Letters to the Editor

Letters for June 14, 2001

If the influence of African sensibility on an otherwise white American culture is to be considered at all, music is definitely the primary nexus, but rock 'n' roll is the least of it. The banjo is an African instrument, for god's sake! But the natural syncretism of folk music is not about cultural exploitation. Musicians cop riffs from one another; that's what they do. Black Delta bluesmen and white mountain hillbillies both adapted Hawaiian slide-guitar styles when that genre became popular in the '20s and in turn influenced each other. Did George Clinton rip off acid culture to enhance his soul music? No, making music is not about ripping off culture, it's about creating it.

As far as making music, the conceit that musicians must write their own music came about with the Beatles, whose strongest influence in this regard was Buddy Holly, who in turn was no more than a wannabe Elvis. The Beatles wanted to be Elvis (and in their appropriation of the Motown song book, ripped off black culture more than Elvis ever did). Sid Vicious wanted to be Elvis! Madonna became the first female Elvis. Kurt Cobain became the Elvis of his generation.

To consider pop stardom/infamy at all, one must consider Elvis. To consider American history and culture at all is to consider Elvis. To consider America's place in the evolution of the world is to consider Elvis. In short Elvis is about a whole lot more than rockabilly, Vegas, his "movies," black velvet paintings, and his impersonators! To quote Mojo Nixon: "Elvis is everything!"

What you seem most confused about is minstrelsy. Vanilla Ice was more Al Jolson than Elvis. As for who Sammy Davis Jr. was, I'll leave that for you and others still mired in the spectacle's categories to decide. One day America will no longer be a "white" country, and that which is "black" will no longer be able to be exploited as some kind of otherness. The next punk-rock or hip-hop music may not erupt across a racial divide. But if these new forms are in fact eruptions -- movements of style, sound, and image causing paradigm shifts in American culture -- they will be the new Elvis.

In the end that's the most important thing: Elvis was the first Elvis. Elvis will always be what big things strive to be bigger than. It's been less than 30 years since his death morphed him into an abstract icon having little to do with music and race. Check back in 100 years, and Elvis will mean even more, not less.

John Stacey
via the Internet

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