Liner Notes: The King and The Jester

While doing some research for this week’s Liner Notes I came across an interesting article on a blog I used to write for called Dog On A Root. Author Jim Young has recently written a convincing argument venting his frustrations on Elvis Presley’s undeserved designation as “The King of rock ‘n roll.” While I find myself disagreeing with Jim’s point of view on most of the topics he decides to discuss on Dog On A Root, I must admit that his position on Presley’s misnomer is one with which I am in agreement. I have written a lot on the foundations of Hip Hop and Indie recently, and have not discussed the roots of rock ‘n roll in quite some time. Using Young’s article, titled Dethroning The King of Rock ‘n Roll, I want to add my thoughts on how Elvis came to be recognized as the “King,” what injustices this delivers to some of the other contributors in the shift of American music that took place in the late forties and early fifties, and how the problem lies in the assumed notion of the term rather than the term itself. 

Young starts off his article with a very valid question: “Can someone please explain to me how Elvis was ever crowned the King of rock ‘n roll?” While my answer can be argued from many different angles, the best response I can provide to this very open-ended question is this: “Elvis earned such a title as a result of appearing in the public eye at a time when America was desperate to invent their own unique and independent national identity.”

In the years immediately following World War II, the U.S. found themselves suddenly at the centre of a transforming global culture. This gave rise to a very important question in need of an equally important response: ‘What does it mean to be American?’ For a country that had been quickly projected into the cultural spotlight, and who had yet to come to terms with its own racial politics, Elvis Presley provided the perfect iconic spokesperson–an all-American country boy, with good-looks and small-town charm, and yet who embodied the gusto to perform country and rhythm ‘n blues music with African American swagger. This combination of a white American hero in touch with his fetishization for African American subcultural gave voice and image to the new American identity–in my opinion, an image that still very much exists today (look at Eminem and The Black Keys as examples).

I feel Young’s re-designation of Presley to ‘court jester’ is an accurate and intelligent one. I agree with the reassignment and explanation he provides to his reader: “Not unlike a court jester, Elvis was a GREAT entertainer with a GREAT voice.” However, I feel Young goes too far when he remarks, “[b]ut let’s face it. [sic] That’s all he was and that’s all he contributed to rock ‘n roll.”

Elvis offered more to rock ‘n roll and the American identity than pure entertaining and smooth vocals. Following this logic, one could have a substantial argument for over 90 percent of rock ‘n roll legends offering nothing more to American culture than ‘entertainment.’ If Young is saying that Presley wasn’t “innovative” enough to earn the handle “King” (which is what I think he is saying), his argument weakens. I agree with Elvis lacked innovativeness and originality, but not all Kings are necessarily inventive or groundbreaking; nor do they have to be. What they are responsible for is the leadership of their subjects. Therefore, it is not so much that Elvis being labeled as “King of rock ‘n roll” is a misnomer as it is how the public interprets what this moniker means.

People too easily associate Elvis Presley as the King of rock ‘n roll to mean that he invented it. This is the crux of Young’s argument; the beef he has with the term and the common understanding of the term’s meaning. Young feels “[t]here are many other much more deserving contenders for the crown of King of rock ‘n roll such as Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl  Perkins, and of course Chuck Berry.” I think he is right; I just have a problem with his language. What I argue is that there are many “more deserving contenders” who should be identified as the innovators of rock ‘n roll ahead of Elvis–and the artists Young names is a great place to start. So while we agree in the base principal of the notion, it is the terminology Young resists, whereas it is the public’s perceived association of what the term means to which I resist. In other words: I am fine with calling him “King”; I am not okay with what most people think “King” to mean.

As ‘King,’ Elvis Presley brought African American rhythm and blues to white audiences across the country; he pushed the envelope of acceptability on prime-time radio and in mainstream television and performance; and he helped to secure the mythology of the postcolonial American identity. In short, he “delivered the message to his subjects” and the whole world bought in. However, like Young, I agree that he was a mere “spokesperson for the composers of his songs;” he was adorned a crown not based on his achievements; and he was merely a “performer” with a message unwritten by him but by the African American and country and western subcultures that made up the cultural landscape from which he came (namely Tupelo, Mississippi and Memphis, Tennessee).

Young ends his article requesting that Chuck Berry reclaim the crown that is rightfully his. I cannot emphasize enough my agreement with Young’s frustration and sentiments that Presley receives all the attention of ‘King’ while performers like Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Ike Turner, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Roy Brown (only to name a few) for the most part go unnoticed. I only feel that rather than transpose the crown, let us focus on exposing the other members of court as more influential than the man whose face gets painted on the royal portrait. I know Jim Young personally, and I therefore expect him to agree with me when I pose the notion that King and Jester are interchangeable terms.

I guess when it’s all said and done, I am actually doing a terrible job of responding to the article because what I am really doing is answering the question with a question: Are all Kings not really mere court jesters of their own monarchy anyhow?

 

Link to this article:

– Kory French

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