On Elvis, influence, and unintended consequences
Originally published at MoonRunners
Today marks the 77th birthday of Elvis Presley, hands down the most influential recording artist of the 20th century. But what does influence really mean? Does each action have an unintended, inadvertent reaction? Is it enough to call Elvis the King of Rock ‘n Roll and say he was one of the best ever or should we look beyond that and ask what his influence really was and what it meant? Can we credit his taboo-breaking for the rise of everything from the Ramones to Marilyn Manson to Eminem without also crediting his pretty-boy-sex-symbol image for David Cassidy, the Backstreet Boys, and Justin Bieber? I don’t pretend to know, but I think to get the full grasp of the phenomenon that was and is Elvis, these are questions that need to be answered. So happy birthday, man. Thanks for all the great music. Now, with all due respect, we’re going to have a look at the fallout.
But before we get too deep into how he shaped our modern-day music culture, let’s first examine the views and attitudes surrounding Elvis at the beginning. A lot of us have probably seen the clip of the upright citizen in the ’50s claiming that Elvis and his legion of followers were simply a “plot to bring the white man down to the level of the nigger.” But looking beyond racists and bigots, what did Ward and June Cleaver see when they looked at Elvis Presley in 1956? In many ways, it was the same as Tipper Gore’s reaction to Twisted Sister 30 years later. This was some scary shit.
A friend of mine said “Elvis was the last superstar worth his hype” and, while there is probably some truth to that, I would argue that (with the possible exceptions of Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan) he was also the last great folk singer. On his first Lousiana Hayride appearance in 1954, the announcer describes Elvis’s music as “something new in the folk music field” and the liner notes on the back of his RCA debut two years later continued that line of thought. And his records for Sam Phillips at Sun truly do feel like a natural progression and amalgamation of music previously made by folks like Son House, Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie, The Carter Family, Roy Acuff, Charlie Patton, and gospel groups such as Sam Cooke’s Soul Stirrers. Yet, much like Dylan plugging in his guitar a decade later, Elvis’s sudden rise to stardom would have the unintended consequence of destroying the roots music of his day.
Furthermore, the rise of Elvis transformed the country music industry in countless ways. George Jones (or his alter ego “Thumper”), Johnny Horton, Cowboy Copas, Webb Pierce, Marty Robbins and Faron Young were just a few of the artists who tried their hand at rockabilly in the mid-’50s. Buddy Holly and Wanda Jackson were two rising country stars who would soon become rock and roll legends in the midst of the new sound. And let’s not forget Jim Reeves or Patsy Cline, who helped usher in the Nashville Sound era when it became clear that in order to compete with Elvis and his Sun Records labelmates, artists would now have to create music with potential to cross over into the pop market. Is it any wonder that he made just one ill-received appearance on the Opry stage or that some purists still blame him for the death of country music’s golden era?
The point I’m getting at is that while modern listeners can look around and still see Elvis’s fingerprints everywhere, in many ways that influence existed from the beginning. The music more than speaks for itself and there is no doubt that, on pure singing talent alone, Elvis would have had a successful career as a recording artist for the rest of his life. But the ’50s was the dawn of the TV era and folks like Milton Berle and Ed Sullivan scrambled to get the young, good-looking singer on their shows. And that, my friends, is when the real shit started going down.
David Cassidy wearing his bell-bottoms and making the girls swoon every week on The Partridge Family. Record label creations such as the Backstreet Boys selling out arenas. The completely untalented Britney Spears dressed in a schoolgirl outfit and doing nothing of any musical relevance, but making money because she was hot. The millions of teenage girls with a crush on Jason Aldean and a Justin Bieber poster on their wall.
It all started with one simple shake of the hips from one of the most talented guys to ever walk the earth.
And from there you got the “teenage idols”: the extremely talented Ricky Nelson, who would grow up to be one of the forefathers of country-rock, but also the Fabians, Frankie Avalons, and eventually the Monkees and Bobby Sherman, Leif Garrett, and Aaron Carter. Or, here in 2012, Miley Cyrus and Justin Moore. (As a side note, it seems like each generation has that one artist who breaks the confines of the “teen idol” label: the aforementioned Ricky Nelson in the ’50s, Michael Jackson in the ’70s and ’80s, Hanson in the ’90s, Tanya Tucker in the country music world, and possibly Taylor Swift in our own time, assuming she can handle the pressure.)
But, getting back on track, TV was the true culprit. Once the promoters and label heads realized that, in the minds of the public, music was now secondary to a pretty face, they began signing acts with this notion in mind. And even Elvis himself began to suffer. While at Sun, he had recorded material that was truly among the best country and R&B had to offer and that continued in 1956 and most of 1957. But by ’58, he was recording songs like “Crawfish” and “Lover Doll,” that, while good by pop standards then and now, were far beneath him. And by the time he made his comeback a decade later and got back to making great music, he had been reduced to a fading B-movie star who sang love songs to cows. Seriously. See the movie Stay Away Joe. That shit actually happened.
Actually go watch any of his ’60s films except for Flaming Star, Charro, Viva Las Vegas, and Change of Habit, all of which range from classic to decent. Then go watch From Justin to Kelly or that godawful Britney Spears movie and see how Elvis influenced marketing and promotion not just in the music industry but also in Hollywood, where a film career is now the norm for any pop star with a hit.
Yet, I don’t believe Elvis intentionally destroyed our culture. If anything, he was merely the patsy for Colonel Tom Parker and Hal Wallis. And let’s not forget that there is a completely different chain of influence leading back to Elvis and this is the one we should be thanking him for. In this world, we have to take the good with the bad. Without the taboo-breaking, race mixing early records or the provocative dance moves on The Ed Sullivan Show, where would rock and roll be? The music would still exist, for sure, but would we have Alice Cooper? What about Frank Zappa, Black Sabbath, the Sex Pistols, Marilyn Manson, Danzig, N.W.A., or your favorite artist?
It is this impact on the society (good and bad), this transformation of what the word “celebrity” means and any and all music that has came since that we are really celebrating today. Not just the birthday of a man who has been dead going on 35 years. Elvis’s life is one of harsh contradictions. He was innocent mama’s boy who ushered in the sexual revolution. He was the Federal drug agent who died from an overdose of pills. He was the hardcore J. Edgar Hoover supporter who may have done more for the advancement of civil rights than anybody, including Martin Luther King (but that’s another article). He was the most talented vocalist of the 20th century and recorded several of the worst songs ever written (“He’s Your Uncle, Not Your Dad,” anyone?). Likewise, his posthumous influence and legacy is complicated by the same contradictions, which is something to consider when listening to his music or observing our modern-day, disposable-pretty-face culture.
Or you can just listen to the music and leave these sorts of questions to guys like me. Either way, happy birthday Elvis.