By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 6, 2010; C01
The reviews were in, and they weren't kind. A New York TV critic called him "unspeakably untalented and vulgar." Another newspaper described his singing style as "howling and yowling." The New York Times, with regal disdain, declared him "the virtuoso of hootchy-kootchy."
It might have been the best thing that could have happened to a young singer named Elvis Presley.
To the good Kiwanis Club burghers of Eisenhower-era America, Presley was something alien and threatening when he burst onto the national consciousness in the mid-1950s: A poor Southern boy with blatant sexual appeal who sang a new kind of unholy (that is, "Negro") music called rock-and-roll. The nation's news media were only too eager to express their shock and to heap their contempt on the new phenomenon.
The overwrought notices the young Presley elicited from the media form the foundation of a new exhibit at Washington's Newseum, "Elvis! His Groundbreaking, Hip-Shaking, Newsmaking Story." Timed to the 75th anniversary of Elvis's birth, the exhibit says as much about the moral framework of the time -- and the mainstream media's reflected guardianship of it -- as it does about the rise of the "sideburned hillbilly" singer, as one journalist described him.
Then as now (and possibly more then than now), newspapers were instruments of middle-class propriety, deeply invested in the status quo. Then as now (and especially now), they were edited by and for adults, not the teenagers who were wild for Elvis. While not every story about Elvis was damning, the press generally knew whom it was writing for.
"Presley is a 21-year-old young man who makes more than $40,000 a week for rockin' from his heels and rollin' his suggestive songs," scoffed the New York Journal American in the second part of a series on "the controversial rock n' roll craze" in June 1956. "He puts on the kinds of shows that make young girls violently excited and adults violently angry. 'He ought to be banned!' is a frequent suggestion among shocked members of the older generation who have observed his seductive gestures on stage and TV."
An Associated Press story reproduced in the exhibit quotes a music critic who said Elvis "had not even the quality of true obscenity, merely an artificial and unhealthy exploitation of the enthusiasm of youthful bodies and minds. One could call it subsidized sex."
The Los Angeles Times' TV critic dismissed Elvis's first appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show" this way: "Incidentally, most of the adults I talked to who saw the show turned on Presley purely out of curiosity just to see what all the shoutin' was about. And most of them are still wondering."
Life magazine's photo spread on Elvis mania included a picture of teenagers praying for Elvis'ssalvation after their pastor had told them he had achieved "a new low in spiritual degeneracy." A Catholic magazine warned its readers, "Beware Elvis Presley."
The Newseum has abetted clips of the Elvis media frenzy with an assortment of items borrowed from the singer's Graceland estate -- a bejeweled cape and jumpsuit from his later, and fatter, Vegas years, a leather jacket and 1957 Harley motorcycle, the velvet jacket he wore to the White House when he met President Nixon for their famous photo op. The tchotchkes are glitzy, in a Hard Rock Cafe-style way, but don't add much to the underlying media narrative. On the other hand, who'd want to look at a bunch of old newspaper and magazine stories?
An important question, unexplored in the exhibit, is what might have happened had the media ignored, or even approved of, the early Elvis? It seems doubtful that the kids would have gone quite as mad if Mommy and Daddy (or their proxies at the newspapers) had found him every bit as fantabulous as they did. It's possible that Elvis might have been another Gene Vincent or Eddie Cochran -- a short-lived star.
Angie Marchese, director of Graceland's archives, says the early media reaction helped certify Elvis's rebel image, cementing his place among his young fans. The controversy was good for Elvis, Marchese says in an interview, because it defined what he and rock-and-roll were not -- that is, "adult" music.
If print panned Presley, television moved cautiously to make the most out of him. Elvis's first big splash, on "The Milton Berle Show" in June1956, caused the usual blowback: Thousands of calls and letters of protest poured in. A few days later, Elvis was booked on the prime-time "Steve Allen Show," during which Allen, mindful of the earlier controversy, had Elvis sing a sedate version of "Hound Dog" to an actual hound dog, both as a joke and a media stunt.
Until then, Sullivan, the king of prime-time TV, had declined to book Presley on his program, saying the singer wasn't his "cup of tea." But Sullivan changed his tune after Elvis's appearance on Allen's show, which aired directly opposite Sullivan's and had soundly beaten him in the ratings that night. Sullivan subsequently paid Presley an unheard of $50,000 for three appearances that fall. When the first two appearances generated more outrage, CBS's censors ordered Sullivan's cameramen to shoot Presley only from the waist up, adding to his legend.
That might have been the high- (or low-) water mark for Elvis the Controversial. The media's hostility began to recede over the next couple of years, perhaps due in part to exhaustion and in part because of a calculated career rebranding engineered by "Colonel" Tom Parker, Elvis's predatory but ingenious manager.
You can see the tide start to turn in the Newseum exhibit around the time Elvis received his Army draft notice in 1957. Rather than let his meal-ticket slip into anonymity on a military base in Germany, Parker repackaged Elvis as a patriot, the all-American boy, and marshaled the media. When Elvis reported for duty in 1958, his weigh-in and first Army haircut were major events. In a particular bit of calculation, Parker had Elvis make and unmake his cot dozens of times so that cameras could record him on a "typical" day.
Within a couple of years, the wild and dangerous rocker would be back in Technicolor, churning out dozens of kitschy movies like "Viva Las Vegas." The leather jackets were gone. Elvis, thanguvurrymush, had gone mainstream. And the news media, as they often do, moved on to the next threat to our way of life.