Eric Wolfson on Elvis becoming an American cultural icon
From the moment Elvis entered the Army, he rarely skirted controversy for the rest of his career. To do so threatened to divide the coalition of fans he spent his whole career building, and his domineering manager, “Colonel” Tom Parker wouldn’t have that.
Specifically, the Colonel was dead-set against one of Elvis recording one of his now-signature songs, “In the Ghetto,” his first Top 5 U.S. hit in four years and the finale of From Elvis in Memphis. In my book, I focused on the history of the song’s writing and recording, as well as its implications for a former poor white boy like Elvis. I did not have room to go beyond the song—in terms of both the song and Elvis in our era—which ultimately makes the song and artist that much richer.
Today, over half a century after “In the Ghetto” was recorded, the once potentially-controversial “message” song sounds tame, if not maudlin. It came at a time when African American music was experiencing a renaissance that put black issues, culture, and identity at the forefront of rock and soul. Blistering singles like James Brown’s “Say It Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud” and “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto” led the way, while albums like Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin’ on, Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On!, and Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly soundtrack put the raw inner-city African American experience at the forefront of music.
A generation later, this grittier kind of African American urban music ushered in the hip-hop revolution of the 1980s, which in turn spawned gangsta rap. This genre was established first with the massively-influential twin peaks of N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton in 1989 and Dr. Dre’s The Chronic in 1993, and then was fleshed out by Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready to Die in 1994 and 2pac’s Me Against the World in 1995. These albums played like sonic autobiographies that brought the stark realities of the ghetto into the homes of countless (white) Americans who had never set foot in the housing project. Gangsta rap was music that made the ghetto sound as directly personal as “In the Ghetto” was indirectly personal.
As a record, which is to say, a document of a moment, Elvis’s “In the Ghetto” finds a once-poor white country boy’s impassioned plea for poor African American inner-city children. From the moment that upbeat country music was infused with electric urban blues, rock and roll was the sound of a rural music gone electric, of country heading up to the city. The sound of the music alone gave this away. In Charlie Gillett’s classic rock and roll history from The Sound of the City from 1970, he writes that in this new urban landscape, Elvis’s sound “suggested a young white man celebrating freedom, ready to do anything, go anywhere, pausing long enough for apologies and even regrets and recriminations, but then hustling on towards the new.” This was a portrait of the rocker as a young man, but now instead of using the sonic invocations of the city to shape his records, Elvis used his records to address the real problems of the city.
Elvis brought people together with his unique combination of timing, influence and style. In his death, he became something of an American patron saint, an all-encompassing idol whose fame and popularity only increased. As cultural critic Greil Marcus wrote in Dead Elvis: A Chronicle of a Cultural Obsession from 1991: “No one, I think, could have predicted the ubiquity…of Elvis Presley’s second life: a great, common conversation, sometimes, a conversation between specters and fans, made out of songs, art works, books, movies, dreams…a story that needed no authoritative voice, no narrator, a story that flourishes precisely because it is free of any such things, a story that told itself.” Elvis’s saturation into American culture is so obvious that we don’t even notice it, just like when we are presented with an image of George Washington or Abraham Lincoln. It is simply a person who helped shape the world in which we live.
In the early spring of 2013, the Fox sitcom New Girl aired an episode called “Chicago,” in which the wide-eyed, quirky Jess (Zooey Deschanel) goes with her grumpy, slacker boyfriend Nick (Jake Johnson) to his home in Chicago, where he has to plan his Elvis-loving father’s funeral. His grieving mother Bonnie (Margo Martindale) insists on giving his father his wish of a funeral just like Elvis’s, which apparently includes an Elvis impersonator. A comedy of errors ensues until there is no one left to be the Elvis impersonator except…that lovable Jess! She walks out into the funeral hall with her giant Elvis wig, big sunglasses, glittered cape, white jumpsuit, and scarves singing, “As the snow flies…” She ends up leading the audience through a sing-along of “In the Ghetto,” in which she hits the words “in the ghet-to…” like the punch-line it was never meant to be. (Mac Davis remembers that the first time he heard Elvis’s “In the Ghetto”: “I remember going, ‘I wish he hadn’t said ‘Ghet-to.’ I wish he had just said ‘In the Ghetto.’ That’s a typical songwriter, you know.”)
Elvis—and, by extension, his art—has become so ever-present that anything, even an earnest message song about poverty, can be turned into an empty joke. And yet, it’s quite funny. Here is a female Elvis impersonator—itself perhaps a wry commentary on Elvis’s dandy-like fashion senses and use of makeup—serenading a bunch of people for laughs for a story that takes place, like “In the Ghetto,” in Chicago. The story has literally gone from high art to low art, from tragedy to comedy. In this way, “In the Ghetto” goes beyond the cultural confines of From Elvis in Memphis’s grooves, becoming a cultural commodity that transcends even the message of the clearest “message” song that Elvis would ever record.
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