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The Impact Of Elvis Presley Film Studies Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Film Studies
Wordcount: 2790 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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‘Before Elvis, there was nothing,’ John Lennon is alleged to have once said. When Elvis Presley recorded his first official single ‘That’s All Right Mama’ on 5 July 1954, the world changed forever. Elvis was a significant and extraordinary catalyst for vast cultural transformation in 1950s America. Professor Stephen Hinerman sums this up as ‘building the populist base of rock ‘n’ roll by mixing black and white music’s; articulating the sound of a youth rebellion; taking rock music into the world of traditional entertainment; showing that a rock career could sustain longevity with a confident fan base; practically inventing the idea of rock music selling out.’ [1] This demonstrates how Elvis impacted America in immeasurable ways. However author Greil Marcus believes that ‘the enormity of his impact on culture, on millions of people, was never really clear when he was alive; it was mostly hidden.’ [2] Therefore in complete hindsight, this essay will evaluate a few of the foremost ways Elvis impacted on 1950s America looking at the impact on music, race and class, performance, gender, sex and teenagers, marketing and fashion and television and cinema.

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Firstly, it is fundamental to look at Elvis’s music style, his records and the radio. During the 1950s Elvis released sixty-six singles, nine albums, and spent fifty-nine weeks at ‘Billboard’ number one. [3] His best-selling single was ‘Don’t Be Cruel/Hound Dog’ (1956) which sold six million copies by the end of the decade and was at number one for eleven weeks. [4] These overwhelming statistics portray the popularity of Elvis’s music and begin to highlight the impact his music had on 1950s America. Author Albert Goldman states that: ‘Elvis’s phonograph records were crucial to his success but the public has first to discover these records. Almost invariably this crucial discovery was made through the radio.’ [5] Indeed, Elvis had a huge impact on the radio in terms of radio play, genre, and target audience. Elvis’s style was an unheard-of up-tempo combination of rockabilly, country, pop, gospel and rhythm and blues. This ground-breaking amalgamation combined with a strong backbeat became the sound of rock ‘n’ roll and the sound of a new generation. The initial reaction to Elvis’s music on the radio was racial. Hinerman says that ‘Elvis was visibly lower class and symbolically black…he represented an unassimilated white underclass that had been forgotten by mainstream suburban America – more accurately, he represented a middle-class caricature of poor whites. He was sleazy.’ [6] In 1950s America, his racial and social impact was sudden. Elvis’s obituary in The Times states ‘that period saw an irrevocable change in the balance of American society.’ [7] This balance became mainly racial as when Elvis was first played on the radio many listeners assumed that he must be black and had to ask the DJ. Elvis’s musical influences of typically African-American rhythm and blues sparked huge debates that occur to this day, as this was unheard-of for a white singer in the 1950s. On one hand Elvis popularized black culture to the masses, promoting equality and desegregation, but on the other hand some people believe Elvis self-interestedly ‘stole’ their music and sexualised performance style. Elvis even admitted: ‘The colored folks been singing it and playing it just like I’m doin’ now, man for more years that I know…nobody paid it no mind ’til I goosed it up. I got it from them.’ [8] This impacted 1950s America as many prejudiced white adults strongly believed Elvis’s black musical style would corrupt the white youth with his vulgar dancing and crazy, animalistic rhythm. Many black performers credit Elvis with promoting their music to 1950s America allowing for future success. Singer Little Richard said ‘He was an integrator. Elvis was a blessing. They wouldn’t let black music through. He opened the door for black music.’ [9] Similarly singer Al Green agreed: ‘He broke the ice for all of us.’ [10] Elvis’s astonishing musical impact is depicted in that he is the only artist in four Halls of Fame: Rock and Roll (1986), Country (1998), Gospel (2001) and Rockabilly (2007).

Elvis’s radical performance style had an enormous impact on 1950s America, redefining gender, fan culture and instigating sexual liberation. In a decade of strong sexual repression, Elvis’s sweat, gyrating dance moves, and energetic, uninhibited performance style stirred the 1950s female audience. At one of his first performances in July 1954, Elvis’s nervousness and the strong back rhythm of his music, led him to shake his leg which was further emphasized by his wide cut pants. When females began uncontrollably screaming, Elvis became conscious of the reaction he was creating. He said ‘my manager told me they were hollering because I was wiggling my legs. I went back out for an encore and I did little more, and the more I did, the wilder they went.’ [11] He had soon perfected this technique to fully affect the female audience. He learnt to slow down and speed up in anticipation and to wind them up until they were in such frenzy he would exit the building and with no encore leave them wanting more. The hysterical, fainting, worshipping fan-girls were a relatively new concept in 1950s America, and Elvis’s all-consuming control he had over his fans transformed the music industry and the fan phenomenon. In 1956, Reporter Lionel Crane wrote: ‘what a frenzy this boy can stir up. I’ve never seen anything like it. When Elvis sings it isn’t just a case of a few girls sighing and going swoony or stamping and shouting. I saw him send 5,000 of them into a mass fit of screaming hysterics.’ [12] Likewise Goldman describes ‘five thousand shrill female voices come in on cue. The screeching reaches the intensity of a jet engine. When Elvis comes striding out on stage with his butchy walk, the screams suddenly escale. They switch to hyper-space.’ [13] There are thousands of these accounts of Elvis’s impact on the 1950s female audience; he had become a sex symbol. Hinerman believes the reason for this ‘was that you would never marry him; the romance would never end in the tedium of marriage.’ [14] This makes sense in a society with rigid social norms and gender roles as Elvis was a safe, dream-like escape for many girls. Jealous teenage boys however, hated Elvis and he regularly received violent threats. Older males detested the effect Elvis’s pelvis was having. Critic George Melly said Elvis was the ‘master of the sexual simile, treating his guitar as both phallus and girl.’ [15] Similarly, television host Ed Sullivan believed he was unfit viewing for 1950s families as ‘he’s got some kind of device hanging down below the crotch of his pants-so when he moves his legs back and forth you can see the outline of his cock…I think it’s a Coke bottle.’ [16] Sullivan later paid him a record $50,000 to appear on his show, which was watched by an unprecedented sixty million people. [17] These colossal figures show Elvis’s impact on American mass society in the 1950s.

Elvis opened the generation gap, impacting 1950s America by establishing the teenager’s identity, choice, spending power and fashion. Marcus believes Elvis fitted ‘the necessity existing in every culture that leads it to produce a perfect, all-inclusive metaphor for itself…freedom, limits, risk, authority, sex, repression, youth, age, tradition, novelty, guilt and the escape from guilt’. [18] Therefore as he fitted the new generation metaphor he changed society. Journalist Maureen Orth remembers that ‘my aunt told me how foolish I was to sit screaming with joy at the spectacle of that vulgar singer on TV. It was then I knew that she and I lived in different worlds, and it was then that kids bedroom doors slammed all over America.’ [19] Elvis reached an entire generation. In his obituary The Times said ‘he was responsible, more than any other entertainer, for the manifestation of what has since come to be called the generation gap: a youth which spoke its own language had its own heroes, its own music and its own standards.’ [20] His music touched the youth with lyrics focusing on the teen world of fashion, all the emotions, love and oppression. Goldman highlights this stating that ‘Heartbreak Hotel’s grotesquely exaggerated and histrionic quality matched perfectly the hysterically self-pitying mood of millions of teenagers, who responded by making the record an instant and immense success.’ [21] Elvis impacted America by becoming a spokesman for a generation and embodying and representing youth spirit.

The establishing of a generation gap meant that teenagers began to create their own separate culture led by Elvis. An increase in spending money meant purchasing power and alongside buying his records, Elvis’s iconic look impacted the conservative and conformist 1950s America in terms of fashion and appearance. Goldman summarises: ‘Elvis was the flip side of this clean-cut conventional male image. His fish-belly white complexion, so different from the healthy tan of the beach boys; his brooding Latin eyes, heaving shaded with mascara; the broad fleshly contours of his face, with the Greek nose and the thick, twisted lips; the long greasy hair, thrown forward in his face by his jerking motions.’ [22] His unusual looks and exotic mixed heritage meant he instantly became a style icon. He started a trend for black slacks, pegged pants, loose, open-necked shirts and brightly coloured sharp suits which were all extremely anti-parent and even had African-American influences. For male’s hair, the short and neat military-style crew cut was preferred by parents and adults. Elvis had the complete opposite. His dyed black, heavily-greased, pompadour-style D.A cut with heavy sideburns instantly became the symbol of a delinquent bad-boy. This soon resulted in hair length limitations in many schools as males across America wanted the same female attraction that Elvis received. Teenager spending power is also depicted in the sales of Elvis fan souvenirs. By 1956, his merchandise alone reached $22 million which was extraordinary at the time. [23] The 1950s collectables ranged from posters, lobby cards, bubble gum cards, lipsticks, perfume, jewellery (including a dog tag with his serial number on), sneakers, hats, scarves, record players, guitars and a ‘pink’ range (autograph book, diary, scrapbook and photo album) to name but a few. This commercialisation was revolutionary and illustrates the impact Elvis had.

1950s America was undergoing conversion from the monopoly of cinema to substantial television growth and Elvis reined power over both; however I will focus on his extensive movie career. In 1956 Elvis signed a seven year contract with Paramount Pictures and initiated his impact on American cinema. His first film ‘Love Me Tender’ added four musical numbers to capitalize on the one million advanced orders of the ‘Love Me Tender’ single. [24] The film generated $540,000 in its first week and had made $4.5 million by the end of the year. [25] He continued on to release ‘Loving You’, ‘Jailhouse Rock’ (grossing $4 million in the year) and ‘King Creole’. [26] Elvis strongly influenced film-making and revolutionised the genre of the musical. Goldman believes ‘Elvis’s genius lies in combining the movie myth of the menacing teenager with rock ‘n’ roll music so as to create a whole new performance idiom appropriate to that wild new form of entertainment, the rock concert.’ [27] Elvis’s films produced numerous iconic moments, showed the importance of star power and their impact is illustrated in their posthumous endurance.

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In conclusion it is clear to see a small part of the vast impact Elvis had on 1950s America. From his revolutionizing of music in terms of race and class, his radical and sexual performance style, his splitting of the generations and genders, his fan culture, influence and marketing, to his unique movie career establishing a whole new genre of filmmaking, this essay has attempted to show how Elvis changed American history. Composer Leonard Bernstein believes ‘Elvis is the greatest cultural force in the twentieth century. He introduced the beat to everything and he changed everything – music, language, clothes, it’s a whole new social revolution.’ [28] His impact is immeasurable and unequalled. Elvis Presley was the turning point, permanently transforming culture. He will continue to be of the greatest social significance for years to come because as Marcus said ‘He changed history as such, and in doing so became history.’ [29] 

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