Impact of Elvis: Revolutionary or Appropriator?
By Cassidy Palmateer
The “King of Rock” Elvis Presley has been all the rage in the media lately. With a new biopic being made dedicated to his swaying hips and sexual prowess, people cannot stop talking about the performer. However, his unique look and personality are not the only reasons Elvis is controversial. Although many people are unaware, Presley became famous by doing what black performers already were. He was not the first to dance the way he did nor was he the first to combine gospel sounds with croony jazz. However, he was the first white man to do so, and we must acknowledge the original black artists and creators that did what he did first, and arguably better.
To understand Elvis’s impact, we must first acknowledge his roots. He was a poor boy, born in the Deep South, a land that is still known as an ultra-conservative haven. When Heartbreak Hotel rocketed to the Billboard 100 when he was only 21, he suddenly had access to stages, every store he could think of, and a newly padded bank account.
Because of the time period he lived in, he was able to find the spotlight before most of his peers. Much of Elvis’ style and career is taken from the black community. Whether this was an outright robbery or a source of inspiration, however, depends on who you ask. Singers like Nat King Cole and Ray Charles were publicly assaulted for their performances of rock music, while Elvis had women lining up outside his hotel and was praised for putting on performances similar to Cole’s and Charles’. Perhaps the most blatant example of his theft was the song “Hound Dog”, written specifically for Big Mama Thornton, who was considered to be one of the first legends of rock ‘n’ roll. She is reported to only have made $500 on the song in total, while Elvis’s version is known as the song that made him famous. There is a bitter and sad truth to the statement, as “Hound Dog”, a song that rapidly catapulted Elvis, a white man to stardom, in place of Big Mama Thornton, a Black woman, whom the song was originally written for.
No matter how inspired he may have been, or how closely he worked with other Black artists, this would be considered an unforgivable action in today’s music industry.
Inversely, other Black artists, such as B.B. King, could not help but sing Elvis’ praises. King saw Elvis blossom into a powerful performer, and Elvis ultimately ended up landing B.B. King many gigs. In the years beyond that, King was very adamant that Elvis stole from no one, stating that “he just had his own interpretation of the music he’d grown up on”. Elvis not only appropriated music from numerous Black rock 'n' roll musicians, he also took inspiration from the predominantly Black churches and integrated neighborhoods where he was raised during the height of segregation. Many of these Black artists at the time never provided an official statement on Presley, so we may never know what they truly thought of him. His actions did bring rock ‘n’ roll to white communities, something they may never have been exposed to if it was not from the lips of a white man, but at what cost? Where do we draw the line between inspiration, and outright theft? Would Elvis have been launched into such lucrative stardom had he been a black man or not taken from Black communities?
Whatever propelled him to fame it was, his sense of style and charisma on stage that allowed him to continue to exist and stage presence is what allowed him to exist beyond his reign as the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll Elvis was by no means the first to dress in bedazzled, flashy suits and ‘feminine’ colors. However, he was the first white man to do so.
Presley’s influence on the gendered dress for males in the entertainment industry is one of his most profound impacts. He started out slow, with mild feminine influences. So mild that by today’s standards, we would not have even given him a second glance . Elvis’ first pink suit, which was deemed revolutionary at the time since “real men did not wear pink” is mostly credited to Hal Lansky, the propietor of a clothing boutique that he visited frequently.(Source).
Even his more masculine looks, like double denim for Heartbreak Hotel, was revolutionary for the time. He was experimenting with his look, something considered to be a girls-only hobby at the time.
Catherine Martin, costume designer for the recent Baz Luhrmann biopic “Elvis”, did a deep dive into the clothing that made up the icon, with full access to the Graceland archives, Presley’s home-turned-living memorial.
They needed it to be clear to the audience that Elvis was considered a rebel for his time, and it was the costuming in the movie that portrayed this image. He brought a certain sexuality to not only his performances, but his clothing, which was considered nearly Satanic for the early 1960s. He chose to tie up his silk shirts at his midriff, often wore eyeliner, and frequently dyed his hair (Source) These are all things that might elicit an eyebrow raise in 2022, let alone 1962.
Like all of us, that style had to come from somewhere, or, in the case of Elvis, someone. Martin was able to connect much of Elvis’ personal wardrobe with that of his mother, as depicted in the film when Elvis mourns her death, clinging to a lace dress, adorned in a lace shirt of his own (Source). While there’s no photo evidence of Elvis being in this exact situation, wearing that exact outfit, it’s clear what Martin was communicating, Elvis’ connection and strong bond with his mother. She was a pivotal woman in his life, and gave him the ability to present the more feminine side of himself, while other men his age would never have considered doing so.
Something that Martin emphasized as well was that, despite the bedazzled jumpsuits and “more is more” attitude, Elvis was undeniably masculine. He pulled women in like a moth to a flame. Something we continue to notice in decades worth of gender-bending rock stars since Elvis graced a stage. Mick Jagger wore a dress on stage on multiple occasions, David Bowie took Elvis’ jumpsuits and made them even more form-fitting, and Harry Styles is no stranger to a lace top or a few ruffles. All of these men have, and still do, spend their time in the tabloids being depicted as almost too popular with women. They are seen as babe magnets, and womanizers, with women quite literally lining up outside of their hotels for even a chance to be let into their room.
As we already established, Elvis wasn't the first to perform what he did, but he was the first with a platform that large. Many people lined up after him and aspired to be just like him. It's a powerful position to be in, and many people have exploited it or misled their audience with it. While by no means perfect, he gave a new generation of men a completely different perspective on what it meant to be a man and what a man should and should not look like. He told others to follow his lead and threw the rules out the window. He opened the door to an altogether new manner of dressing for men on stage, and future generations of rock singers owe him a debt of gratitude for influencing their sense of style.