It’s interesting how, on this weekend of Elvis Presley, David’s Twitter shared his tender performance of “Love Me Tender” on American Idol.
Way back in 2009, during the early days of Soul David, I posted a blog post called “Music and Race.” This is what I had to say about David and parallels made with Elvis Presley:
Over on The David Chronicles is a quite provocative post by Sandy Beaches, titled Elvis and David. It’s an inevitable post, actually, since many have commented that David is the new Elvis Presley (and when his widow Priscilla couldn’t help herself and stole a kiss, one would think this was indeed David’s initiation). Of course, I’ve also been hearing folks making the same comparisons between Elvis and Adam Lambert. Even Kanye West declared himself to be “the next Elvis” when he accepted an award at last year’s American Music Awards show. Elvis Presley is such an icon in American history, the poster boy for 20th-century American music, the “king” of rock-and-roll. If some of us see David stepping in as the next big “revolution” in music, I can understand the comparisons. But, here is where I take issue with these Elvis debates.
You see, I didn’t grow up on Elvis, so I don’t have big starry eyes when I look back at this icon. All I have is my mother, who once embraced his music – like so many other baby boomers – then did a quick halt when he was reported to have said, “The only use I have with colored people is for them to shine my shoes.” That’s what my mom told me about Elvis, and when – growing up on hip hop – Public Enemy hammered home the point in “Fight the Power” with such lyrics as “Elvis was a hero to most / But he never meant shit to me you see / Straight up racist he was / Simple and plain / Mother fuck him and John Wayne,” that pretty much killed any idolization of the “king,” as far as I’m concerned.
Enter my studies of popular music history and learning that the song that shot him to the top, “Hound Dog,” was a blues tune sung and recorded first by Big Mama Thornton. Big Mama Thornton was certainly not the first African American, nor would she be the last, to be limited in the music industry because of her race, while a white artist who can appropriate music based in the African American culture - most folks would just call it straight up stealing – can catapult his way to fame and superstardom. This acknowledgement in no way takes away from the raw talent that comes from an Elvis Presley, or the Beatles, or the Rolling Stones, or any of these cultural phenomena who freely borrowed from black culture and, because of the segregationist practices of the time, were able to inflect a more mainstream sound that allowed for their mega success.
This is a difficult topic, and one that I found wonderfully explored in a recent movie, Cadillac Records. This film didn’t get much attention, but it certainly was one of the more honest movies out there that is willing to address the racial politics that have shaped American popular music. Indeed, I’m working on an article about this issue, and I’ve seen how it has shaped even a show like American Idol. I for one did not overlook how, when David’s flawless, soulful vocals made him an early frontrunner, it took his main competitor and eventual victor, David Cook, appropriating popular songs rooted in African American music - Lionel Richie’s “Hello,” Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” and Mariah Carey’s “Always Be My Baby” – to move him full speed ahead with his own rock emo spin on these tunes. And just like that, media and audiences said things like, “Wow, how different! How unique! How original!” I’ve seen this dance before, so I just let out a big, gigantic YAWN. It was also not surprising when Kris Allen appropriated Kanye’s “Heartless” by rearranging it as an acoustic song, an arrangement that many credit his eventual win to. While artists have always appropriated various cultures – I mean, look at hip hop, which made an art form out of cultural theft (payback? heh), or what is called the “remix” – there is a way that certain artists are endowed with more power and privilege than others when operating within a cultural system that defines certain cultures as “mainstream” while others remain in the margins.
So, where does David Archuleta fit into this picture? I like to think that he transcends it. Keep in mind that David could have easily out-appropriated Cook on American Idol – what with his R&B-soul vocals – but he didn’t. Whatever genres were thrown his way, he kept his vocals pure with just a hint of his soul inflections. I’ve thought long and hard about this issue, actually, because no way would I have ever been able to embrace David’s music in my heart and my soul if I thought he was just another “white boy who could sing colored” (as Elvis was often referred to back in the day). True, I’ve heard some people of color refer to David as a “blue-eyed soul singer” but 1)his eyes are hazel not blue (a technical argument, I know) and 2)David does not sound like a “blue-eyed soul singer.” He sounds like the real thing to me.
See, this is where I make distinctions between borrowing, stealing, appropriating, and doing your own thang. While Elvis (or to be fair, his management) would never acknowledge a Big Mama Thornton, David doesn’t hesitate to give his shout-outs to the Tamyra Grays and the Kirk Franklins. He recognizes the influences in his vocal stylings, and he gives credit where it is due. He transcends race and gender here, because, few men I know are willing to give credit to the women whose styles influenced their art. More than that, David doesn’t try to sound like soul, he just sings it. And regardless of the music genre, he embodies that soul musical sense without imitation, without borrowing. He has somehow made it his own.
Another issue for me with these Elvis debates is this: Elvis Presley and that whole era are part of a past of Jim Crow Segregation, Civil Rights, and Colonial/Cold-War Struggles. I hesitate to dig up an old icon from the 20th century to make sense of a 21st-century one. I myself have been extremely skeptical whenever someone uses the term “Post-racial,” especially given the recent election of President Obama. However, I do champion a Post-Racist society, and I believe David has the ability to model this and emerge as the Voice of such a generation. Someone so giving, so kind, so sincere, and so embracing of diversity – we see it in the company he keeps and in the music he listens to – should be able to represent a different kind of music revolution.
Sure, there is the charisma, the appeal, and that Voice – all qualities that made Elvis Presley endearing back in the day. But, with David Archuleta, at least we get all that without the racial baggage. Better yet, we get all that with the acceptance and full appreciation for racial diversity. And in my book, that means there is no comparison.