On a recent weekend, while driving around suburban Broward County -- west of I-95, which I used to consider unworthy of my presence (until I moved there) -- I was listening to Mos Def's excellent 1999 release, Black on Both Sides. It's a great record, and if you don't have it, get it.
In particular a line from his song "Rock 'n' Roll" leaped out at me -- "Elvis Presley ain't got no soul/Little Richard [Chuck Berry/Bo Diddley] is rock 'n' roll." And I realized that I haven't thought much about Elvis lately. Is it possible, almost 30 years after his death, that this country's sheeplike devotion to his marginal talents is actually on the wane? Are the numbers down at Graceland? Are people starting to care less about his alleged legacy? Have we finally begun to realize that there was never actually anything good about him in the first place?
That same weekend I was watching a tape of the HBO comedy series Mr. Show with Bob and David, guffawing into the bong at a skit called "White People Co-Opting Black Culture Network." The duo places "the King" where he belongs: next to Vanilla Ice and Manhattan Transfer. And it was only after processing these two events that I began to dial up my loathing for all things Elvis -- not only that, but the contempt (heretofore inchoate) I hold for people who feel otherwise. More to the point, I must consider those who still worship Elvis in the 21st Century to be suffering from a debilitating intellectual and cultural deficit.
Remember Spike Lee saying, "I wish he'd never died, so I wouldn't have to hear about him every day"? That clinches it.
See, the truth is Elvis made such a marginal impression on modern music that by today his reputation should be as fleshless and desiccated as his corpse. Yet inexplicably the sales of velvet paintings in pawnshops remain strong.
What America liked about Elvis was that he was good-looking and got laid a lot -- and let's face it, these were his only true gifts. The people who try to inflate his history into something more, to deify him, are simply deluded and looking even dumber as his contribution to the fabric of American music is becoming more threadbare all the time. Elvis should be credited for the subsequent breech birth of New Kids on the Block or the Backstreet Boys and nothing more. He certainly had much more in common with those tarted-up lounge acts than he did with Diddley, Berry, or any true progenitor of the rock.
Why do Elviphiles have such a distorted view of their hero, and why, after all this time, are they still unable to consider him in a legitimate cultural context? His achievements, to them, are on a par with man's emergence from the Dark Ages. If Elvis ushered in such a great wave of rebellion and danger, why do we now find 'NSync and Britney Spears at the top of the heap?
Perhaps it's just the noxious scent emanating from the piles of impersonators that has soured anyone who's not a feverish fanatic on the notion of Elvis having any credibility whatsoever. At the very least, it hasn't helped.
Do you know how many songs Elvis actually wrote? Not how many good songs, or memorable songs, but how many songs, period? Or how many times in his career Elvis actually made a good movie? And for a guy whose day-to-day existence (not to mention the most minuscule career move) was orchestrated and manipulated by a shrewd cadre of handlers and bloodthirsty leeches, how many times do you think Presley attempted to wrest control in order to claim for himself even a thin vestige of independence or dignity?
The answer to all three, my friends: a big, fat, bloated zero.
Sorry, but Elvis just took something raw, primal, interesting, and threatening and transformed it into something harmless (if swiveling hips indicate radical social change, then the Hula-Hoop is on a par with Kent State), making it palatable for the unsavvy populace that needed its art commodified and packaged. Plus, by gum, he was so all-American. And for this we reward him? Make him into an icon rivaling the Blessed Virgin Mary? Not to mention a massive money-milking cottage industry?
Give it up, America. I mean, really, Elvis couldn't even make dying on the toilet seem cool.
Get the Music Newsletter
Find out about upcoming concerts and special offers happening in the South Florida music scene.