Beyond Elvis

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.


Posted on August 18, 2013, in American Idol, music, public image. Bookmark the permalink. 22 Comments.

  1. Wonderful article, HG. Thank you! I didn’t know of Elvis’ racist comments but I’m glad to know.

  2. You brought tears to my eyes. I only wish David could see this.

  3. Very thought provoking post.

  4. Another great post. I was off the grid for a week on vacation. I decided to see what it is like for David without the Internet. We grow so accustom to instant news, social media, T.V., music, etc. I was camping with family and it was great to do as David’s song says, “Look Around” and enjoy nature. I had a great time. Now I have lots of catching up to do!

      • That’s one of the stupidest, stereotypical, trying too hard to be cute and hip blog posts I’ve read in quite a while. My sense of humor is pretty broad, but I find that blog devoid of humor – daresay it could be construed as bordering on racist. No offense to you for posting it, but if that’s what passes in Utah for cutting edge humor, it makes me give Utah and some of its inhabitants that find that funny a big side eye. This kind of nonsensical talk went out of fashion OVER a decade ago – kinda proving one of my beliefs that Utah is hopelessly behind the curve and times, and God help David if he continues to make it his musical home and inspiration after his mission.

      • Shanny in Australia

        Going by what was said on Snowangelzz, the article is a TRANSLATION of an old blog post using some online programme called Gizzoogle, which takes ANY web page and ‘translate’s’ the page into that type of speak. That link you read is a translation of a normal news article. Nothing to do with Utah being behind the curve.

      • I know it’s not PC, or even 100% funny, but I lol-ed at Dizzy Archuleta and why we now know that b–, Charice, wasn’t lying when she denied the “romizzle” between them, and how Archuleta is “still on his crazy-a– mission.” And I was amused that that article was still newsworthy enough to be “translated”.

  5. As an aside, going back to the last thread, my daughter and I cried all the way through The Butler. Great movie, IMO. I especially liked (and related to) the interplay between father and sons.

  6. HG, another amazing article. You make me think, and I really like that. So many articles we read anymore are just drivel, but yours are always thought provoking. I grew up in the 50’s and was around when Elvis came on the scene. He came to Louisville, KY, where I live, when I was 16, and my sister’s boyfriend took us to see him perform. The screaming was so loud you couldn’t really hear anything, but you could see him move. I have to be honest, I was unimpressed. I didn’t know he was so racist, but I’m not surprised, since he was from the South. My mother was from New Orleans, so I heard my share of unsavory racist remarks. I should add that I’m a 71 year old white woman, but I am also a Christian, and I truly believe if you follow Christ, you cannot be prejudiced. My parents were, and I always took offense at the use of certain words I heard coming from them. I have 3 grown sons. My middle son was married to a black woman for 17 years, and they have 2 precious sons, both of whom are serving in the armed forces, one Army the other Air Force. I couldn’t be prouder of them. As for David, his tearful reaction to the elimination of Alexandrea Lushington told me everything I needed to know about how he feels about racism. As for his singing, I think he’s so superior to Elvis, there’s no comparison. I guess Elvis just always rubbed me the wrong way. I have no specific reason for this, just not my taste in singers. David, however, I could listen to all day.

  7. Hi ladies and gentlemen, i did my first video, I want to share it with you, hope you like it.

  8. gladys appropriate song.. nice video and yes it IS a Wonderful World with David in it and I hope to see him sing it one day too like you did!

    HG David is so much more in my opinion too.

  9. “Wonderful”video gladys. Great job. Really enjoyed watching it.

  10. welcome back grammyj.

    kh, glad you and your daughter enjoyed the movie. during my college years, i worked at local country clubs via a catering service. i could really relate to the wait staff.

    gladys, nice video. i recall d in that stripped shirt when he was promoting his book.

    i know there’s controversy surrounding what elvis may or may not have said in the past. still, i like some of his music. my fav song by him is “kentucky rain”.

  11. Beauxcefus, there may be a misunderstanding. The original article from the Tribune is here:

    What cc did was post the url on the “Gizzoogle” website similar to what the Snowangelz did on their site. On the internet, there are other mock google browsers that convert posts/urls to red neck talk, california surfer talk, etc.

  12. Nice explanation desertrat. Glad that you posted it . I still find the Gizzoogle very funny. lol.

  13. potluck8google

    I wasn’t impressed with Gizzoogle either.

  14. Once again a wonderful thought provoking post. WOW, what a horrible racist remark from Elvis. If Elvis was alive and had a mega career going like he did in his time right now, I’m thinking that he would be in serious trouble (thank God) look what happen to Paula Dean.
    I’m with desertrat, I like a lot of Elvis’s songs, although that statement discusses me.
    The question is if you like an artist and they do/say something that you totally disapprove of, does his personal life taunt what you love about his professional career (his singing/songs).
    Everyone knows how strongly I feel towards what David is doing and a lot of things that he of course has to believe in order to do what he is doing, but until he crosses those things into his professional singing career, I will be a diehard fan.

  15. “…. if you like an artist and they do/say something that you totally disapprove of, does his personal life taunt what you love about his professional career (his singing/songs).”

    sometimes it does but most times it doesn’t; people aren’t perfect. then again, is their a such thing as a perfect or an ideal way to be? or, is that based upon each individual’s perception?

    for example, i don’t care if paula dean’s career picks up again. she was who i thought she was so there wasn’t any surprise. also, i think black america got their point across to her with those hilarious twitter hashtags #paulasbestdishes. if she gets why they were mocking her, that’s enough for me. i would never purchase her products but it doesn’t bother me if others chose to.

  16. HG, Thank you for this wonderful article! I really enjoyed it!

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