The first spectacularly popular rock-and-roller and the first to descend into lugubrious self-parody, ELVIS PRESLEY (1935–1977) has been so thoroughly mythologized and demythologized that it’s nearly impossible to view him objectively. But why would you want to? One can note that many elements of his early style are present on jump blues and hillbilly recordings from the late ’40s on, or that his singing’s “well-produced tone, smooth phrasing, and legitimate tuning” (per musicologist Richard Middleton), owed as much to Dean Martin and Mario Lanza as to vernacular models. But none of this accounts for the ferality that led the New York Daily News to call his 1956 Milton Berle Show appearance “an exhibition… tinged with the kind of animalism that should be confined to dives and bordellos,” and the Catholic magazine America to warn “Beware of Elvis.” The fact that the music, in retrospect, was terrific — especially when he had smartly-crafted bluesish songs by Lieber & Stoller, Pomus & Shuman, or Otis Blackwell to work with — is secondary: Presley pulled back the curtain on a world of risk, and kicks, the rest of the culture conspired to hide (at least from white, middle-class youth). He may not have meant shit to Chuck D., but if you want to know why Elvis meant anything to anyone, watch the early clips (and the 1968 “Comeback Special”). Forget the Army haircut, the bizarre symbiosis with Colonel Tom Parker, the 26 films he made after 1958’s King Creole, the child bride, the Graceland kitsch, the sequined capes, and the ignoble, tabloid-ready death-by-pharmaceuticals. Or, if you want to understand what celebrity — or just being American — might do to any of us, don’t.
READ MORE about members of the Anti-Anti-Utopian Generation (1934-43).