when you were alive,” he says.

“Popular music is still driven by the youth market, and each generation needs icons of its own making.

“But there are still a lot of younger people who are interested in Elvis, either because they have niche interests in music or they’re people who just take a pleasure in seeking out these past, deceased figures.”

Associate Professor Genoni says a handful of books have been published that examine the near-deification of Elvis by certain of his followers.

“It has been argued that there is a beginning of a new religion here, that it’s got everything it needs,” he explains.

“It’s got a ‘Christ’ figure; it has priests in the form of Elvis impersonators; it’s got the disciples in the fans, and there are a whole series of rituals derived from Elvis’s performances that get repeated and embellished by the faithful.

“There are even several quasi-religious organisations in the US that tap into this devotion to the King. “

Associate Professor Genoni says that although other dead celebrities have lived on as historical figures they cannot hold a candle to Presley as a cultural icon.

“It’s all connected to the advent of postmodernism, driven by sound and film technologies that enable Elvis’s image and voice to be endlessly reproduced, manipulated and distributed,” he says.

In this sense, Associate Professor Genoni’s paper dubs Elvis the ‘pin-up boy for postmodernism’.

“In using that term I’m trying to explain why he seems to still be interesting to fiction writers in the 20th and 21st centuries,” he explains.

“What they find interesting about Elvis is what I find interesting, and that is his extraordinary persistence as a pop-culture phenomenon three decades after his death.

“Of the major celebrity figures of the 20th century he’s probably the one who’s retained the most punch in the 21st century in terms of their ability to mean something – or in Elvis’s case anything.”

Associate Professor Genoni says there is “an Elvis for every occasion”.

“Whether it’s the 1950s rock ‘n roll rebel; the devoted soldier; the Hollywood star of endless 60s beach movies; the leather-clad comeback King; or the overweight 1970s white jump-suited crooner, there is something for everybody,” he says.

“Because of the variety of Elvises and the ease with which his voice and image can be copied and distributed, we can resurrect an Elvis that is suitable for any purpose.

“And the fact that some of these different Elvises seems to contradict or be at odds with each other only serves to make him interesting to successive generations.

“In just about any conversation, you can drop in a reference to Elvis, and people – whatever their age or nationality – will almost certainly get it.”

Curtin’s School of Media, Culture and Creative Arts offers many courses that impart an understanding of modern cultural phenomena.

Photography: Sam Proctor

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  1. victoria says:

    interesting article – the news section is really good lately

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