Elvis' hype far outstrips his import

August 22, 2002|By Stanley Crouch

ALL THE HOOPLA about Elvis Presley last week seems to me to have been largely wrongheaded because too many things were mixed up.

Mr. Presley was an important cultural figure, but he was not an artist; he was an entertainer.

His "revolution" was not at all musical because he was not capable of making a musical revolution. His abilities were too small for anything of that sort.

He was no Louis Armstrong or any derivation of that level of talent, the sort of genius who provides truly new ways of expressing the human condition.

Those claims for Elvis are bunk. Those who claim that he symbolizes the supreme example of the white man stealing the music of black people are serving equal portions of hogwash.

All artists and entertainers steal from one another. When they are sufficiently gifted, they don't really remind others, even fellow professionals, of their sources.

The idea that Elvis was something new in the game is also out of pocket.

The tradition of white musicians making use of what they heard from black musicians is just as true as the fact that black musicians, whenever they heard something they liked, put it in their music, no matter where it came from.

What people mean when they go into that rant is that Elvis got the gold that others "should" have gotten.

Having been born in 1945, I'm not a good witness because, even though I liked Elvis when I was a teen-ager, I later thought -- and still think -- that it is children's music, and essentially shallow children's music at that, however sincere Mr. Presley or Little Richard or any of the others on his level might have been when they rose to national fame.

There is surely a point to be made about the recording industry realizing that a black star could not have become the same kind of a teen idol as Elvis did in the mid- '50s because far too much hell would have been brought down on a white girl salivating over an equally handsome Negro.

But that is not Elvis' fault. What I find most amusing about Elvis now is that he was, like all who deeply appeal to adolescents, corny.

I had to explain that to a guy from the BBC who asked me what I thought of Elvis' dancing. I said it was corny, but not just because it's old-fashioned. When you look at Fred Astaire's dancing, it does not look corny.

What Elvis Presley really was about was the shift of American popular culture into the world of adolescent customers. What we now call disposable income is the money parents give their children to buy recordings, go to movies and purchase clothes. Elvis was in the center of the moment when the recording and film industries realized the bucks to be made if some guy drove adolescent girls crazy.

Like most adolescent things, Elvis Presley was himself disposable, finally. But the myth of his significance beyond being a teen idol remains in place.

Stanley Crouch is a columnist for the New York Daily News.

Columnist Ellen Goodman is on vacation.

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