This is the summary of a University graduation paper titled "The Wonder Of You" for the study cultural anthropology. It is written by Femke Niehof. Some editors of ElvisNews were interviewed for this paper. Perhaps other readers can recognize something in this summary about "being an Elvis fan" themselves.
This paper looks at the fan culture of Elvis Presley. Research has been done among American and Dutch adult fans who travelled to Graceland, the former home of Elvis. For this research, fans have been interviewed and observed both in the Netherlands and in the United States.
Use has been made of the method of participant observation. The approach is both an emic and an etic approach. The fan culture is seen as a performance. Meaning that being a fan is part of the everyday reality and identity of the fan. It is interwoven with the everyday lives of fans. These performances express the worship of fans for Elvis. Fans distinguish themselves from the ordinary public by their particular relation to Elvis. Fans let Elvis be part of their lives, day after day and the activities of fans have a ritual dimension with certain shared rules.
Even though it is not possible to speak of the Elvis fan, meaning that there is great diversity among fans and that fans do not have a similar degree of fan related socially and cultural capital, all share an admiration for Elvis. This community has been defined in chapter six as an imagined community which can take on the form of an Elvis tribe. Particularly during the annually held Elvis week in Memphis, fans form a cluster of Elvis tribes, chapter eight looks into this.
Chapter two shows that fans are frequently stereotyped from outside and it has been made clear that fans amongst themselves also differentiate between fans.
The Elvis Presley fan culture has been specifically considered as a religious performance. Meaning that fans express and shape their fan culture with a religious vocabulary and that the things fans do can be analysed using anthropological theories normally applied to the study of religious phenomena. For example, the process of becoming a fan has been described in chapter three as a process of conversion. There are some structural parallels between the person who converts to a religion and a fan who ‘converts’ to Elvis. It is a social and an individual process. Fans feel a special connection with Elvis and they also enter a community of fans.
Chapter seven and eight look at the journey fans make to Graceland. Graceland is sometimes described by fans as a Mecca for Elvis fans. This journey has been describes as a pilgrimage, the fans being pilgrims.
In chapter four and five we look at the way that being a fan contributes to the development of the identity of the fan, using the theory of James, applied to fandom by Cavicchi (1998). The personality is developed in two ways. First of all, fans shape a self awareness by seeing themselves as an object, from the outside looking in, and secondly, fans create a sense of continuity over time. Collecting and listening to the music of Elvis can contribute to the development of the identity of a fan. They both serve as a soundtrack of life. Both make it possible for the fan to define him/herself , to set oneself apart from others and to be part of a community of fans. It is thus a performance.
Fans collect all kinds of Elvis stuff, both tangible objects as experiences and knowledge. Because fans treat objects in a special manner, separating them from use objects, displaying them in a special place, they give their collection a sacred dimension. Especially the objects that once belonged to Elvis or that have a special relationship to Elvis are endowed with a sacred value and are described here as relics. The time spend with a collection is also sacred and set apart from daily life.
There is a materialistic and a anti- materialistic side to collecting, collecting also has a social and a personal dimension. Not only the music of Elvis is important to the fans, Elvis himself is just as important. Fans identify with Elvis. Sometimes fans incorporate traits they admire in Elvis, but most of the time, they see traits in Elvis they also see in themselves. Elvis is also a source of inspiration for fans.
Scientist who look at the relation of popular culture and religion state that popular culture can take over functions of religion. They look at the way in which cultural activities take on the social form and also the purpose of religion. Both give sense, meaning and order to life. Some scientist have applied this notion to the study of the Elvis phenomenon. For example, Elvis is compared to Christian saints. He is supposed to be a source of inspiration and can even function as a bridge between the fan and higher spiritual powers and/or God. Chapter five states that the best way to look at Elvis is to see him as a charismatic guide instead of the loaded term ‘saint’.
The approach in this paper is that religion and popular culture can fulfil the same functions for fans, they can use the same vocabulary and ways of handling, but that this does not mean one is the replacement of the other. In the end, it is not about the claim that Elvis culture is a religion.
We (ElvisNews) would like to congratulate Femke on her graduation from Amsterdam University by writing this paper.