If only the King were dead

Quiet, you middle-aged fawners, says Michael Bywater. Elvis's success was a disaster
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The Independent Online
Sex is as good a place as any to start. "Elvis was sex, pure sex, sex incarnate, sex on a stick," whimper the idolaters (mostly men mired in middle-age, knackered, past it, looking wistfully back to an imaginary golden era of snake-hips and Greasy Kid Stuff) as they chant their laments for the death of The King, 20 years ago.

Sex? I am as fond of sex as the next man but one thing is clear: if Elvis Presley had anything to do with sex, it was sex for people who had never had any. Jazz is the music of sex: subtle, ardent, the drumbeat marking the boundaries of a space in which the instruments and voices slide, coil and intertwine: question and answer, solo and chorus, advance and retreat. But Elvis? The whop, the thump, the clogged dumb repetition; the stolid, trailer-park beat imposed upon and drowning out everything else; the nonsensical, histrionic, unconvincing climax: Elvis is the perfect musical analogue of a lousy lover, and the preferred three-minute duration of his little efforts could hardly be more appropriate.

But it's not supposed to be about the music. It's supposed to be about the man, this squelch of retrospective adulation, 20 years after his death. Elvis the man, the performer, the hypnotic, ground-breaking icon before which stuffy old suburban, pipe-smoking, job-for-life Middle America genuflected, confessed its sins, and handed on the torch to Youth.

And so Elvis was; and so America did, encouraged along the way by a mean- spirited monument to opportunistic greed in the form of his manager, a foul bogus Dutch illegal immigrant calling himself "Colonel Tom Parker". Parker was from the same mould as the legions of plausible cheats and crooks who preyed then - and prey now - upon the poor white trash of America; and the prey, in their turn, were from the same roots as Elvis, the bottom- of-the-barrel boy from the tar-paper shack in Tupelo, Mississippi. In a way, Parker and Presley between them acted out the American dream which is also, inextricably, the American nightmare.

Predator and prey; exploiter and exploited; rags to riches, and riches to a drug-fuelled, cholesterol-filled, early grave. (There's even something touching about the way Elvis, when he was the most famous man in America, would indulge himself on a giant version of the trailer-park dream snack, flying in his private jet to a place in Colorado where they sold these big, long rolls containing a whole jar of peanut butter, a whole jar of strawberry jelly, and a pound of bacon. He'd have two. Just a poor white boy, but rich.) Presley and "Parker" are dead now, but the dream-mare plays on.

It plays on, first, in the American (and now the global) music industry, which devours lives, immolates talent and annihilates cultures in order to enrich the bank balances of as hateful and cynical a pack of emotionally destitute middle-aged men as you could ever fear to meet.

The success of Elvis was the beginning of a musical and cultural disaster. The money-men, seeing his appeal to frustrated pubescents of all ages, seized on what was originally a genuine response to something new and turned it into a global money-making machine. That Elvis was either an unusually good down-home Mississippi R&B singer who happened, just happened, to be white, or he was nothing at all: this was neither here nor there to "Parker" and the money-men. Elvis was a marketable concept which could be cloned, modified and refined. Forget the rough, authentic talent. That couldn't be faked, so instead the money-men went for what could be faked: the pout, the sneer, the hip-swivel, the instant gratification of the three-minute song. Being Elvis replaced being President as the young American dream; and, as in politics, there were plenty of dodgy backers eager to bankroll the latest postulant for a slice of the action.

Their industrial-scale investment, in terms of promotion and marketing of their ill-digested "stars", was prodigious, crushing any possibility of artistic dissent. Broadcasters leapt aboard. The dull, four-square backbeat all but annihilated any other form of musical expression, diminishing, in one generation, the musical language of the popular song from a rich and miraculous eloquence into a debauched and attenuated patois with no capacity for emotional range or precision.

To blame Elvis for this would be unfair. Before he sold out - before he joined the Army and turned into a soupy, grinning, all-American conformist - he was at least working with a sort of integrity which even jazz musicians (the sternest of guardians of artistic purity) could acknowledge. But afterwards, when he became a parody of himself and turned into the trashy, hip-swivelling, greasy Lord of the Fly-Buttons, his fate, and the fate of American popular culture, was sealed. Elvis became not so much himself as a symbol; not so much an artist as a how-to manual of business success, the secret of which was not to make music, but to make teenage boys angry and teenage girls scream.

It's impossible to underestimate the historical effect of the Elvis/Parker dream-mare. The entire habitable globe is now saturated in the thin, scanty, micro-culture of the three-minute R&B song; from Kalumburu to Novosibirsk, from Reykjavik to Port Stanley, local musical cultures have been pushed aside in favour of the inarticulations of American adolescence. The musical language has become almost speechless.

It can say "My baby doesn't love me." It can say "I love my baby." It can say "It's not fair." It can whine, yearn or threaten violence. And that, with some noble exceptions, is about it. Those who manage greater eloquence seem almost like mistakes, working outside the system. When a genuine artist, a Swiftian satirist such as Randy Newman, nails the most discreditable of human emotions - "I just want you to hurt like I do" - in a three-minute song, he's not building on the legacy of Elvis, but on the earlier tradition of the triple-time ballad or the vaudeville curtain-song. The Beatles? Analysing and conquering the verse-chorus-bridge system in their first couple of years, they moved on rapidly and ended up owing more to music-hall and the church choir than they did to mainstream R&B. Pink Floyd? They seem drenched in the bleak, giant extravagances of such great Northern symphonists as Nielsen and Sibelius, with their rolling ostinati and glacial harmonics, like icebergs calving.

But for those who stay in the mainstream, paying their death duties to Elvis and obeying their pouchy, gusting, manicured Svengalis, the minimal artistic freedom they are allowed makes it impossible to tell whether there is any artistic impulse there in the first place. As even rudimentary melody and vestigial three-chord harmony decays, as even rhythm begins to collapse in a frenzy of sub-cortical ataxia, all that is left is attitude: a sneer, a pout, a suggestion of threatened violence, an exaggerated bogus sexuality.

That is the legacy of Elvis. That is what he has left to the world. This poor dead fat man, this mother-fixated epicene, who croaked in the john at 42 from too many cheeseburgers, broke the rules by indicating unequivocally, on stage, that he was a young man in possession of a penis; and has bequeathed to us hundreds upon thousands of young men who are eager that we should know that they, too, have penises, and what do we think about that, okay?

The triumph of poor Elvis's legacy is so overwhelming as to be apparently invincible. It's impossible to imagine the three-minute R&B song and its depraved destitute by-blows ever going away now. It's ironic that Elvis, "the first white man to sing like a black", should have presided over the form which drove the real black men's music - jazz - out to the sidelines. You might wonder what the world would be like now if it had been jazz - that eloquent, subtle, genuinely sexy musical culture - which had won the day. It's tempting to believe that it might be a less violent place, a more diverse place, less solipsistic, less grumpy, less stupid. But perhaps, as someone once said, "White men got two problems learning jazz. One is, they ain't smart enough. The other is, they're too damn smart."

Alternative histories are fun but fruitless. All we can do is live with the facts. As for the speculation; well, if aliens did abduct him, all one can say is: heaven help their planet, too.