“The show is in the audience, not on the stage.” — Elvis Presley
Today is the fortieth anniversary of Elvis’s death. He’s one of those artists I used to absolutely hate but more recently have become obsessed over. Was he a secret genius or a talentless hack in the right place at the right time? Or a bit of both?
I don’t think you can blame him for taking advantage of a good opportunity. Mississippi is the kind of place where you could enforce building codes and half the state would be homeless. So what if he never wrote any songs? He was making more money singing than driving a truck in Memphis, and he seemed to have remained humble through it all. Blame the buyer, not the merchant.
There are a lot of things that I’ve come to see that the fundamentalists were right about even if for the wrong reasons (I’ll do another post later on Harry Potter, which I am currently going through on audiobook for the first time). They saw the overtly sexual way he moved and the way girls would totally lose control of themselves. I think they knew something was inherently wrong with this but weren’t able to vocalize exactly what that was, so they reached for an easy explanation about public decency. This wasn’t only from fundamentalists, but they seem to take most of the brunt for any kind of Christian moral preening.
People today often ask if we’ll ever have another Beatles or Elvis or Sinatra, and the answer is no, because for better or worse we don’t have the kind of pent up sexual energy they had back then. Today we vent our sexual energy with no constraint or thought about consequences, so the closest we will ever come to another Elvis is Justin Bieber and his mass of 12 year old fans.
This criticism totally baffled Elvis. He was just singing songs about love. It’s not like he was dressing provocatively. Jazz dancing had been around for a few decades and involved a lot more movement than what he did.
The problem is that he cracked open the door on directionless sexual energy. Jazz dancing is something you do with a partner and involves a level of skill. Girls at an Elvis concert would just scream their heads off. His songs were about empty infatuation being the greatest, most permanent emotion anyone could ever feel, and they helped lay down the foundation for our society’s screwed up notion of love today, where it’s a deep feeling about having fun instead of a commitment to a spouse and children.
What Elvis was doing was fairly harmless, but it opened the door for Katy Perry and Miley Cyrus and every other pop tart today. And these are, of course, the heroes of each generation. Usually the celebrities of a generation are actually a generation behind their fans. (The Rolling Stone and the Beatles weren’t quite baby boomers.) The slightly older celebrities act as a kind of older brother and mentor figure, whether they intend to or not.
The better question is, why did girls fall in love with this total stranger? He had a lot of charisma, and when he sings it sounds like he truly believes it in a way that is very rare, but what about it made them lose themselves in a kind of Dionysian mystery cult ritual that they knew would never actualize in a relationship with him?
I think a lot of is the romanticism that had been building up since the late 1800s. Stupid romance stories were all the rage. The problem with ending a romance story with marriage is that you don’t see what’s on the other side. Marriage is the beginning of love, not its culmination. Romance stories are all about the quest. Again, these stories are not wrong in themselves, but they lay a foundation for society’s paradigm. I would imagine the churches and families didn’t do much to counter-act these messages, but perhaps they had a lot of trouble recognizing the danger because it was so subtle.
Another problem that rose around the same time was the notion of childhood. Until the last few centuries, children were viewed as miniature adults. It wasn’t until the 1700s that people began to write literature just for children. In the 20th century, the idea came that there’s a third in-between stage for your teen years. Teenagers are seen as both children and adults. The effect is a lot of pent-up energy with nowhere to direct it. You take biological adults at the phase of life when they are supposed to be most active and lock them in the state-funded prison known as high school.
We view the 1950s as this amazing time of traditional values, but those kids grew up to become hippies. The Elvis generation was also the generation naive enough to say “Just give peace a chance.” Like the picture where the girl puts a flower in the barrel of a gun. This generation allegedly raised on traditional values voted in Lyndon Johnson and the Kennedys. Whenever I watch Leave It To Beaver, I always imagine Beaver in 15 years living under a bridge after frying his brain on acid.
If it hadn’t been Elvis, it would have been someone else. And he had ten times the spine as the Beatles and sang with twenty times the integrity and had thirty times the profundity.