Speaking of the euphemistic and insidious influence of rock and roll… Our fragile moral fibers were pretty frayed by the time Elvis Presley got through with them. Elvis gave a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘shake a leg’. When Elvis threatened you with a shake, a rattle and a roll (and whenever Elvis sang anything, really) the euphemism was exposed for just how threadbare it really was. Popular music had always maintained a veneer of decency by employing double entendres of varying transparency, and using the guise of romance as a cover for carnality. The advent of rock’n’roll made short work of all decency. There was just no pretending that the music and the activities it inspired were anything but torrid – it was right there in the name. Rocking and rolling only means one thing. All we needed was Elvis the Pelvis to really pantomime it out for us.
A lot of things have changed since Elvis Presley’s day, but some things have not. This is one of my favorite Elvis songs because it illustrates just that. Obviously, it’s a song about outdated technology, but technology is just a vehicle for the same old human behavior, and human behavior doesn’t become outmoded at quite the same pace. People still write to one another, of course, although some scholars may argue that we’ve actually reverted back to hieroglyphic writing. How we write and how that writing finds its way to its intended reader has changed monumentally. In 1962 letters were still being delivered by specially trained dinosaurs, so that must have been really different for anyone trying to conduct a love life. But one thing you could count on, than as now; sooner or later somebody would to that thing to you that we call ‘ghosting’ and which your grandparents called ‘ignoring them until they go away’. There’s a lot of debate on whether or not this method of stomping out another person’s feelings towards you is more or less humane than just straight-up telling them you don’t like their face. But the sentiment remains the same, from pony express days to the heyday of the telegram to the information superhighway. And as Elvis clearly grasps here, if your letter comes back a third time, move the fuck on, buddy.
Going back in time a while for some classic Elvis Presley. This song appeared in the movie Love Me Tender, which is where I assume the clip is from. I must confess that I’ve never seen an Elvis movie, though I suppose that I need to, at least for purely anthropological purposes. I understand that most of them were terrible but earned the star a lot of money. You can’t really fault Elvis for wanting to make a lot of money by way of terrible movies; in his day, rock’n’roll was considered a fad and the idea that a rocker like himself had a legacy that would be parsed by historians many years after his passing never crossed anyone’s mind. As it happens, Elvis Presley’s legacy is one of the great cautionary tales of the modern age. Elvis was truly one of the first beneficiaries-slash-victims of mass media pop culture, and one of its most enduring icons. So much so that his lurid rise and decline are more familiar to us now than his music. I imagine that if he hadn’t eaten all those Twinkies and maintained some semblance of dignity in his private life, the music would stand on its own well enough.
We haven’t heard any Elvis Presley in a while. What’s he been up to? Oh, yeah, still dead. But if he wasn’t, he would’ve been 80 years old last Thursday. Anyway, this is one of his hits from 1961. It was originally written for Del Shannon, but Del Shannon barely got a chance to get out of the gate; Presley’s version came out a mere two months later after his, and stole all the thunder, as usual. Which is fine, because Elvis runs circles around Del Shannon. Little did either one know that The King’s world domination was about to end, and that their pompadoured kind would soon be seen as campy relics. Elvis Presley was caught short by the changing tides of the British Invasion, and his failure to adjust himself to the times made him a laughingstock in some circles. But in ’61 he was still the pop world’s dream of an icon.
In most circumstances, it would be deeply creepy to hear a grown man with oily sideburns talk about pursuing a former flame’s younger sister. But this is Elvis. So it’s still a bit creepy, but it’s coming from one of those rare people who have the je ne sais quoi to turn ‘weird and creepy’ into ‘sexy and charming’. Elvis was one hell of a charismatic man, and he had the power to pull off things that anyone else would fall flat trying to do. Including all those jumpsuits, and sideburns, and bad behavior and borderline-pedophile lyrics like these. Being slightly sleazy and yet charming was kind of The King’s thing; he was notorious for radiating dangerous levels of sexiness, but made up for it with his Southern-boy manners. The more cartoonish aspects of the Elvis image are easy to make fun of, especially since his estate has been keen to amp up the kitsch factor. But don’t let those things overshadow his prowess at being a rock star. He was a natural for that calling. You can see it in the video here. It was filmed in 1970, supposedly well into his artistic decline, and he doesn’t seem to be trying too hard. It’s a casual, tossed-off performance; the band looks like they’re having fun, Elvis looks like he’s having fun being the focal point and leading the jam. The impromptu segue into a chorus by none other than The Beatles is a surprise, and the mash-up totally works. It reminds you that underneath all the rhinestones and Brylcreem, Elvis was still a working musician and he wouldn’t be on any commemorative postage stamps if natural musicianship wasn’t at the foundation of his fame.
This Elvis song is either achingly romantic or rapey and coercive, depending, I guess, on your generational status and general level of enlightenment. You can imagine that he’s saying his love won’t wait because he’s about to go off to war and they may never see each other again, or that he’s just a douchebag trying to get his dick wet by any manipulative means necessary. This being the fifties, either one of those things would be perfectly acceptable. Good thing we don’t have those problems anymore now that– oh, never mind. If you think about it, there’s an awful lot of purported ‘love songs’ that sound suspiciously like there’s some serious date rape action going on. (And hey, if you think date rape is the height of romance, have I got the book series for you.) Which is probably less a function of this ‘rape culture’ crisis the internet keeps telling me about, and more a function of the way normal human interactions and decent behavior get all muddled up as soon as love and desire enter the picture. You can mull that over for a minute.
Here’s one for everybody who thought post-Army Elvis had lost it (looking at you, John Lennon.) Sure, he did lose some things, like his trim figure and his ability to scare the bejeesus out of polite society, but he never lost it as a singer. It seems like Elvis never quite made heads or tails of the sixties and dealt with it by zealously embracing self-parody. But, as his ’69 comeback special showed, although he wasn’t relevant the way he used to be, he was still capable of a great performance. In the Ghetto is one of his greatest latter-day performances. Besides showcasing his power as a singer, it was remarkable for being one of his only politically themed songs. Elvis Presley was never what you’d call a socially conscious person; he was a simple guy who kept his opinions to himself, if ever he had any. He was certainly content enough to sing songs about love and romance. But if there’s one non-romance theme that’s been a constant, it’s poverty. From early songs like Poor Boy and We’re Gonna Move to this one, privation has been on Presley’s mind. I suspect that far from being any sort of righteous commentary on 1969’s fraught class situation, In the Ghetto was a song with personal meaning for Elvis. He did, after all, grow up in terrible poverty himself, which he escaped through talent and luck, but evidently never forgot. Elvis was born in a shotgun shack the size of your garage and grew up on Welfare with a father who couldn’t afford to buy him a bicycle for his birthday. The vulgar displays of conspicuous consumption, the terrible taste writ large from jumpsuit to mansion, the uncontrollable gluttony; all of those famous signs of Elvis Presley’s downfall were the quite understandable behavior of someone who swung from not having enough to having too much. Elvis was just the hungry kid who thought he had to eat all the candy before someone took it away from him. Elvis was also an old-fashioned entertainer who kept his personal feelings private and out of his performances. He came from a time before rock stars were expected to take their hearts and spill it all over the stage. But if there’s one song that must have come from the heart, it’s this one. Even in his inebriated and pill dazed final years, Elvis must have stopped to think how narrowly he’d escaped becoming that hungry, angry young man himself.