This challenge was issued by Peter Harrison on Twitter, who is currently reading Treat Me Nice. The challenge is to relate Elvis Presley to a Guardian article on violence in America. It has been picked as number one as the article is topical.
Wall Street Protests reveal slice of America’s barely tamed brutality – Ed Pilkington, Guardian.
The article in The Guardian talks somewhat gloomily about the presence of violence in American society and culture. Pilkington believes it is demonstrated by callous actions, for example the random cruelty by policemen and SWAT teams, and by the glamorisation of violence in American culture. Pilkington is not the first to make this point. Crime levels within the USA are high and though they vary they are quite consistent across individual States. Various factors have been identified, wide gaps in the level of income, the ubiquitous presence of the handgun and a liberal and creative society that encourages individualism and values achievement.
To relate this to Elvis we first need to make a decision. Do we accept the assertion about America?
Yes, but generalisations about the USA are like generalisations about Elvis.
The scope and achievements of both invariably contain contradictions. Overall, the assertion, though, has validity and it is confirmed by crime levels, gun ownership, its high use of capital punishment, and a foreign policy heavily dependent on its armed.
So, how does Elvis relate?
Well, he was an American and, as critics Dave Marsh, Jon Landau and Robert Palmer argued frequently, he was an American artist. Jon Landau in his review of a concert in Boston in 1971 actually used the word violent to describe his performance although he used other words more flattering in his review.
Critic Jim Morrison, who was appreciative of the talent of Elvis, also described him as narcissistic and violent.
Violence has many aspects but it can be valued by its protagonists as having something that has aggressive worth and defensive importance. The aggressive worth can be how it makes the aggressor feel – superior, important and, ultimately, cool. This aspect is not only specific to Tarantino movies but it is often in the rock and roll and blues of Elvis. Sometimes the violence has a sexual edge but this does not mean it is sadistic. The violence is more a masculine celebration of previous or remembered ecstacy. Sometimes it can anticipate ecstacy. This music can be accepted and enjoyed as innocent fun but the violence which is rooted in masculine hedonism is there and it requires an American artist to identify its existence and implications. Elvis has no inhibtions about using it to add to the urgency of rock and roll or the menace of the blues. This is why Palmer. Marsh and Landau are consistent in describing Presley as an American artist. Examples of this violence are rock songs such as ‘Hound Dog’ and blues like ‘So Glad You’re Mine.’
But his use of violence can also be defensive, a warning against potential hurt and disappointment. It is not confined to the all conquering male. The gun in American culture is of value to the defendor and the aggressor. Damon Runyan, the American writer, described the handgun as ‘the great equaliser’. It enables the weak and ignored to be assertive against those who think they are all conquering, male or female. Elvis was always keen to assert the warnings of the powerless. Not necessarily the economically powerless but the emotionally dependent and vulnerable. The songs, ‘Is It So Strange’, ‘I’ll Never Let You Go’ and ‘Don’t’ are good examples of this warning. Sometimes the warning is no more than a description of chaos and implies only irretrievable damage to the person giving the warning. Many Elvis ballads contain this bleak prediction. Songs such as ‘Blue Moon’ and ‘Loving Arms’ imply that the demands of the singer need to be honoured by a sympathetic response from the woman he loves. If not honoured the price will be a horrible destructive responsibility for the woman. Sometimes, though, the warning is a threat that implies damage to the woman. A fine example is his marvellous blues record ‘Reconsider Baby’. In this record the violence is quite serious; his plea that she does reconsider implies that if she does not she will be hurt. Sometimes, though, the threat is comic such as in ‘Dirty, Dirty Feeling’ where the naive male is both destructive and bewildered. The tradition of comic and serious violence exists within American culture so Elvis is being consistent. Comic and serious violence, of course, are not specific to American traditions. There is defensive and aggressive violence and the music of Elvis contains it all.
Violence may not involve physical assault but it does overlap with sexual conquest although, again, it may not be meant in a harmful way. ‘Merry Christmas Baby’ does not suggest physical violence but it does contain an erotic threat that will defeat resistance from women. Elvis was always quite willing to use this erotic threat in his music and on stage. Apart from the conquest that may follow it relates to violence because it requires Elvis to issue a challenge that we associate with a contest. If he is not erotic then his challenge fails. The risk involved is consequential and it requires a confidence we associate with violent confrontation.
In the behaviour of Elvis we see violent interests. These are – the exceptionally violent games of American football he played with the Memphis Mafia, his interest in guns, his policemen fantasies and his final incarnation as an omnipotent super hero in the 70s. Although his main interest was to entertain the final identity is a violent assertion of his importance over others. Although, this is using the word violence in its widest sense it is appropriate. For example, we sometimes describe obscene language as violent. Nobody gets physically hurt by obscene language but the word violent is used to define the attitude of the speaker. Elvis was willing to offend both the establishment and his critics. He also aspired to a narcissistic potency, to be powerful and ‘special’. He did no harm with these ambitions and they do not indicate in themselves a flaw in his character but they can be considered as violent and they were obvious in his stage performances.
Elvis was an American and we are obliged to admire how he drew on the violence within both his culture and himself to enrich his music. If you disagree listen to his records ‘Reconsider Baby’ and ‘Don’t’ or even the record ‘He’ll Have To Go’ which Elvis recorded with reduced powers. ‘Baby’ was originally a begging, plaintive blues, ‘Don’t’ was conceived as a pretty ballad and ‘Have To Go’ was first recorded as a muted plea by Jim Reeves. Elvis redefined all three songs by adding a threat. He did this by using his experience of the violence within his society and himself. This has always been an aspect of his talent that makes him important. His success facilitated other musicians introducing into their music more blatant violence. Regrettably, much of this later explicit violence has been directed towards women. The escalation of violent attitudes within American popular music would suggest that America still has a serious issue to address. Presumably, this is why Ed Pilkington in The Guardian resides there so uneasily.