The Presley popularity is based on: “adulation of youth, youth that is raw, untrained and undisciplined, youth which worships the most primitive urges and physical appeal, youth which has no truck with its elders.” Richard Coe, Washington Post (1977).
The ‘feel good’ post World War II optimism of America is often presented as a cocktail of social conformity and unclouded prosperity – a mixture of Ossie and Harriet (the perfect 30 minute TV family), hula hoops and shopping malls stirred but not shaken by a dash of political anxiety imposed by McCarthyism. In reality, while much of post war Europe remained austere, America in contrast was becoming relatively affluent. As well as this being the era of the “baby boom”, a new social category emerged during the 1950s. Radical in their criticism of contemporary culture and going by the name of ‘teenagers’ they didn’t want to be mirror images either in dress, hair or attitude of their parents who were prone to describing these young people as ‘juvenile delinquents.’ It was in essence the emergence of a youthful and spirited re-evaluation of American culture. Hair, beauty, fads and slang were for the first time defined by the generation that was using it. Culturally, life from here on in was going to be a blast, daddy-o !
It was in this context that the Beats, San Francisco Renaissance, Black Mountain and New York poets arrived on the scene. According to Allen Ginsberg, one of the leading poets of the Beat movement, the glue that held them together was their collective feeling of societal embattlement. The rebel poets aimed to reinvigorate what they considered to be a decaying literary culture which was hackneyed, moribund and limited to academia and literary journals. The so-called “rebel poets of the 1950s” aimed to culturally widen the audience for their work through the use of jazz, political comment and a somewhat confessional type of prose. The rising rebellion of young people beginning to surface from the Cold War doldrums of the Eisenhower era was on a roll.
American women in the fifties had a day look – all pastels and primness and a night look – deep reds and dangerous. While their older sisters were deliberating over which lipstick to wear, younger kids in the back yards of 1950s America were all consumed by the new craze – the hula hoop. The hula hoop fad originated from an Australian childhood habit of twisting bamboo hoops around waists for gym classes and resembling a Hawaiian dance when used. 25 million hula hoops were sold in just two months. However, not everyone thought they were such a great idea. Japan for instance, banned the hoops thinking they might promote improprieties, while Russia believed the hula hoop was an example of the “emptiness of American culture.”
While only a few American teenagers may have had a record player in the fifties most had or could share a transistor radio. It was through the radio that the new sound of rock ‘n roll crackled through the airwaves. Almost for the first time music was tailor made by the same generation that was listening to it. This was the time, according to the Washington Post, that young Americans’ ideas about their independence from the older generation, from religion, from the ‘old fashioned’ culture of sexual inhibition were established. Rock and roll sent shockwaves across America. A generation of young people collectively rebelled against the music their parents loved. In general, the older generation loathed and feared rock and roll not least because its roots were among the lower classes and a segregated ethnic group – black people. Churches (and parents) proclaimed this new sound as ‘Satan’s music.’ Although rock and roll records were banned from many radio stations and hundreds of schools it was clearly here to stay.
And a lot of this was due to a young, hip thrusting, dirt poor white teenager who gyrated onto the stage of American culture in 1954. He sang like a black man and epitomised, in the eyes of American youth, the very things their parents were not: cocky, slick, brash, tough and, above all, non-conforming. His name was Elvis Aron Presley. His swinging hips were considered so scandalously sexy that, when performing on TV, they had to film him from the waist up. He was, in the eyes of an adoring fan base, simply beautiful and incredibly sexy. Adult fears were confirmed by a New York Catholic priest who proclaimed, after Presley’s 1956 appearance on the Ed Sullivan show, that Presley presented a “voodoo of defiance and frustration”. Frank Sinatra said of Elvis, “His kind of music is deplorable, a rancid smelling aphrodisiac…It fosters almost totally negative and destructive reactions in young people.” A riot in East Berlin in 1958 by youths accused of trying to kill a border guard was, according to the Communists, directly attributable to Elvis. Could a greasy haired white guy with a butter-and-molasses voice really be so globally influential?
In 1956 ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ was released and sold 300,000 copies in the first week. Designer Tommy Hilfiger said, Presley was “the first white boy to really bling it up.” He was one of the first performers of any race, Hilfiger added, “to view himself as being very sexy and masculine but with a certain femininity.” It wasn’t only teenage women in the 1950’s who wore eye liner, eye shadow and pink clothes – so did Elvis. Was this enough to destroy the moral fabric of American youth or was Elvis simply ahead of the game?
In tune with the image of being ‘hip and cool’ Elvis dyed his naturally blonde hair black every three weeks and kept it in the style of the Jelly Roll or D.A. (ducks butt). While most young men in the fifties went for the flat top hair style, ‘cool’ men or ‘greasers’ like Elvis, choose the new long, greased, slicked back style. No question about it. To be a rebel, a non conformist, to be ‘in’ you had to have a D.A. Paradoxically, while the female counterpart were awakened by their newly discovered sexuality their hairstyles stayed relatively traditional – soft and curly, such as the poodle cut as worn by the actress Lucille Ball or varieties of up-dos such as the beehive or bouffant. Straight hair was out. Hair spray was in. Short hair was in for males and for their part the older male generation stuck to the safety of the functional short, back and sides.
From humble beginnings in Tupelo, Mississippi Elvis became one of the most successful performers of all time. When he died at the age of 43 in 1977 he had more songs on Billboard’s Hot 100 than any other artist; spent more weeks at the top of the hit parade than any other artist and had the greatest number of consecutive #1 hits. Twenty-six years after his death this poor boy from Mississippi has grossed US$40 million in 2003 alone. To pay homage to the man dubbed “The King of Rock and Roll” two European radio stations suspended their normal programming at the news of Elvis’ death and Radio Luxembourg played non-stop Elvis music as a tribute. Carl Wilson of the Beach Boys is quoted as saying: “His music was the only thing exclusively ours. His wasn’t my and mom and dad’s music. His voice was a total miracle in the music business.” (1977).
Elvis’ legacy is arguably that he has had a greater impact on American popular culture than any other artist.
Dr Manning is a psychologist with an interest in popular culture.