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Friday, March 25, 2022

March 25, 2022: Rock and Roll Groundbreakers: Elvis Presley (and Frank Sinatra)

[On March 21st, 1952, Cleveland Arena hosted the Moondog Coronation Ball, an event widely considered the first major rock and roll concert. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that concert and other groundbreaking rock and roll figures and stories, leading up to a special weekend post on 21st century rockers carrying the legacies forward!]

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 (as I argued at length in yesterday’s post) is that a great deal of early rock and roll, if not indeed the entire genre, 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.

Special post this weekend,


PS. What do you think? Other rock and roll pioneers you’d highlight?

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