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Tuesday, February 17, 2015

February 17, 2015: AmericanStudying Non-Favorites: Sinatra and Elvis

[Last year, I followed the Valentine’s series with a complementary series analyzing some of the things that just don’t quite do it for me. It was pretty popular, including my biggest crowd-sourced post to date, so this year I’m repeating the series—and repeating the request for your non-favorites for a crowd-sourced post in which we’ll air some grievances!]
On the differences between influential and interesting, and why even the former can be problematic.
It seems to me that you can’t tell the story of American popular music in the 20th century—and thus the story of American popular music period—without including Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley in prominent roles. Indeed, given each man’s forays into acting, entrepreneurship, and other cultural and social arenas, I’m not sure you could leave them out of a broader 20th century history of America either. In their own ways, and in their own particular, most successful periods (Sinatra’s career extended well into Presley’s, of course, but he was at his most successful in its first couple decades, between 1935 and about 1955; Presley rose to prominence in the mid 1950s and was at his peak from then until about 1970), the two artists dominated their respective musical genres time and again, leaving legacies that extend well beyond record sales or awards (although both are among the most successful artists of all time as measured in those ways as well).
So I wouldn’t necessarily argue with definitions of Sinatra and Elvis as among the most influential musical artists of all time (although I might, in a moment, argue that point too). But influential isn’t the same as interesting, and on that score both artists fall short for me. Partly that’s just about taste and how there’s, y’know, no accounting for it (de gustibus, non est disputandum, as our Roman friends knew); I’m not a big fan of either crooners or rockabilly, and thus likely outside of the ideal audience for either man’s biggest hits or signature styles. But my point here isn’t simply about my personal tastes, which I don’t expect are hugely interesting either—I’m thinking as well about the nature of the men’s mainstream popularity and prominence. Despite the unquestionable (if, in retrospect, very silly) controversy over Presley’s hips, that is, I would argue that both men succeeded as consistently as they did because they were largely unobjectionable, hitting cultural sweet spots with regularity in a way that doesn’t seem as interesting as artists who push the envelope or challenge norms.
Moreover, I’m not sure that describing these two artists as influential is entirely justified either. After all, a significant percentage of both men’s songs were written by other songwriters or were covers of other artists; clearly their stunning voices and signature styles played a prominent role in making the songs as successful as they were, but I don’t know that simply singing and performing someone else’s songs qualifies an artist as influential. To be clear, I’m not trying to rehash the old argument about Presley exploiting African American music; that issue is part of the Elvis story to be sure, but the truth is that a great deal of early rock and roll crossed racial and cultural boundaries. Instead, I’m simply trying to differentiate between what we might call performers and artists, and to argue that those whom we would locate in the former category (such as two men whose most consistent successes were as performers singing others’ words, or similarly as actors reciting others’ lines) might be more important than they were influential or interesting.
Next non-favorite tomorrow,

PS. What do you think? Other non-favorites you’d share for the weekend post?

1 comment:

  1. I have never found the magic of Orson Welles' _Citizen Kane_, but I sure as hell faked it! While the cinematography, lighting and set construction are honestly very ground-breaking and in some scene profound, the acting is grandious or monotonous, and story arch is highly predictable. And why is it such a big fracking deal that he mutters "rosebud"? Okay, yup, he's acknowledging the fact that his simple roots of the earth childhood was thrown out the window and he was surrendered body and soul to be raised by a bank (okay, that's just a dumb idea), and at the end of his life his great wealth (which BTW was supposed to have disappeared if anyone was actually paying attention to that one scene but for some reason he kept on being ridiculously rich... like giraffe owning rich!) is of no real emotional value as he was abandoned to a world that reduced him to a simple extension of the collection he surrounded (and buried himself in) with. Welles is an okay actor, but to be honest, I can see how Futurama reduces him to Calculon, because, yeah! The other actors are trying to do a good job but the heavy-handed direction of the "boy genius" has truly great actors looking like they are all dead behind the eyes. The script runs the gamut of a to b! Boy gets it all, boy loses it all, boy drops dead. The only reason we all sit around wetting ourselves over how good this movie was is because Hurst (Kane) created an enormous stink over the release and got it thrown out of theaters immediately. I will say he was sexy as hell as the Shadow though. Yes please. :)
    Meanwhile if I had said any of this during my film program I think I would have been beaten to death. It's like Lost in Translation. I get it, Scarlet Johanssen is amazing to look at, and a really good actress, but that movie was fracking horrible.