Elvis Presley 20th Century Pioneer Term Paper

Pages: 6 (2075 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 5  ·  File: .docx  ·  Topic: Music

Elvis

When Elvis Presley died of a heart ailment and drug overdose in 1977 at the age of 42, it sent shock waves not only through the music industry, but through the entire world. Such was the power of a man who, despite his young age, had established himself as the King of Rock, an American cultural icon, and one of the most bankable entertainers ever. Presley still holds various records for album sales and attendance at concert venues, and his string of 18 number-one hits is almost gaudy in the here-today-gone-tomorrow world of pop music.

As a public figure, Presley transcended the various music and film genres in which he worked. He was larger than life, and he had a tremendous influence on American culture, both through his life and, inadvertently, through his death. Among Presley's greatest contributions to American society were:

his exposure of African-American musicians to the white, American public;

his role in influencing a liberalization of American culture, which allowed other cultural icons to succeed; and the awareness he created of the perils of drug addiction through his premature death.

The tremendous influence Presley had on these three areas of American culture have created for him a significant personal legacy that belies the short four decades he spent on earth.

Presley opens doors for African-American musicians

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Presley's role in race relations is arguably the most debated part of his legacy in American culture. Musicians are divided to this day over whether Presley was a racist who stole his music from pioneering black performers, or whether his imitation of these performers was an ultimate sign of respect.1 In a popular rap song "Fight the Power" by 1980s and 1990s rap group Public Enemy, Elvis is referred to as a "straight-up racist" and "simple and plain" by the group's African-American members.

TOPIC: Term Paper on Elvis Presley 20th Century Pioneer Assignment

Much of the hostility regarding Presley's role in American race relations comes from the fact that black performers by and large were selling very few albums at the time Presley turned the music scene on its ear in the 1950s, and he most certainly made a fortune imitating some of the performance moves of black musicians and even covering their songs, such as Blue Suede Shoes, a Carl Perkins standard.2 Also, there are a great deal of urban legends surrounding Presley's views on race, with fictitious quotes and attitudes often attributed to him.3 Many scholars believe Elvis was not a racist and, in fact, faced frequent discrimination from white society for his imitation of black music and culture.4

John Bakke is just one researcher who believes Presley, who grew up poor and was by no means an elitist, was not a racist and showed great admiration for black performers.5 Bakke points out that Presley even performed at historically all-black events.6 Elvis frequently cited black performers as his influences and Little Richard, who met and spent time with Presley, has said he believes that Presley was not a racist, but a pioneer who created opportunities for black performers.7

One thing that is clear about Presley's influence on cultural relations is that he kindled a strong interest in the work of black performers who had been long ignored or under-appreciated by white Americans. As Elvis grew in popularity, his fans became interested in learning more about his influences, many of whom they had little familiarity with. As a result, Americans began buying the works of artists like Sam Cook and Carl Perkins, and performers such as B.B. King and Little Richard moved to the more crowded arenas of mainstream America.8 Presley's views on race will be forever debated, but his impact on record sales for black performers is clear. Presley helped bridge a cultural divide by exposing white people to black music and helped bring into the mainstream a group of performers who had been wrongfully shut out.

Presley helps liberalize American culture

As Brent Cunningham has pointed out, Presley "changed the way people think about sexuality, about class, about celebrity."9 Without a doubt, Presley helped force a liberalization on American society through his barrier-challenging and suggestive performances. Presley was a man feared by parents across the country who were concerned his overt sexuality, hip swinging and leg-shaking dance moves would have a negative influence on their children. Whether or not the influence was negative is debatable, but it was certainly profound.

Presley was forced to offer a toned-down performance in his debut on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1956 and television cameras in the 1950s frequently shot him from the waist up, so TV audiences could not see his suggestive dancing.10 It was not immediately clear to TV viewers why studio audience members were reacting in such a shocked manner. Joel Williamson points out that Presley presented such a danger to society because his performances provided an outlet for women to proclaim their newly found sexual liberation, which was deeply troubling to social conservatives.11

Rather than slinking from social barriers, Presley kicked them down. As Presley's songs kept climbing the charts, his albums kept selling millions, and his international stardom grew, American society was forced to accept all of Presley - even the things it did not like. By the 1960s and 1970s, Presley was routinely performing his suggestive moves in skin-tight pants and shirts that showed much of his torso. Rather than downplaying his sexuality, Presley played to it as a strength and it helped earn him heart-throb status among women worldwide.

As American culture, through Presley, learned to relax, subsequent musicians were able to introduce more outrageous performances and sexuality permeated American culture. It's hard to imagine America tolerating Mick Jagger, for example, without having first tolerated Presley. The mini-skirts, bra burning and John Lennon-Yoko Ono bed-ins of the 1960s are hard to imagine in the context of the culture Presley first had to deal with, and when we consider what changed and who was responsible, it is hard to find an individual more central than Presley. In the words of 50s rocker Buddy Holly, "without Elvis, none of us could have made it."12

Drug addiction

Perhaps one of Presley's greatest legacies is that he is a powerful cautionary tale against the abuse of drugs. In 1970, Presley wrote to President Richard Nixon asking for a meeting so they could discuss strategies for keeping Americans off of drugs. Presley had seen fellow musicians Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin die from drug overdoses and there is evidence that he and Nixon were serious about working on the problem together and getting other artists involved.

Yet when Presley was discovered dead on Aug. 16, 1977, a subsequent autopsy found he had a cocktail of different drugs in his system, which complicated a heart ailment. In fact, during the last years of his life, Presley was a serious drug abuser who used everything from prescription codeine to Demerol to maintain what became a near-constant high.13 One of Presley's biggest problems was that he was surrounded by enablers, who became known as the "Memphis Mafia." These hangers-on, who received access to Presley's wealthy lifestyle, regularly helped provide Presley with the drugs that eventually killed him.14 Three members of the group did leave to write a book about Presley's addiction and how it was threatening his life, but it was issued just months before his death.15 One of the authors had tried to personally confront Presley about his addiction, and seems to have been fired as a result.16 The sad fact is that Presley's followers did very little to abate his drug addiction as it spun out of control, and those that did intervene risked being banished from the Presley kingdom.

Presley lived in front of the camera and aged in front of it as well. In his last years, drug addiction and subsequent weight gain left him a parody of himself, an obese, sweating and mumbling mess who forgot lyrics and often bore little resemblance to the icon of the 50s.17 As Presley's step-brother David Stanley said in a 2003 interview, "Elvis became like Howard Hughes, very self-destructive. He was afraid of losing and had to protect his image... At all costs. If only he had admitted his problem with medications. It was such a waste. It also shows that kings can make mistakes, they can be as frail as everyone else." 18

And, in that way, Presley is a cautionary tale to celebrities and ordinary people that their lives and careers can be ruined by drug abuse. Death does not care about fame. Even Elvis Presley, a symbol of manhood and invincibility who became a legend in American culture, was no match for the risks of drug abuse. In fact, the Internet is filled with not-for-profit and drug addiction counseling sites that use Presley's downfall as a warning. One religious group that offers its members life counseling points out that Presley's life was one of "confusion and tragedy" and that he "died young and miserable."19 And, perhaps through that death, Presley inadvertently taught America that fame didn't buy happiness… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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