Elvis Presley at RCA Records, Dec. 1, 1955.
Sony Records
comment / culture

Acquitting Elvis of Cultural Appropriation

His groundbreaking rock-n-roll was neither 'thievery' nor 'derivative blackness.'
Bruce Springsteen, in his underrated song “Local Hero,” sings, “First they made me the king / Then they made me pope / Then they brought the rope…”

It was not long ago that Elvis Presley—one of the musicians who inspired Springsteen, John Lennon, and many other legends—had a permanent home in the American pantheon. For all his flaws, he was an original and an innovator who helped give rise to rock and roll, youth culture, and unscripted, artistic expression in popular entertainment.

It was because of his representation of the American ideals of freedom and individuality that in 1959 protesters against Soviet tyranny in East Berlin carried placards bearing his image, and chanted the name—not “George Washington” or “John Kennedy”—but “Elvis!”

Today, the protesters are storming the pantheon, looking to demolish any trace of Presley iconography.

Hostility towards Elvis is not merely the result of countless impostors transforming him into kitsch in the karaoke lounge; it’s also due to the tired and dull accusation that Elvis is a musical thief, the latest amplification of which relies on the academic buzzwords “cultural appropriation.”

Thus does Michael Eric Dyson charge Elvis with “performing a derivative blackness,” while Kiana Fitzgerald, a writer and DJ, claims that Elvis did nothing more than sing a “watered down version of black blues.”

The problem with the view of Elvis as racial pickpocket is that it is dependent upon a disciplined commitment to ignorance.

Sam Phillips, the founder of Sun Studio, believed that, through mixture of the correct artistic and commercial chemistry, he could encapsulate the magical formula for musical entertainment visible and palpable in the bars on Beale Street, the churches in the fields, and the worn-out wooden floors at barn dances. Having already recorded B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, and the very first rock and roll song—“Rocket 88” by Jackie Brenston—he was still in search of a star, someone charismatic, talented, and, yes, white, who could bust ribald rhythm and blues through the door of the mainstream.

Phillips did not think he’d found his man when a skinny 19-year-old truck driver walked into Sun and shyly announced himself as “Elvis Presley.” As a forecast for the carnal spell Elvis would cast on an entire world of women, it was Phillips’ secretary, Marion Keisker, who insisted to her boss that the young man, as nervous and unfocused as he appeared, had something mysterious and erotic about him.
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