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Times Talk Elvis Panel Discussion

By Harley PayetteMar 23, 2002
The New York Times has a series of panel discussions called TimesTalks. Elvis was the subject of their March 18th edition.

The sexy, side-burned singer blazed through the 1950s, leaving his mark on popular culture. Hear about his lasting legacy from some of today's leading experts on his life and times.

Panelists: Camille Paglia, cultural critic and author; Peter Guralnick, author of Careless Love and Last Train to Memphis; and William P.Kelly, provost and professor of English, The Graduate Center.

Moderator: Michael Anderson, senior editor at the New York Times Book Review.

A near capacity crowd of more than 200 people gathered at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York in Manhattan March 18 to listen to a panel discussion about the impact and importance of Elvis Presley.

For more than two hours an attentive audience listened as a trio of cultural commentators and Presley historians discussed and debated the reasons behind the Elvis phenomenon. The program called "Young Elvis: the Man and the Movement" was part of a larger historical series sponsored by the New York Times centered around the 1950s as part of their monthly Times' Talk discussion series.

As the most important icon from that decade Elvis was certainly worthy of the honor said Moderator Michael Anderson, Senior Editor of the New York Times' Book Review. "Elvis Presley was a 1950s mover and shaker and a wonderful subject for the discussion of the scholars that we have here tonight."

The assembled scholars Presley Biographer Peter Guralnick, Camille Paglia a University Professor and cultural theoretician, William Kelly Provost and Senior Vice President of the CUNY Graduate Center, had one mission according to Anderson: "(To determine) what was it about him that turned on this entire country, that had us all swiveling our hips? What was it that made him a legend that won't die?"

Anderson got the discussion started with a clip of Elvis' legendary performance on the Milton Berle show in 1956. (This was not the only Elvis music heard as the Sunrise CD was played while the crowd entered. "Talk about a hard act to follow," said Kelly to many laughs after the clip (loudly applauded by the crowd).

Anderson prompted the group to discuss the controversy that surrounded the original performance. Guralnick, the author of Last Train to Memphis: the Rise of Elvis Presley and Careless Love: the Unmaking of Elvis Presley, brought the surprise of the evening when he pointed out that the Berle show marked the first real controversy of Elvis' career. "Elvis had never been criticized (publicly) until his appearance on this show," he said. "(Prior to the appearance) he was getting all generations at his shows and they were taking it as you took it- as fun."

He stated that film clips of the time of Elvis performing in the south show parents and their children enjoying the show. According to Guralnick much of the outrage directed at Presley was due to the northern media's ignorance of southern culture. "Anybody who went to an all night black gospel program (in the south) would have seen something as vital as this maybe more so."

Paglia, author of groundbreaking tracts of cultural analysis like Sexual Personae : Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, said part of the northern media's repulsion came from the fact that Elvis' early movements seemed to blur the lines between the genders. "(Unaware of their origins) the northern media processed his moves as strip tease moves, as female moves," she said. "This was a big culture shock for people in the north."

Kelly, who has written several articles on Presley and pop culture agreed noting that Elvis was also the target of hostility because he did not fit into any previous definition of what a musician should be. "Elvis is bringing together and crossing a lot of wires, high and low culture sexuality and the church," he said. "The regional audience didn't find this so appalling because they were so used to it."

Paglia, a teenager in the 50s who at times became almost flustered in some of her descriptions, remembered the effect that Presley's early moves and style had on young people in those days. "It was the Betty Crocker 50s," she said. "Then all of a sudden this enormous wave of Dionyesian energy came out of Elvis and his imitators."

She noted that Presley in particular brought young women into sexual awareness as well as the culture at large. "It was Elvis who let that jack-in-the-box out," said Paglia. "The gigantic stream of sexuality that was unleashed in the second half of the 20th century-for good or for bad- it was Elvis that let that out."

Elvis' ascent also had far reaching effects on attitudes as well as on sex. While Guralnick said that the contribution of Elvis and his contemporaries, with their mixtures of black and white musical traditions on race relations could not be quantified, the music they made helped to move the dialogue forward. "The way in which this music entered into the mainstream couldn't help but change minds."

He did point out that the success of Presley and the vision of Sun Records' founder Sam Phillips opened mainstream radio waves for the first time to the music of African-Americans. "This gave performers like Little Richard, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley opportunities they didn't have before," said Guralnick. "Maybe they didn't get as much recognition as they deserved but all of these performers became pop artists (instead of strictly R&B) because this field got opened up by this."

In the same train of though Guralnick pointed out though that Elvis nor any other performer invented rock and roll. He noted that Billboard Magazine had been writing about the integration of musical styles that would become rock and roll several years before the King's arrival. "There was this very strong articulation that something was on the way, that there was going to be this melding of cultures," he said. "This is not to say that Elvis was not the perfect agent for this change. But with or without Elvis this was going to happen. It was a musical and cultural force that was moving ineluctably towards that end."

What made Presley's version of that melding of cultures so compelling and profound was the subject of some of the evening's most spirited discussion. "It's going on 50 years and these songs have lost absolutely none of their freshness and power," said Paglia who noted that staying power was a hallmark of great art. "It's been played and it's been played, it's so familiar and it still sounds like it was made yesterday."

The outspoken cultural analyst remembers the effect Elvis' first hit "Heartbreak Hotel" had on her thinking. "It was the first sense that I had that rock and roll could be high art," said Paglia. "If you were to make a list of songs that are high art that song would be on it."

Paglia compared the downbeat blues/rocker to Italian Opera. "It was something to connect you to the cosmos. That was its impact."

Guralnick said that the reason Presley's work has such an effect on listener's is Presley's unique ability to connect on a one to one basis with the listener. "It's the ability to communicate in a way if you would be able to teach that you would be in possession of all the knowledge in the Universe."

According to Paglia an overlooked ingredient in Presley's musical stew is his emotional range which encompassed the dirtiest blues, the purest gospel, the hardest rock and delicate ballads. "There's just so much going on in him. It's a rainbow really," she said. "That's one of the reasons that's made the music last that sexuality and morality are all fused in his songs."

The pundit believes that music was a way for Presley to come to grips with all of these concepts. "For him music was a way of sorting things out psychologically. He lived in music. He was his fullest and best self in music."

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