Right Wing Nut House



Filed under: History, Media — Rick Moran @ 8:25 am

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Has it really been 30 years today since the death of Elvis Presley?

I was a year and some out of college and found his death sad but hardly a reason for the kind of outpouring of grief we witnessed around the world. After all, I was a Rolling Stones/Jimmy Hendrix/Led Zeppelin Rock ‘n Roll disciple who, along with most of my generation, viewed “The King” with a combination of contempt for selling out to Hollywood and bemusement at his on-stage antics in Las Vegas. I have since come to appreciate Elvis a little more, especially those Vegas shows where he proved himself a pretty good entertainer. But his music never did much for me, nor his voice, nor his early stage theatrics which even back in the ’70’s appeared stilted and forced.

I had a similar reaction to the death of Diana. Nice looking girl who fell in with the wrong crowd; the cutthroats who run the British monarchy - people who will do anything and go to any lengths to maintain their privileges and wealth. But what exactly had she done to warrant the massive, even hysterical manifestations of grief we saw not only in Great Britain but here in America as well? She was photographed holding AIDS babies. Very nice but beside the point. Standing next to her in the photographs were the real heroes - people who held and cared for those babies not just when a gazillion cameras were going off but every single day.

People who comforted those babies as the life oozed out of them. People whose contributions to humanity so far exceeded this mop topped blond rich girl that for me, it became an insult to those health care workers who held AIDS babies as well as others whose causes were adopted by Diana in an effort to either assuage her feelings of guilt at being born into privilege and wealth or out of a calculated effort to create a public personae that was guaranteed to keep her name in the media.

Elvis wasn’t quite the publicity hound that Diana became only because the media in the 1950’s and 60’s was just starting to suffocate us. The moguls hadn’t yet figured out that what the American people craved more than news from the world’s hot spots, more than information on the struggle for civil rights, more than coverage of American politics was dishing the dirt on the private lives of the world’s rich and famous.

I was barely 6 months old when Elvis recorded his first song for Sun records, That’s Alright, Mama, which was perhaps the first example of a viral recording making a huge impact on the cultural consciousness of America. Before the acetate was transferred to vinyl, it had been played on several radio stations in Memphis, generating a buzz that carried it to the top of the charts once the record was released (along with the other side of the single, an old bluegrass waltz called Blue Moon of Kentucky).

The Elvis phenomena in the 1950’s either reflected or began a cultural revolution, depending on your point of view. The cart and the horse in this case might be indistinguishable. For all the nostalgia for the 1950’s and its supposedly tranquil, somnolent nature, there were undercurrents of revolution boiling beneath the surface. Peyton Place, the novel of sex and secrets about small town America was published the same year - 1954 - that saw the emergence of Elvis Presley. The book was a cultural atomic bomb, 59 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller list and eventually selling a phenomenal 8 million copies in hard cover. That book paved the way for other novels critical of American society and especially, its cultural mores like Sloan Wilson’s searing The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and later, Updike’s seminal Rabbit Run.

While TV shows like Father Knows Best and Leave it to Beaver were seen as more than the ideal of an American family but actually as a true representation of family life in America, the real American family was undergoing incredible changes. In the midst of the baby boom, Elvis burst upon a cultural landscape that was ready for an iconic ringmaster, someone who would parlay the fusion of black R & B riffs and rhythms with what was known at the time as “Hillbilly” music into a brand new art form geared to a young audience and using the new medium of television to sell it.

When Elvis appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1956, 60 million Americans tuned in to see him. His status as a marketing king and preeminent showman rose to new heights. The recording industry had never seen anything like him. Americans had never experienced the kind of music he played either. The influence of black R & B and blues performers was obvious. And while it was fairly common for white musicians to take songs written by black performers and record them, Elvis was the first to actually keep the raw rhythms of the blues performer, grafting it on to other forms of white music like Western Swing and bluegrass. No one had ever heard anything like it and young people devoured it.

They also swooned at the rank sexuality of his public performances. Watching Madonna or Michael Jackson grabbing their crotch during a concert today isn’t half as shocking as the gyrating, grinding, thrusting movement of Presley’s hips was to 1950’s audiences. Bringing sex overtly (if unintentionally if you believe Presley) into the public consciousness, taking it out of the bedroom and putting it on the TV screen proved too much for some.

Until the 1960’s, Presley’s appearances on TV were invariably shot from the waist up lest the youth of America be corrupted. What seems quaint to us today was truly frightening to parents in the 1950’s. They didn’t understand the sex. They didn’t understand the “race music” Presley was making. And they didn’t understand how powerful the message of rebellion Presley was communicating - a message that would be taken to heart less than a decade after that Ed Sullivan appearance with the arrival in the US of the Beatles. Then, with the baby boom generation bursting for change, the Beatles and others would happily oblige them by promoting music and a lifestyle that satisfied the pent up urges of what would become known as the Viet Nam generation.

Can we “blame” Presley for the negative aspects in all this - the whole 1960’s mish mash of dashed hopes and unrealized dreams? Can we blame him for the media’s obsession with celebrity, gotten so out of control that it has trivialized our culture and society to the point that even our politics is now driven by it?

Elvis Presley is proof that history’s forces are more powerful than any single individual (usually). If not Elvis, it would have been another who would have popularized rock music. Presley wasn’t the only one experimenting with such fused forms of musical expression and someone else was bound to have hit it big. And I suspect that those undercurrents of rebellion in American society would have found a voice elsewhere if Elvis had not lived, so powerful and meaningful they were.

For better or worse, Elvis was there to invent, exploit, and capture all of these threads of history and culture, turning them to his personal advantage while inspiring others who came after him to push the envelope even farther. Elvis may be blameless as far as being the father of many modern ills in our society. But his status as one of the originators of our pop culture shouldn’t be forgotten as we examine what is best and worst about the revolution he started.


  1. The Elvis fans, for the most part, and a lot of the Beatles fans, were not boomers, but were that unnamed generation immediately preceding - the one that gave us Trent Lott, John Kerry and Lee Harvey Oswald. In 1954, the oldest boomer was only 8 - in 1964, only 18. This unnamed generation also made up a lot of the beatniks. A fair number of times something is attributed to boomers, but, in fact, it belongs to this other generation.

    I remember my older cousins, they are 70 or so now, being the first revolutionaries - they were the Elvis fans - the James Dean fans - the Brando fans, and were the first to rebel against “the fifties” even though they were maturing right in the middle of them.

    Comment by Juan Paxety — 8/16/2007 @ 11:58 am

  2. Check out actor Chuck Norris’ thoughts about Elvis at http://worldnetdaily.com/news/article.asp?ARTICLE_ID=57122

    Comment by JoeyB — 8/16/2007 @ 1:54 pm



    Comment by Rido — 8/16/2007 @ 4:02 pm

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