It’s been nearly 38 years.
In the decades that have passed, technology has grown exponentially – exploding into forms and purposes that were unimaginable even a quarter of a century ago. Skirts have shortened, pants have sagged, and elementary school math problems have become the equivalent of old-school college algebra. Things have changed.
The more astounding thing, though, something no one predicted, is our culture’s new fixation. What used to be obsolete has since been vintaged, hipsterified and recycled. For god’s sake, vinyls are making a comeback – or turn to China, where Samsung’s begun to sell flip phones again, due to an increasing desire to return to the good ol’ days.
It’s clear that old trends don’t stay old, especially in an interconnected world that can hook you up with novelties and antiques at the click of a button. It’s like the circle of lifestyles.
But while fashions and objects have a tendency of cycling around, social change seems to have stuck pretty soundly. The general pattern over the years has been heading toward openness and acceptance, with increasing tolerance for different groups and tastes. There’s been a pretty massive shift in public perception regarding previously hot button topics, of which sexuality and race are two of the most prominent.
Strange how 60 years ago, everything was buttoned-up and strict, whereas today we’ve got…well.
So what exactly was that cultural ignition in the late 1950s? It had to be something that changed the way we looked at life, something that affected a young population that would grow up with ideas incompatible with their parents’ outdated concerns. It would have broken social norms and crossed race and gender boundaries, not to mention geographic and regional divisions.
It had to be something huge, something that couldn’t be stopped once it started, like a boulder picking up speed down a hill.
It had to be rock and roll.
Picture this: thousands of screaming fans; female and male, black and white. We’re coming to the end of the 1950s, when suddenly teenagers are everyone’s target market. Companies are beginning to notice the generation’s buying power, a change due in large part to the influential figure gyrating on stage – because if he can make wads of dough off all those young people, then anyone can.
Meet Elvis, the kid that had parents panicking and teens dancing. He was new, he was different, and, most importantly, he was cool. He epitomized the whole “girls want to be with him, guys want to be him” deal; after all, he was the King, the prince from another planet, the original Rock Star™.
Elvis had a real rags-to-riches story – born into poverty and with plans to become a truck driver, he swung by a recording studio one day to presumably make a short record as a gift for his mother. Sam Phillips, producer at Sun Records, ended up hearing the kid sing and man, once Elvis started, he never stopped.
Elvis was one of the first to bring the topic of sex to the stage. He didn’t mean to, he said, he was just dancing, because “if you like it, if you feel it, you can’t help but move to it.”
And boy, did he move.
While we’re on the topic of sexual expression, Elvis was kind of a rare find. He was macho, no doubt, with his leather pants and slicked back hair; but juxtapose that with his pancake makeup and mascara and love of the color pink and suddenly, you’ve got a performer that transcends any rigid labels. He hung out with Liberace and collected cars; he had his own makeup line while he was sleeping his way through the continental United States. He was an enigma of sorts, and that unfaltering individuality is one of the reasons why nobody’s come close to imitating his reign.
Elvis has long had the burden of being labeled a cultural thief; of stealing the music of Little Richard, Chuck Berry, B.B. King, Ike Turner, Bo Diddley, and Fats Domino (among other greats) and using the sound to vault his way to fame. Elvis himself even once said that “the colored folks been singing it and playing it just like I’m doin’ now, man, for more years than I know.”
Though Elvis was always vehement that he “didn’t copy [his] style from anybody,” he did gain a musical education, from a very young age. In both Mississippi and Tennessee, Elvis found himself influenced by country, blues, and gospel music, more than anything. The economic and social situation in the 1940s was kind to neither African Americans nor the Presley’s, and so a young Elvis tended to live in places that were full of black culture, expressed through upbeat and swinging music that had the nerve to speak of raw, forthright topics – things the white music of the time skirted around at all cost. So when Elvis grew up and sang a new, syncretic music style that threaded that bluesy, soulful tone with the jaunty twang of the Deep South and the occasional church-house reverence, the connection was obvious.
There’s no doubt that Elvis’ obvious whiteness helped him make a name for himself; he was the original Eminem, the “white boy singing black music.” But what happened once Elvis Presley had infiltrated the record players of teens around the country was much more than what some overrated white dude should have been able to accomplish: people started listening to other records, too. Stores that had never before carried the records of black artists suddenly had to start buying them, because there was an incessant demand from teens everywhere. They wanted more, damn it, they wanted more of that funky music and they wanted it now. The door was opened and there was no coming back.
So let’s assume that he made his mark on race relations through music: what about the rest of his life?
Elvis was close friends with and at one point even lived with boxing legend Muhammad Ali, who once described him as “the sweetest, most humble and nicest man you’d want to know.”
And though it’s well known that the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 struck a terrible blow to civil rights leaders and reformers everywhere, few people are aware of how it devastated Elvis. He later sang “If I Can Dream,” composed by Walter Earl Brown in tribute to King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. It’s got some of the rawest vocals Elvis recorded in his lengthy career and is honestly sort of transcendent, which is probably why it’s the song he used to wrap up his ’68 Comeback Special.
When I was little, my grandfather used to play Elvis CD’s while we were driving around. I hated them. I absolutely despised that stupid Hound Dog song, and every time I heard something about blue suede shoes, I slammed my hands over my ears and tried to block out every last note. For a long time, I thought Elvis was a hackneyed, overrated, fat white dude with gross sideburns and a stupid cape.
And for a short while, that was at least partially accurate; but what I didn’t realize when I was younger was that Elvis Presley left an unprecedented mark on the world and that sometimes, repurposed karate uniforms are sort of neat. Maybe.
I’ve grown to love his music, too – there’s something infectious about those flippant vocals, something grooving about those bouncy shoulders. I find myself dancing to songs that are 50 years old just as easily as I move with songs that are a few months out of the studio, and like the teens of the Presleyan era, giving Elvis a chance has introduced me to some other awesome artists.
It’s been nearly 38 years since Elvis Presley died in 1977, an illustrious life cut short by prescription medication and, probably, by this sandwich.
Elvis was clearly not perfect – not by a long shot; but it’s worth noting that – in his own words – “the image is one thing and the human being is another. It’s very hard to live up to an image, put it that way.”
He’s still everywhere – remember Lilo & Stitch (an Elvis tribute in true Disney form), or that movie about some dude running his way across America, or even as recently as the State Farm commercial with all the impersonators – caricatures, but Elvis, nonetheless. And though the Presley name is still associated with the gaudy image of a bejeweled hick with a “thank ya, thank ya very much” problem, I think it’s time to get over the glitz and celebrate the man, celebrate the music.