|megpie71 (megpie71) wrote,|
@ 2018-03-04 08:57:00
Unused Tutorial Question Answers
This week, I'm going to be using some answers I wrote to tutorial questions for a class (Introduction to Cultural Studies). We didn't use this work in the tutorial, so I figure I may as well recycle it. There'll probably be a few of these along the way.
So, the questions were:
* What do think about Elvis? (Note down your impressions.)
* What do you know of him? What is your first impression when recollecting him? Why do you think he is such a well-known individual?
* Consider the following song, "Elvis Presley Blues" (by Gillian Welch). How does it present a different picture to well known representations of Elvis in Vegas?
I first heard about Elvis Presley on the day he died back in 1977. Before that, I'd never heard of him - my parents weren't that interested in classic rock & roll - Dad like classical music (aspirational working class "highbrow" tastes), and Mum was more interested in jazz than rock. They didn't own any Elvis records, they never watched his movies, and thus the first I heard of him was that he was dead.
I remember there was a lot of fuss and bother about it in various music programs for about a week or two afterwards - Countdown had a memorial episode, I think, or at least Molly Meldrum's Humdrum section was all about Elvis and how important he was. I couldn't see the relevance. Again, I was six - there's a lot passes you by when you're six.
As I grew older, I learned a bit more of the context of Elvis Presley and why everyone had suddenly gone completely gaga when he died. But I still didn't really understand it. I suppose it comes down to "I wasn't there", and "I didn't see it".
My first impression when recollecting him is one word: over-rated.
Why was he so well-known and well-regarded? He was one of the first white singers to sing a slightly "dirtier" and earthier version of rock 'n' roll than most - his hip-swivel was apparently scandalous back then (by the time I was paying attention to rock music in the late 1970s, full-on simulated intercourse on stage would have been pretty mild, but then, this was coming off the aftermath of Glam Rock, and the obvious theatre of that). I suspect for a lot of young men and women in the USA (and anywhere else the US hegemonic machine could reach) he was their first taste of sexuality. Didn't do a thing for me (but then, again, I was six when he died, and I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s - my tastes were formed in a different environment).
Thing is, when you stop and think about it, Elvis' history is basically one of being paid for acts of cultural appropriation - most of his early stuff was written (and often performed) by African-Americans before he popularized it - "Hound Dog" was originally recorded by a female black singer, Big Mama Thornton; "All Shook Up" was written by an African-American songwriter (who also wrote "Don't Be Cruel" and "Return to Sender"); a lot of his stuff was basically music originally written for and performed by African-Americans, sanitized and made palatable to middle-class white teenagers (if not necessarily to their parents).
He was the first performer to really have been transformed into an icon by the music industry, but I suspect this was mostly because firstly, he was white enough to be of interest; secondly, he survived long enough in the industry to do so. He didn't die young in a plane crash like Buddy Holly; he didn't cause a huge scandal relatively early in his career like Jerry Lee Lewis; he was able to keep in the public eye; he could act a bit better than his contemporaries; and he kept turning out commercial work. He became a rock & roll icon because he fitted the bill for one, and he was willing to be turned into one.
In reference to the song by Gillian Welch, I think the comparison between Elvis and John Henry (in US mythology - a man who took on a steam drill in a competition to see which could create more post holes for railway construction - humans vs machines) is an interesting one - John Henry is supposed to have sworn he'd die with his hammer in his hand before he'd lose his job to a machine (the steam drill). There's a nice reference in the song to "All Shook Up" which was one of Elvis' early hits. (But again, the song was written by a black man, Otis Blackwell). I think it's a song which is more about the myth of Elvis than the man, quite honestly, in which case the comparison with John Henry is probably an apt one - a man who became a myth.
(I do find it interesting that John Henry is reputed to have been an African-American, as well).
But we have a white woman singing a Blues song (originally an African-American musical form) about a white man who appropriated African-American culture, in a fashion which sounds like country music (always a much more White American format than Blues). In which she compares this white man to a black man, and makes a professional singer and actor into the equivalent of a labour icon who died of a heart attack after attempting to out-compete a steam drill. My brain is almost breaking at the levels of disjunction here.
I do think there's something wrong about the comparison between a man who willingly handed himself over to the machine and let the machine make of him what it would (Elvis) and a man like John Henry, who had to fight to keep his job, by proving he was capable of doing just as well as the machine (at the cost of his own life). Elvis died in his private estate, and yes, he was young - but the things which led to his death were conditions of affluence, rather than overwork caused by grinding poverty (and given Elvis knew something about each end of the spectrum, I suspect he'd probably have preferred the death he had to the John Henry alternative).
That's what I say.
This entry was originally posted at https://megpie71.dreamwidth.org/114158.h