The Elvis Files: One Direction Dances To The Jailhouse Rock

one direction

Only One Direction could distract me from writing about Blue Hawaii. I’ve been so intrigued by the British boy band’s latest music video “Kiss You” that I have been unable to finish the post. (I’m probably also procrastinating.) If you don’t hang out with tween girls, then you most likely haven’t watched this video. Here it is.

This is a fun, somewhat campy music video that pays homage to films such as To Catch a Thief, Ski Party, and Thunderball. Thanks to an abundance of surfboards, it also references every 1960s beach party film. But none of these tributes trumps the extensive throwback to Jailhouse Rock, which is widely considered to be Elvis Presley’s greatest on-screen moment.

It’s all there. The deconstructed jail cell. The striped shirts and cropped pants. The posse of prison inmates. The gyrating hips.

Compared to the original, One Direction’s version of “Jailhouse Rock” is considerably… goofier. They recreate the sequence mostly through their appearance and nothing else. The band spends more time jumping in a mob than actually dancing. (One thing I’ve noticed about the new boy bands like One Direction and The Wanted is that they don’t dance. Certainly not the way ’N Sync shimmied in “Bye Bye Bye”. The performance style of these new boy bands is “stand, jump, and run around on stage”. They also don’t sport frosted tips and overalls, which is a tragedy.)

The limited choreography in “Kiss You” is interesting when you consider the fact that the “Jailhouse Rock” sequence is known for its dancing and known for being blatantly homoerotic. As Brett Farmer notes in Spectacular Passions: “The orgasmic gyrations of Elvis Presley and his band of male prisoners in the “Jailhouse Rock” sequence […] provides instances of a spectacular eroticization, if not homoeroticization, of the male image that is quite unusual in mainstream cinema.”

But although One Direction lacks “orgasmic gyrations” in their version of “Jailhouse Rock,” is this music video any less homoerotic than the original sequence?

The homoeroticization of the male image is common in musicals. Farmer cites Anchors Aweigh, West Side Story, Grease, and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes as examples of musicals with scenes that can be read as homosexual or homoerotic. This is because, as Rick Altman notes, the musical number is a “covert method of conceiving normally undiscussed aspects of intersexual relationships.” Musical numbers allow for homoeroticism and the male body to be put unashamedly on display in mainstream cinema.

Boy bands are just current examples of the mass production and mass consumption of the male image.  Everything a boy band produces – albums, music videos, tabloid covers – is consumed in unparalleled ways.  “Kiss You” has a total of 43 million views on YouTube and counting.  This band is everywhere. Furthermore, the homoerotic nature of the band is widely tolerated by the One Direction fandom. Not only is it tolerated but it is excitedly embraced by the fandom. While researching this post, I ventured into the “One Direction” tag on Tumblr. (Not even Lewis & Clark could leave a Tumblr tag unscathed.) The very first thing I learned is that One Direction fans embrace rumors that their favorite band members are gay and they even “ship” certain bandmates together. This is a new development in fandom culture.

Typically, fandoms are viewed as a scandalous aspect of our culture. This is because fandoms disrupt sanctioned culture and the fans themselves are seen as threatening. Queer spectatorship and homoerotic representations of the male image are also seen as threatening aspects of sanctioned culture. But the Internet, particularly micro-blogging platforms like Tumblr, allow fandoms to exist today in ways they have not been able to exist before. They create a space for fans to interact without being made to feel weird, isolated, or threatening. They allow for more open and honest interactions with cultural products.

In 1957, the “Jailhouse Rock” sequence was an unusual representation of the male image in mainstream cinema. But a music video like “Kiss You” indicates that the immense changes that are taking place in today’s culture. Once taboo topics like fandoms, homoeroticism, and queer spectatorship are constantly embraced by the public, whether or not viewers realize they are doing so. It’s fascinating to watch unfold and to see how a boy band has a unique part in these developments. A lot has changed since Elvis Presley scandalized the nation by swiveling his hips on national television and even more has changed since Lance Bass was a closeted boy bander in 1990s.

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