Should we still worry about Elvis?

On August 16, 1977, the death of Elvis Aaron Presley rocked the United States all the way to the White House. “The death of Elvis Presley deprives our country of a part of itself,” President Jimmy Carter announced in a statement crediting the Tupelo singer with “permanently changing the face of American popular culture.” Eighty thousand grieving fans attended Presley’s funeral procession in Memphis, but even so there were those who wondered if the flamboyant showman would truly establish a lasting legacy. An obituary of the prominent rock critic of the time, Lester Bangs, appeared on the cover of the New York newspaper. the voice of the village below the headline: “How Long Will We Care?”

The answer, we can now confirm, is at least 45 years. This week’s release of Elvis, a pleasantly exaggerated biopic of red mill director Baz Luhrmann, is just one illustration of the fact that even in 2022 Presley can still command an audience. Earlier this month, the Las Vegas Symphony Orchestra brought their show The King Symphonic: The Music of Elvis Presley for the first time in London, while Proud Galleries Westminster is currently hosting a photography exhibition entitled Elvis and the birth of rock. Less expected, last week Sony released a first look at upcoming Netflix series King Agent, an “adult-oriented” animation that, for reasons that remain unclear, casts Presley as a secret government spy. At least he will be putting that suspicious mind to good use.

Both Elvis and King Agent were produced with the involvement of Presley’s ex-wife Priscilla and the Presley estate, who naturally have an interest in preserving and extending the legacy of one of America’s 20th century icons into the 21st century. Elvis Presley has been big business for long time, and a 2020 Rolling Stone article titled “Can Elvis Resurrect Again?” outlined the many ways in which Elvis Presley Enterprises has worked hard to put Presley back on top. After all, your business depends on it. According to Forbesat that point, income from the Presley estate was down 30% from the $60 million a year it had been earning a decade earlier.

Tied into the question of whether Presley’s fortunes can rise again is the thornier question of whether they should. It’s a fact that his success was built on the work and charisma of black musicians who never had the opportunities he had. Presley’s image as a poster boy for segregation was cemented when Chuck D rapped on Public Enemy’s 1989 hit “Fight the Power”: “Elvis was a hero to most / But he never meant a thing to me, you see , straight out / Racist – that sucker was plain and simple.”

However, even Chuck D doesn’t think Presley’s legacy is so simple and clear. In a 2002 interview, he added some nuances. “As a musicologist – and I consider myself one – there has always been a lot of respect for Elvis, especially during his Sun sessions. As a black people, we all knew that,” he said, referring to Presley’s first recording job at Memphis’ Sun Studios. His real problem is with a system that has elevated Presley to a position of unique greatness. “My whole thing was the one-sidedness – like, Elvis’ iconic status in America meant no one else would count… My heroes came before him. My heroes were probably his heroes. As for Elvis being ‘The King’, I couldn’t buy that.”

To be fair to Presley, neither could he. At a press conference in 1969 promoting his return to live performance, after seven years of making increasingly banal Hollywood movies, Presley was called “The King” by a reporter. He diverted the nickname to his childhood influence, Fats Domino, with the phrase, “This is the true King of Rock’n’Roll.”

Austin Butler as Elvis and Kelvin Harrison Jr as BB King in ‘Elvis’

(Kane Skennar/Warner Bros.)

This vignette is one of several real-life moments that Luhrmann recreates in Elvis, who together defend Presley as an icon of integration rather than cultural appropriation. The film repeatedly makes it clear that Presley understood the colossal debt he owed to artists like Little Richard (played by Alton Mason), BB King (Kelvin Harrison Jr) and Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup (Gary Clark Jr), whose blues music ” That’s All Right” became Presley’s first single in 1954.

British singer-songwriter Yola, who plays rock’n’roll pioneer Sister Rosetta Tharpe in the film, says that to understand Presley you have to understand his youth growing up in a segregated black neighborhood of Tupelo and his early experiences watching artists in Memphis. ‘ Beal Street. “There has always been a lack of a story and it is the fundamental story,” she says. “We have superstar Elvis, but we don’t get what makes him. Because he was segregated, we don’t have the history of where it all came from. Him as a kid, him as a young man and how we got Elvis.”

As for how Presley himself thought he would be seen by posterity, Elvis includes a line he actually said to his singer Kathy Westmoreland shortly before her death. “They won’t remember me,” he told her, “I’ve never done anything lasting.” Presley considered himself a failure because he never made a movie that compared to the ones made by his acting idols James Dean and Marlon Brando, but of course it’s not true that he never made anything that lasted. His music still sounds fresh and alive, from the youthful rock’n’roll emotion of “Blue Suede Shoes” to the excess and pomp of “Burning Love” and “Suspicious Minds.” More than 60 years after its release, Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love” still ranks high on lists of songs people play at their first dance at their weddings.

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Arguably, Presley’s most profound impact on popular culture came with a single performance on June 5, 1956. That was the night a 21-year-old Presley appeared at the Milton Berle Show and, for the first time on national television, dropped his guitar and swayed his hips. Worse yet for thousands of shocked and horrified parents across the country, halfway through, Presley signaled the band to turn down their version of “Hound Dog” and began to grind for that.

It’s hard to imagine now, in an age saturated with graphic images of every kind, the impact Presley’s pelvic performance had. in the following days New York Times, critic Jack Gould stammered: “Its only specialty is a sharp body movement which until now has been identified mainly with the repertoire of the bombastic blondes of the burlesque catwalk. The spin has never had anything to do with the world of popular music and still doesn’t.”

While Gould may have ended up on the wrong side of history for that, host Milton Berle knew from the moment he saw Presley the impact putting him on television would have. He encouraged Presley not to hold back on his performance, telling him, “Let ’em see you, son.” After the show, Berle claimed to have received over half a million letters from outraged mothers calling Presley’s performance vulgar and threatening to boycott the show. He immediately called Presley’s manager to tell him about the letters. “I called Colonel Parker,” he later recalled, “I said, ‘All I called you to say to the Colonel was, ‘You have a star in your hands.’

Yola as Sister Rosetta Tharpe in ‘Elvis’

(Kane Skennar/Warner Bros.)

Presley’s early television performances can have a life-changing effect on those who have seen him. “Elvis is why I’m gay,” cult filmmaker John Waters jokes to me, remembering watching Presley sing “I Don’t Care If the Sun Don’t Shine.” “The first time I saw him, I knew something was wrong down there – or something was wrong. right down there! When I saw him squirming in 1956 singing, ‘We’re gonna kiss, let’s kiss, let’s kiss again…’ Oh my God! I knew in that moment that this was something that was really going to cause some problems in my life.”

The energy Waters felt sitting in front of his television set was spreading across the country simultaneously. As Lester Bangs put it in Presley’s obituary: “Elvis was the man who brought a blatant vulgar sexual frenzy to the popular arts in America.” Cultural legacies don’t last much longer than that. Every boy band raving scene from One Direction to BTS, every moral panic triggered by Cardi B and her “WAP” spins or Lil Nas X dancing to the devil is an echo of the moment Elvis Aaron Presley shook his hips on national television. , and became immortal.

‘Elvis’ is in theaters from June 24

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