Elvis: not a rebel, but had a cause

It’s curious to me why Elvis was never and largely continues to not be taken seriously as an artist.

The bizarre current day argument that singers who don’t also write songs are somehow lesser than other singers is very strange. We don’t expect opera singers to write the operas and we don’t expect actors to write the screenplays. Most singers do not write songs or at least, not the majority of the songs they perform.

They are simply two difference skills. Certainly, there’s been plenty of songwriters who later became singers – and to my ear, many should have remained in the writing arena.

At first, the attitude that Elvis – and pretty much all the 50’s rock n roll performers – weren’t artists is because their audience was largely teenaged girls. Certainly nothing of importance to teenage girls is going to be deemed art.

What was threatening about Elvis was not just the sexual jolt of awakening a public sexuality in teen girls, because Elvis wasn’t the boy you wanted your daughter to bring home for more than his blatant sexual appeal. He was rural poor, Southern and as threatening to middle class white northern parents as their daughter bringing home an African American.

Middle class uptight white America saw Elvis as no different than a black man – and neither did Elvis – but for far more different reasons and not at all negatively.

Elvis did not have a sense of class difference in terms of ethnicity because in the environment that he grew up in – there wasn’t a distinction between the two groups – both were dirt poor, plain and simple. No better or worse off than the other.

So, while Elvis certainly has the street cred for being an artist by background and the unique performance style, I think that the the 50’s rock n roll is largely discounted as artistic because for the most part, the music was an expression of pent up emotions and teenaged angst – sex, first love, lost love, partying – everything that teenagers most care about.

Rock n roll was was a jubilant burst of emotions that got everyone moving. These base emotions are just not the basis for art and the implication of intentional thought or messages behind the works.

But the apparently shallowness of the lyrics was critical to the underlying message of the synthesis of Rhythm and Blues with Western Bop – aka Rockabilly and ultimately Rock n Roll.

the civil rights movement of the 60’s, with the politizing influence of folk music tempering rock n roll into protest songs and an expression of the anger, fear and rebellion was built on the 50’s rock n roll exuberance.

Part of why 50’s rock is discounted as artisitc, is because it change society so much that we can no longer imagine how restricted the gender roles were or that teenagers as a powerful marketing group occured in the 1950;s.

The 60’s movies make more sense if we consider that EP wanted to belong to the establishment. The Presley film vehicle was what the studio wanted to make money and it was what Parker wanted to consolidate “his boy” as the highest paid entertainer.

Elvis achieved what he thought he wanted – the acceptance and approval – but, as most movies show, getting what you want is often exactly what we do not need.

Elvis, through the mid and later 60’s movies, had the establish acceptance he wanted – but the price of his artistic integrity was too high a price to pay.

The final films that broke with the Presley musical comedy romantic travelog  –Change of Habit; Stay Away, Joe; and The Trouble with Girls (and How to Get into It) and the aptly named Easy Come, Easy Go; – were too little too late. Elvis’ movie career was at a close and Elvis’ family life was changing. Married with a child. Elvis was establishment.

The movies over for the foreseeable future, Parker had to put Elvis in front of audiences again or admit he had run Elvis’ career into the ground. Parker arranged for a television special – a one man show – unique in and of itself for the time. Television; having launched Elvis to the national stage in 1956,  was either going to re-launch Elvis or be the full circle book end to his career in 1968.

Elvis had listened to Parker for nearly a decade of films and had transformed from the 1950’s rocker image to a wholesome family entertainer. While it made him wildly rich and mainstream; the movies and being part of the establishment didn’t make Elvis happy.

Largely because I don’t think that being part of the establishment was really specifically defined. Elvis, churning out movies to make huge money for the studio to make artistic films is acceptance by the establishment – because it is what establishment requires from you that defines your role – not you and your needs.

Putting your own interests – whatever they may be – ahead of everyone else’s isn’t being part of the establishment.

Elvis finally took a stand and became the rebel that he was always cast as when he sided with Steve Binder for the 68 special; rejecting Parker’s walk on, sing Christmas songs and walk off. Instead, we have an innovative program with musical numbers that are each individual productions (aks music videos) but that also connect to tell a larger story (a rock opera), the personal unplugged sit down portion and the electric  stand up karoke portion and ending with Evangelical Elvis signing directly about social harmony – If I Can Dream.

Elvis effortlessly exploded nationally on television in 1956 on the Dorsey Brothers Stage show, in glorious live black and white while merging the black and white cultures in one song delivered with a religiously fervored sexuality and The King returned in an riot of colour, leather and sweat, wringing everything from his soul to earn back that national and even global acclaim.

Elvis was now a rebel – and he was embraced as such.  In the 50’s Elvis appeared to be a rebel, but his army stint and the 60’s movies confirmed Elvis was in fact, establishment.

It took Elvis a long time to understand, if he ever did consciously, that being establishment came at too high a cost and was fairly bland and uninspired. In 1968, the rebel Elvis was truly born.

Elvis returned to live performances in 1969 – a major cultural event that is largely forgotten when the summer of 69 is remembered. Woodstock dominates, despite being the last hurrah of the  60’s counter culture.

The 50’s rock n roll explosion ended with Elvis being drafted, Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochrane and the promising Ritchie Valens dead. Little Richard went religious, Chuck Berry was beginning his legal battles. Jerry Lee Lewis personal life being the undoing of his professional one. It left a vacuum that was filled with the androgenous teen idols – Bobby Darin, Fabian, Pat Boone.

The 60’s counter culture ended with the deaths of Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Hendrix. The bitter battle between the more folkier groups like Peter, Paul and Mary and the more drug directed Mamas and the Papas.

The 50’s was a celebration of the end of self repression, the 60’s was a search for deeper meaning and truth, leaving the 70’s wide open for a backlash – disco – sound with fury and signifying nothing.

We have a tenancy to think that how things are now, is pretty much how they have always been, with only fashions and our tech toys changing.

But, it’s not. I came out as a lesbian in 1992 – and that that time, it was legal to be denied employment or promotions, housing and even retail services that any other member of the public could take advantage of.

My partner placed an order for a balloon bouquet and the order was proceeding nicely until she told hem what to write on the card – and when the clerk saw it the balloons were being sent from one woman to another, they refused to accept the order at all. We had no recourse and this was still so commonplace, that it wouldn’t even rate a letter to the editor.

But, in the mid 1990’s gays legally were able to serve in the Canadian military, by the late 1990’s gays and lesbians were legally protected from discrimination in housing and employment  in 2000, gays and lesbians could be legally deemed common law married and in 2003, we were able to actually get married.

So, it becomes understandable when ethnicity discrimination is far less a public given when we can all drink from the same water fountains, attend the same schools and sit at the same lunch counters – that the changes wrought by the 50’s fusion of country and blues into rock n roll – are just part of the background social hum.