Wise Men Say. By Simon Frith (1994)
"I don't think El will ever rate with the more serious students of popular song -his syrupy crooning with vibrato went out with Rudy Valee".
Arthur Jackson "Light Side", Audio and Record, August 1962
The academy never had much interest in Elvis Presley anyway. There are already many more theoretical articles about Madonna than about the King; indeed, there are, by now, more solemn studies of Elvis fans and impersonactors than of the man himself. Greil Marcus tells me that there is and Institute of Elvis Presley Studies, in Toronto, buy my inmediate professional response is that it can't be serious. Bob Dylan Studies, yes; Jimi Hendrix Studies, maybe; but an Elvis Presley institute seems, by definition, loopy, the musicological equivalent of Edinburgh's Arthur Koester chair in Psychic Studies.
Now, in one respect there's no reason why the academy should have any interest in Presley .it has never been much interested in any apsect of popular culture. And, in academic cultural terms, Elvis, (unlike Dylan) has no redeeming features whatsoeaver. Everything he did was trashy and I doubt if he'd even heard of T.S. Elliot or Charles Ives. Given that one of the academic's self proclaimed tasks is to defend great art from the barbarians, Presley was clearly more barbaric than most. Henry Pleasents writes: A phenomenon common to all the most original and the most influential of the great American populars singers has been the animosity they have aroused. Its not quite the right word. Loathing comes closer, or contempt.
In this Aspect, Albert Goldman, though a fourth-rate scholar, is, alas, a university type.
What concerns me here more than the posturing of high academics, though, is Presley's place in popular music studies. In the last seventeen years, sinces his death, these have become respectable. There are now scholarly journals (Popular Music, Popular Music and Society), a scholarly organization (the International Association for the Study of Popular Music) and scholarly centres (such as the Institute of Popular Music in Liverpool University); there is a growing scholarly literature, and pop and rock have a developing place on school, college and university curricula. Where amidst all this activity, is Elvis Presley?
In constructing "popular music" as an object of study, academics have created their own rock canon, ther own account of musical history and value. Elvis has a voice in this but an oddly muted one. Paul Taylor's 1985 guide to popular music literature list ninety books on Presley, of which two might be described as academic (Jac L. Tharpe's collection, Elvis: Images and Fancies, and Neal and Janice Gregory's When Elvis Died); I know of only one subsequent academic study, Patsy G. Hammontree's Elvis Presley: A Bio-Biography. In its first decade, Popular Music, has not published a single article on Elvis Presley; in their five international conferences so far, IASPM members have not heard a single Presley paper.
One reason for this apparent lack of interest is that the schoolars feel that they already know Elvis's place in the scheme of things. This becomes obvious when we turn to basic academic books. John Shepherd's Music as Social Text has just two Presley references, one referring to his mix of "parent culture" (country) and "marginal" sounds (R&B), one suggesting that Presley's singing, like Buddy Holly's, "reveals a marked innuendo of virile and individualistic masculine sexuality eminently successful in flouting the properiety of middle class sensibilities".
These two sorts of argument -musical and sociological- are developed by other scholars. Peter Wicke's Rock Music: Culture, Aesthetics and Sociology characteristicallye confines Presley's significance to the brief moment of rock and roll origins. Presley "embodied the uncertain and consuming desire of American high school teenagers in the fifties, the desire somehow to escape the oppresive ordinariness which surrounded them without having to pay the bitter price of conformity". Ian Chamber's Urban Rhytms: Pop Music and Popular Culture situates Presley in the same moment, but focused on what his "Americanness" meant to Britons, with its "sugestive combination of Latin good looks, county speech and manners, Negro sartorial taste and performance, and their musical equivalent in ballads, country music and R&B". The "force of Elvis Presley's voice and performance" meshed all this together in "a new musical and cultural code". Like Shepherd (if with a rather better sense of detail), Chambers sees Presley's importance as puting the "black" into white popular music: "What emerges from Presley and rock 'n' roll is the Atlantis of a previously largely unknown musical continent".
What we have here is popular music studies orthodoxy. On the one hand, Presley is heard as the boy who first and most powerfully put together black and white sounds to "recode" mass music; on the other hand, he is recognized as the star who first and most powerfully caught the post-war mood of American (and the European) youth, who "recoded" the teenager". His phenomenal success was an effect of his integration of these musical and social forces, but, from an academic point of view, what really matters is what Presley led to, and his own subsequent career is of no interest whatsoever. This argument is, perhaps, most obvious in the two most general academic texts, Charles Hamm's musicological Yesterdays: Popular Song in America and my own sociological Sound effects: Youth Leisure and the Politics of Rock and Roll. We both refer to Presley with respect; we both acknoledge his historical importance; but for both of us he is, for the most part, just a name to attach to an underlying logic of rock 'n' roll and youth culture.
Two things are striking about this position. The first is that it is almost certainly misleading, misunderstanding both Presley's musical and sociological place and misreading popular music history. I haven't got the space to go into this further here, just to make the point that these academic Presley references depend not on scholary research but simply on a rewriting of pop convention. The second point, which I do want to explore, is that, in these accounts, Elvis himself -as an artist, as a star- is not really the issue. He is treated rather as a symptom, a randomly chosen medium through which musical and social currents passed. "If it hadn't been him" we are constantly told "it would have been someone else". But it was him, and the unanswered academic question is what difference that made - to the history of music, to the history of culture.
The Musicological Elvis
In his wonderfully angry review of Goldman's Presley biography in the Journal of the American Musicological Society (the first time that rock ´n´roll and Elvis Presley had been mentioned in that venerated journal in any context - and to my knowledge the last), Charles Hamm makes the point that Goldman's high cultural dismissal of Presley's musical abilities relfected his own musical ignorance. Goldman, true to his debased form of academic orthodoxy, assumed first, that Presley 's succes could have nothing to do with his sound (for Goldman the Presley problem was precisely "the incongruity between his limited talents and his limitless fame") and second, that his sound was, anyway, to crude, naive and sentimental to represent anything but a throwback to nineteenth-century ignorance and southern rural idiocy. Hamm concludes: This may be Goldman's story but it is not the story of early rock 'n' roll. The book is a disgrace. The publisher should withdraw it, and libraries should reclassify it as fiction. Neither of these is likely to happen, though, so we musicologist should take matters into our own hands by beginning to produce responsible, disciplinated studies of the music of our own time, against which such book as Elvis could be measured, and by subjecting the literature on popular music and vernacular music to the same critical scrutinity we lavish on other books.
For all Hamm's earnest plea, though, few musicologist have since turned their attention to Elvis Presley himself. There are a couple of reasons fo this I think. The first problem is generic. The best studies of American vernacular music focus on specific musical forms -country, gospel, blues; Elvis seems marginal (if not a threat) to their concerns. Thus, in his exhaustive Country Music USA, Bill C. Malone devoted just two pages (out of 442) to Presley's career, and later admited, "I felt that Presley was a disrupter and that, as evidences by the response given to him, the future of country music was dim". Similarly, Tony Heilbut's The Gospel Sound refers only to Presley's attendance at East Trigg Baptist Church, even though, as Charles Wolfe points out, both the history of white gospel music itself and a proper acount of Presley's own musical aesthetic, need to take as much account of Presley the gospel singer as of Presley the country or blues singer: "Some day, when the full story of modern southern gospel music has been told and placed in perspective, we can make some serious judgments about the origins of a singing style that changed the face of American Music".
For country and gospel musicologists, then, the problem is that Presley's approach was hybrid whie their primary concern is the "purity" of a tradition an a style. For academics writers on blues and rythm and blues, meanwhile, Presley is plainly derivative (this is the argument in which Goldman draws so relentlessly), therefore either not worth consider at all (as in most blues studies) or only as an example of what Chapple and Garofalo call "black roots, white fruits" -sociologically but not musically significant.
The question of Presley's "originality" leads to a second analytical problem. Academic musicology is a discipline rooted in the study of the composer and the score (Rather than of the performer and the performance). Popular musicology, equally, focuses on composers, whether singer/songwriters (such as Lennon/McCartney or Dylan), or innovative instrumentalists (such as Jimi Hendrix). Presley neither wrote his own songs, nor (it is assumed) arranged (or even chose) his own material; he was not an innovative instrumentalist. There is nothing here for a musicologist to study.
This is, again, to accept the popular myth of Elvis as primitive or puppet, and to ignore the obvious point that he was profoundly a creative musician -singer. (Musicologist have always had problems with the voice.) As Henry Pleasants puts it in his admirable study of Presley in The Great American Popular Singers, "He has a voice. He has an art. He has always had them. No singer survives for nearly twenty years without them".
The most interesting musicological work on Presley is, therefore, focused on this voice and on how Presley, as an artist, used it. Pleasants himself gives a technical account of the unique "confidence and inventiveness" (Charlie Gillett's terms), that rock fans and critics and historians have heard in Presley's early records, describing Elvis's "extraordinary compass" and "very wide range of vocal colour". "The voice covers about two octaves and a third, from the baritone's low G to the tenor's high B, with an upward extention in falsetto to at least a D flat. His best octrave is in the middle, from about D flat to D flat, granting an extra full step either up or down. In this area, when he bears down with his breath on the cords, the voice has a fine, big, dark baritone quality. When he eases off, as he often does in ballads, he achieves a light mellow, seductvie sound reminicent of Bing Crosby, if rather, with a wide a wide vibrato that he may have got from Billy Eckstine, Elvis' vibrato, however, is faster and less conspicuous. Call him a high baritone. The voice has always been weak at the bottom, variable and unpredictable. At the top it is brillant...".
To take Presley seriously in this terms is to take him seriously as a musician. To begin with, he clearly did "arrange" his own material - it is dominated by his vocal style - and, in the only musical way that matters, "wrote" it too. In Pleasants's words: It is not merely a matter of timble, of the quality, color or size of the voice as it is heard on any single pitch, or even as it might be heard in a vocal exercise. The sound becomes fully alive and distinctive only in the articulation of the musical phrase as shaped by the text and by the singer's identification with language. Elvis Presley's enunciation has not always been inmaculate, although it can be as distinct as anybody's when he want it to be. But he has never sung a phrase whose contours were not derived from his own native Southern American speech.
Musically, then, Presley did know what he wanted: "while deferring to Colonel Parker in promotional matters, he has been in charge of his own music-making". Pleasant's insight here has been followed up most illuminatingly by Richard Middleton, in his study of Presley's use of "romantic lyricism" and "boogification". In giving Presley's singin a close musical analysis, Middleton makes three significant points. First, Presley was a self-conscious technician - the choice of vocal attack, the making of musical decisions, the playing of genre games, can be heard in the songs themselves; this is not a matter of "instinct". Second, Presley was well aware that pop songs are implicitly about their own performance - and their own performers; his "narcissism" as a singer always had an ironic inflection, and the force and effect of that inflection - the rhetorical devices of embarrasment and seduction, sincerity and flippancy - were a key aspect of his appeal. Third, and perhaps most importanly, Presley's musical gifts were not momentary or accidental, something he "had" in the Sun or RCA early days and then lost (or had stolen from him). He was always a vocal artist, a vocal technician, a vocal craftsman, even if he often (at all times in his career) shoddy material on which to work (in this respect, Elvis Presley's art resembled more than of say, Billie Holiday than that of Chuck Berry or Hank Williams). As Middleton consludes (subtly varying the usual academic line), "Elvis's originality, then, lay not so much in the cultural mix which he helped to bring into being - that was in the air and would have happened anyway - as in what he did with it".
The Sociological Elvis
The sociological Elvis doesn't really exist. That is to say, sociologist have accepted the broad strokes of the comic-book Elvis story without ever investigating them. His relationship with Sam Philips and Colonel Parker, the move from Sun to RCA, the years of bad movies, the return to public performance, the Las Vegas era - in as far as sociologists in "the production" of culture" refer to Elvis at all they refer to the facts gathered by Jerry Hopkins; they don't then measure them against more sophisticated accounts on how the music industry worked and changed between the 1950's and the 1970's. It is difficult on Hopkins's evidence, for example, to know whether Parker was a good or bad manager or indeed, what these terms might mean, but it is noteworthy that Presley survived as a star more lucratively than any other white pop singer of his generation and that, in terms of, say, international markting, the Hollywood stragety was far more efective than endless world touring. Just as a musicologists have too often accepted the picture of Presley as musically primitive, sociologist, too, have often treated Parker as economically primitive. This may or not be the case; a proper analysis of Elvis Presley's career moves has yet to be made.
I find similar problems with the sociological tendency to treat Presley as uncomplicatedly a "product" of his time and circumstances. Again this has become a sociological truism, but begs quiestions - in fact, about his time and circumstances, quiestion not addressed by vague references to the South, to youth, to "the 1950's" - and it takes a non-academic, Dave Marsh, to place Presley more precisely in history, to relate Presley's experience of school and work and family to specific effects of the New Deal. The problem, as Marsh suggests, is that to treat Presley as a social symptom is to fall into the same condescending trap as the musicologists who treat him as a musical symptom: this denies Presley any agency, any character, any moral force. (One of the few shcolarly studies which manages a grand reading of Presley's as "a radical romantic" without losing sight of the specificities of his experience is Van K. Brock: "Imagies of Elvis, the South and America".)
There is no rigorous sociological study, then, either of Elvis as commodity (the details of his various deals remain hidden in RCA'S archives) or of Elvis as working-class hero (no one has even gone through the mass of memorabilia to analyse what a boy like Elvis -at that time, in that place, could have known or though or felt). Rigorous sociological study has been concentrated, rather, ona diffrent issue: the media Elvis. And what both, Stephen Tucker's study of Presley's 1956-1965 magazine appearances and the Gregory's exhaustive trawl through the coverage of Presley's death reveal is not just the gap between Elvis's image and reality but also, more importantly, the fact that the contours of Presley's life, the lineaments of his fame, were determined not by anything he said or did, but by the ideological needs and anxieties of the media themselves.
This is to move into a diffrent area of Presley's shcolarship, American Studies, and area dominated by Greil Marcus who is not technically an academic but whose extraordinary "Presliad" in Mystery Train is undoubtedly the most cited piece of Presley literature, (and whose Dead Elvis greatly extends our understanding of the USA if not of Presley himself). And what most strikes me about the scholars who have followed in Marcus's footsteps is that, unlike his, their arguments seem less derived from what they hear, the records, than from what they've read about the records (which may define the academic approach). Thus, whether Elvis is dissected as an example of southern identity, (as in Lindas Ray Pratt's interesting account of his sentimentality) or placed in American literary tradition, (as in Joan Krikby's elegant account of his innocence and vulgarity), what seems to be at issue is less his music than his image. The question that inmmediately arises is what, aesthetically, is being asserted: is Elvis the author or a character in such readings? And, if the latter, as seems to be the case, who wrote him?
The Cultural Studies Elvis
Contemporary cultural studies, the newest branch of academe to take a Presley interest, has a simple answer: his fans. In the early days of cultural studies this was merely a matter of reading Presley's meaning in his fan appeal. So as Paul Willis explained: The assertive masculinity of the motor-bike boys also found ans answering structure in their preferred music. Elvis Presley records were full of agression... his whole presence demanded that he should be given respect.
But as subcultural theory has moved from a studye of the "homologies" between cultural forms and consumers' values to a more aggressive account of the culture created in the moment of consumption itself, so academics have begun to devote more time to the ethnography of fandom, more attention to the process of adoration. Thus, Lynn Spigel describes the dead Elvis as "a semiotic system of preservation". The most besotted Elvis fans, she argues, are not just engaged in a form of storytelling, but also in a politics of memory: Impersonation thus becomes a kind of interpretation, a reading strategy through which the performer revives a memory for a community of fans - a memory which they consider more authentic than scandal, hype and rumour.
The impersonated Elvis is thus more true to life than the historical Elvis, more true, that is, to the Elvis experience: Elvis fans "know" Presley in a way that gets beneath the encrustation of of fame and fable.
If one problem of this sort of analysis is that Elvis Presley himself exists in it only as a figment - or series of figments - of some very odd imaginations, another is that the academic also begins to float free from the material, to lose any sense of reason. One Elvis story becomes as good as any other. "Elvis is alive", a prominent cultural studies academic tells Greil Marcus earnestly on a radio talk show. "Not just in people's heads, but really, with a new face and a new life, courtesy of the FBI, the DEA..."
In February 1992, the London Review of Books, a quasi-academic journal, published a review of Greil Marcus's Dead Elvis which succinctly expressed the familiar academic attitude. Presley's career reducted to cliché: "His first year of stardom may have been subversive, but thereafter, he settled in to become one of the most conservative, least adventurous of all pop singers". The reviewer, Graham Coster, expressed the British snob's contempt for the craftsman: Elvis never said no to anything... He could be a rock 'n' roll singer, a gospel singer, a Christmas carol singer, a ballader, a crooner, - but he wasn't any of them. He was brillant at turning his hand...
And the high cultural disdain for popularity: what looks like democracy is really only meretriciousness... People like Elvis because he gave them nothing to fear... Presley's great skill, and great shallowness, was taht he could make you forget what he was singing about. Death - as in "Long Black Limousine"; poverty - as in "In the Ghetto": he sang them into mawkish sentiment, song by song.
The argument slips easily down. No, of course Elvis wasn't worth much in the great cultural scheme of things. No, of course he wasn't a real artist - "there is no consistent, cumulative, considered body of work bequeathed to us". How can we take this man seriously? But then I lisent to the music again, and wonder at the layers of assumtion through which Coster must hear things. I go back to those academics who are prepared to let Presley reach them directly. Pleasants: Elvis' is, in a word, an extraordinary voice - or many voices. In classical singers a multiplicity of voices is commonly the result of a singer's failure to achieve a uniform sound as the voice moves up and down the scale and through the register breaks. It is counted a fault unless the variety of color is related to characterization. In Elvis early records, the multiplicity of voices is often clearly faulty, especially in ballads... in later years the vocal multiplicity has been rather a matter of idiom, with Elvis producin a sound for country, a sound for gospel, a sound for ballads, a sound for Rhythm and Blues. He would seem always to have been a naturally assimilative musician, with an acute sense of style.
The same basic description as Coster's but in a different tone, a tone blessedly free of the mannerisms of high-culture-looks-at-low-culture-and-sniffs.
Or Middleton: Elvis, he agrees, "is all things to all men throughout his career, and he documents Presley's mastery of various song-types: The unifying factor is Elvis himself - or more precisely, Elvis constructed as a particular category: "Elvis as romantic hero". He turns all hi songs into celebrations of his own power, exercises in self-presentation.
Again, the same point as Coster's but spunt to take account of what is in the songs (and not what Coster supposes to be in the heads of the listeners).
My conclusion is that the only academic studies of Presley that make any sense at all are those that begin with love and affection and bring all their scholarly skills to bear on its sources: the right academic question is: why does Elvis do this to me? The wrong question - leading to an equally mindless contempt for Elvis himself/or admiration of his fans - is: why does he do it to to other people? Costers quote's Dead Elvis' last sentence: The story shrinks then, down to the size of your favourite song, whatever it is - down to the size of whatever mystery it contains, whatever it was that made you like it then, and like it now.
He then dismisses it as the banal comfort of a late night DJ. The point, though, is that anyone who doesn't hear the mystery in Presley's music (or any other art) should not be writing about it.
Wise Men Say by Simon Frith, was first published in 1994 on "Aspects of Elvis: Tryin' to Get To You", Edited by Alan Clayson & Spencer Leigh. London.