In his newly released biopic/two-hour montage Elvis, Baz Luhrmann has selected (and grossly misunderstood) another American urtext. This is painfully apparent when considering Elvis Presley’s relationship with race, which was always fraught and complicated — an issue the film addressed by almost completely ignoring it.
Any conversation centering Elvis and race has to braid multiple strands. The man and his personal politics, the art he made appropriating Black culture in a way that made it palatable for his predominantly white (and racist) audience, and the legacy both white and Black Americans have had with his music following his passing in 1977.
Elvis presents the late singer and actor (played by Austin Butler) as a compassionate and politically aware individual that was forced to treat selling music the way Michael Jordan viewed selling shoes, cowed into neutrality by his domineering, parasitic manager Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks). As the film outlines, the violent upheaval of the late ‘60s, and threats against Presley’s life, transformed the already conservative Southerner into a paranoid crime and punishment Republican who buddied up to Nixon. But it’s pretty apparent that Presley had real reverence for the Black artists he grew up modeling his music after and borrowing from. (He was, for instance, effusive in his praise of Fats Domino and B.B. King.)
Still, the film doesn’t do much to critique Presley’s appropriation, with his racial education presented as a superhero origin story — literally transforming vulturism into a superpower as he bounces between juke joints and Pentacostal churches soaking up Black art. Getting his start with Sun Records (a label that largely worked with Black musicians), a trend that Presley would rely on throughout his career was covering — as well as collaborating with — Black artists and songwriters. It’s well known that one of the best loved hits in his catalog, “You Ain’t Nothin But a Hound Dog,” was a cover originally performed by Big Momma Thornton. There’s also Presley’s rendition of “Trouble” — performed in the 1958 film King Creole — that’s built on top of Bo Diddley’s iconic blues riff from “I’m a Man” that was released three years earlier on his self-titled album. (Ironically enough, “I’m a Man” was a riff on Muddy Waters’ “Hoochie Coochie Man” from 1954, a symbolic example of how fraught and symbiotic the ownership of melody and rhythm was in blues and R&B at the time, and why the significance of Elvis’ music in relation to race is primarily found beyond traditional attribution of musical intellectual property).
In terms of Elvis’ position in hip-hop and the modern Black imagination, the particulars of biography matter far less than the hagiographic, monolithic legend that survived him. A decade after his death in the mid-late ‘80s when his name began to occasionally be invoked in rap, Elvis became shorthand for square white taste, and the soundtrack of the establishment.
While Chuck D’s critique on “Fight the Power” is the most famous utterance, it is perhaps best articulated by Masta Ace on 1995’s “Born to Roll”:
I wonder if I blasted a little Elvis Presley
Would they pull me over and attempt to arrest me
I really doubt doubt it, they probably start dancing
Jumpin on my tip and pissing in they pants and
Wiggling and jiggling and grabbing on they pelvis
But you know my name so you never hear no Elvis
Ace literally views it as music for cops; it’s a sentiment echoed by 8Ball on “Anotha Day in the Hood” contrasting Black and white taste, pointing to Presley as the latter’s representative: “But rappin don’t mean shit to Elvis Presley-lovin crackers.”
Chuck D would later clarify his own words, explaining Elvis was more representative of a large systemic erasure of his Black influences than an offender himself, and this may be the best way into rap’s historical understanding of him. The irony is on the nose: Elvis became the face of Black music for the white populace of the ‘50s, before aging into an artifact behind glass at the Met and becoming the face of uncool, institutional whiteness for Black artists of the ‘90s.
In Stereo Williams’ brilliant and curious reconsideration of Elvis from 2012, he revealed the layers the artist contained, and how flat and reductive the modern readings of his legacy as Rock God/Culture Vulture — neither of which are entirely accurate — are. One of the more telling aspects of the piece though — aside from Williams addressing an unconfirmed racist quote claimed to have been said by Presley — is how Black artists and celebrities of the time (from James Brown to Muhammad Ali) spoke favorably of him, with Ali even saying of Presley, “Elvis was my close personal friend. I don’t admire nobody, but Elvis Presley was the sweetest, most humble and nicest man you’d want to know.” But ultimately, what was in Elvis’ heart, whether or not he participated in the racism of his day, is borderline immaterial. Elvis reaped the benefits of institutional racism, a system that propped him up on the backs of the artists who couldn’t eat as well off the art they made. So, his fossilization as a product of whiteness is poetic.
Like the film, the Elvis soundtrack fails to explore this dynamic in an interesting way, considering that it features a handful of appearances from rappers. It’s a general mess that can be described simply as a game of Madlibs or spinning the wheel: Denzel Curry? Nardo Wick? Swae Lee? Why not? Elvis being mined as a source for rap could have been an opportunity for conversation (like the way Three 6 Mafia sampled Presley’s “In The Ghetto” for their own song with the same name), but instead it’s forgettable pop over simplistic sampled Presley riffs.
Even features that you think would provide a little provocation, don’t — as is the case with Eminem’s appearance on the soundtrack. Eminem first invoked Presley on 2002’s “Without Me,” an era when he was a more confrontational artist, nimble thinker, and critic: “No I’m not the first king of controversy/I am the worst thing since Elvis Presley/to do black music so selfishly and used it to get wealthy.”
But on his contribution to the Elvis soundtrack, “The King and I,” he leaves any meaningful extension of that conversation or critique to a few hollow bars:
Now I’m about to explain to you all the parallels
Between Elvis and me, myself
It seems obvious: one, he’s pale as me
Second, we both been hailed as kings
He used to rock the Jailhouse, and I used to rock The Shelter
You could probably think of a few more conclusions based on the decline of Eminem as a celebrity and artist that mirror Presley’s own, and might have led to something a touch more profound, but Em moves on, probably because he couldn’t find a way to work those conclusions into his model ship in a bottle rhyme scheme.
Ultimately, the film and its soundtrack fumble an opportunity to revive a conversation around one of the most interesting historical pop music bridges in American history, who showed artists like the Beatles and Bob Dylan — and their record labels — the power of grafting a white mask on Black art. Elvis wants to be about the struggle against commercialism and celebrity versus selfhood and authenticity. It generally fails at that too, because it never stops to interrogate what fueled that celebrity, and where that “authenticity” was derived from. Elvis thinks the enemy isn’t white supremacy but Colonel Tom, who pimps Elvis like a racial carnival attraction. The end result is a film that doesn’t clear up some of the misconceptions about Presley and clarify why he was such a controversial figure in the Black community, so much so that he became the embodiment of racism for hip-hop throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s.
Abe Beame: Flatbush local, culture writer, former mayor of New York City. You can follow him on Twitter @TheFakeAbeBeame
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