Elvis, MTV, & the Future of Rock ‘N Roll

Posted: August 25, 2011 by Bill Gauthier in Music
Tags: , , , , ,

August 16th marked the 34th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death. His death is a milestone for me because in a strange way: I was born eight days later. I suppose those who were born on the actual date and all of us born the week or so preceding and succeeding his death are all in the same boat on this, especially if their parents were fans. My father, born in 1941, was an Elvis fan. He wasn’t a fan in the sense that he owned every album or went to concerts or read books about the man, but when an Elvis song came on the radio, he’d listen. He liked Presley’s voice. My mother, born in 1950, did own some of Elvis’s music, but she was more of a Beatles girl than an Elvis girl. By the time she was a teenager, Elvis was already past his craze period and the British Invasion was in full swing. Still, she loved music (and still does) and to dance, and Elvis was a part of the legacy of rock ‘n roll and she knew it. The news of his death shocked them as much as it did the rest of the world. Dad went out and bought magazines, newspapers (mostly National Enquirers) in the days and weeks following Elvis’s death. (I recently received many of these papers).

The local newspaper for August 17, 1977.

I don’t know why I disregarded Elvis for so long, and am still not much of a fan. Perhaps it was natural, being part of being part of The Next Generation and all. You always think that the preceding generation’s idols are old and not worthy of your adoration. Maybe it was the history of the King of Rock ‘N Roll and his descent into (seeming) madness, wearing capes, visiting Presidents, etc., that made me disregard Elvis. Maybe it’s just that I don’t dig him. Whatever it was, I realized this past week (I’m writing the first draft of this on August 19th) that I’ve never really given Elvis a chance. The generational thing only stood up until my teenage years, when I “discovered” The Beatles and have since made many other such “discoveries,” from The Rolling Stones (Mom isn’t a fan) to the power of Motown to Billy Joel, Elton John, and (you were waiting for this) Bruce Springsteen. So that leaves the other two reasons (excuses?) on why I’ve resisted Elvis so long. So this week when I really put the subconscious to work on this (yes, I consciously put the subconscious to work) the closest to an answer I have came: I’ve grown up in the shadow of Elvis’s death and I don’t like it.

I’ve always known Elvis was dead and that he died right before my birthday. I knew that even before I knew my birthname was William! (For the first three or four years of my life, I was called Billy almost exclusively). My mother would often say, “Maybe you’re the reincarnation of Elvis.” This was silly because she doesn’t believe in reincarnation. It became even sillier because I have no musical ability whatsoever.

Alfred Wertheimer's classic photo "Going Home", 1956.

When I was sixteen or seventeen, I saw an Elvis calendar at the bookstore I worked at and the cover captured me. It was Young Elvis, and presumably taken while on the road. He’s sitting and looking at the camera. He was a good looking young man, and was young enough to still have that hungry look that people so respond to in artists. But there was something in the eyes that moved me. It was as though, on the road, maybe in the height of Elvis-mania, as he was knocking down walls of music, taking Black music and bringing it into the living rooms (and, even worse to the old folk, the bedrooms) of White teenagers of the 1950s, he knew what would happen. His eyes almost say to me that he knows his life will never be the same, for better or worse, but most likely worse.

That still didn’t get me to listen to him. To be honest, I’m really listening to him for the first time right now. I have Elvis Radio playing on my SiriusXM Internet Radio. Now, that’s not to say that I have never heard Elvis music, or even like it. I love “Jailhouse Rock.” “Hound Dog” isn’t too bad, either. I like “Are You Lonesome Tonight” and “I Can’t Help Falling In Love with You” and “Blue Christmas.” I know “Blue Suede Shoes.” Yeah, that’s probably about it. I’m finding I like his rockabilly songs.

The talk of the anniversary of Elvis’s death came from my subconscious this morning dragging with it the dying beast that is MTV. Even though I’d heard plenty of music before we got cable (like I said, my mother loves music–there was always music on in the house) the first music to turn me on was from the pop heyday of MTV.

We were one of the last people I knew who got MTV because we just didn’t have the money for cable. When we finally got it, the two channels neither Mom nor I could wait to dig into were MTV and HBO. I was about six years old. This was the time that Michael Jackson released Thriller, and in the immediate years following, MTV introduced me to Hall & Oates, Madonna, Huey Lewis and the News, Cyndi Lauper, Billy Joel, Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, The Cars, Mick Jagger, David Bowie, Tina Turner, Billy Idol, The Go-Go’s, Prince, “Weird Al” Yankovich, and others that I’ll remember after I post this. But goddamn! did MTV change things for me. All of a sudden, my mother was buying music (45s and then cassettes) that sort of interested me because I’d seen it on TV. And there was an attitude to the videos that were so…rock ‘n roll. In the post-punk early 1980s, there was a feeling that every artist on MTV, and the VJs, and whatever guests they had on (did I mention Van Halen above? No. Well, now I have) was giving a big ol’ “Fuck you!” to The Man, whomever that may be at the time.

For me, being six years old and seeing Twisted Sister yelling into the camera that they weren’t gonna take, no, they weren’t gonna take it, they weren’t gonna take it anymoooorrrre was amazing, especially since I was always in trouble at that time. Always. I was my neighborhood’s Dennis the Menace or Bart Simpson, and though my love of movies was the center of everything, the attitude that came from MTV orbited and fed me. Who needed Elvis when you had MTV?

Of course, I wasn’t aware that I was witnessing the death of rock ‘n roll radio. I wasn’t aware that I was witnessing the homogenization of music into something that only the beautiful people could do, that the radio–which was already broadcasting more and more stations with less and less programming–would begin to base their format on the slickness of MTV so it could sell more advertising. I wasn’t aware that Michael Jackson’s success would take that brand of pop music–big shows, giant dance numbers, strange costumes–and dominate popular music even nearly-thirty years later with acts like Lady Gaga and Katy Perry.

The modern pop concert includes singing, dancing, and shiny costumes.

It took a while but eventually success did to MTV what it did to Elvis. MTV had a good fifteen years where it did what it set itself up to do: play new music and introduce different forms of music. Maybe I’m giving it a gift of those last five years of the fifteen, because the introduction of the game shows and series on MTV began as early as the late-1980s, but I don’t think so. Yo! MTV Raps was instrumental in the rise of rap music and brought names like Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Naughty By Nature, and–most importantly–Public Enemy into the living rooms of kids like me, who found something in the music that spoke to them, just as MTV helped the hair bands of the mid-80s, the metal bands that grew from there, and the grunge movement. The video for Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is actually better than the song and it helped propel what became known as alternative music (which is a bullshit name, I say. Alternative to what, precisely? It may smell like Teen Spirit, but it sounds like rock ‘n roll to me).

Of course, while video killed the radio star (c’mon, you’ve been waiting for me to fit that in since I began writing about MTV), even the monolithic power of TV couldn’t withstand the power of the next technology that would turn the media on its head and the populace further into lemmings content with whomever is spouting nonsense the loudest. With the internet not only becoming popular, but becoming more accessible with each passing moment, the way people got music changed.

But you know this. You know the power of the internet because you’re reading this.

I just replaced my old, deadish iPod with a fancy new iPod Touch. Part of the future of music.

Which leads me, finally, to the future of rock ‘n roll. My definition of rock ‘n roll is pretty similar to that of the classic Billy Joel song: It’s [all] rock ‘n roll to me. As has been the case with everything since just before 2000, the chasms between different music genres are growing. In the same way that people who like one genre of literature, one political viewpoint, one social idea, one religious belief can block out any opposing or different idea or viewpoint because in the this age of 300+ channels on TV, access to the internet, various periodicals that only deal with a single topic, lovers of a specific musical genre, or a single musician, never has to deal with The Other Stuff if they don’t want to. Terrestrial radio is so concerned about making money from ad revenue, that you essentially have pop, classic rock, R&B, hip-hop, oldies, and talk radio–which is predominantly right wing propaganda and nutcases. And commercials. So many commercials. NPR is primarily the luxury of big cities. Of course, internet radio and satellite radio are better choices for diversity. Being a subscriber to SiriusXM, I can attest to how much I love it. There are so many ways for me to hear new music in a variety of genres just by switching stations. Still, wanna know what my favorite station is? E Street Radio. Which means I listen, predominantly to Bruce Springsteen, just like I would on iTunes or my iPod (which has the SiriusXM app on it). Still, I have been adventurous and tried out other stations, like Little Steven’s Underground Garage, which could be called Rock ‘N Roll 101. It is very diverse and I’ve heard a lot of great music from that station. The Spectrum is another great station. I played the Real Jazz station the other day, too. (Since I’m dealing with music, I won’t mention the non-music stations I listen to, but I’m sure you can figure it out).

It’s in the satellite and internet radio where I think the future of rock ‘n roll lies. That and social media sites. MySpace was once good at discovering new music. Now Facebook and Twitter are pretty good. But let’s face it, the way music is listened to, and the way musicians are going to get the brass ring, are going to be different than they used to be. Record/CD sales are at an all-time low and every artist who is asked about how sales are will tell you that their income comes from performing live, rather than sales of their music.

Which makes me wonder, will there ever be another Elvis Presley? Could there be?

Not to be a Negative Nancy, but I don’t think so. I hope I’m wrong, but I can’t imagine a family sitting and listening to the same music on the radio, watching the same new star on TV, and having the way music is presented change because of that one person. We’re living in the future now, a future that seems to be paved by the plastic and silicon of technology, and I don’t know that any one person can warm that cold, artificial terrain.

  1. D says:

    Even though MTV has broken away from their original “Music Television” mold, you can’t argue the fact that they are still an immensely influential part of today’s youth (for better or worse). God knows the Jersey Shore, despite every single cast members lack of any real talent, or morals, has had a dumbfounded effect on many young people and the way they perceive real life. I know we’ve all heard someone reference the lame excuse for a dance, the now infamous fist-pump. Well at least MTV attempts to negate their Jersey Shore damage by airing shows like 16 and Pregnant to try and dissuade kids from following the destructive paths of those Jersey jackasses in their self-destructive natures. And then we have shows like Cribs that make us working class citizens feel like we’re the crusty leftovers of a slopbucket because we can’t afford to build an indoor basketball court, bowling alley or indoor skate park in our average, non-fortress sized houses!
    Still the fact that MTV has hardly a trace of what brought them into popularity, aside from some late night/early morning programming, is a bit disconcerting. I know this has been said by shitloads of MTV purists and music video lovers but I’ll say it anyway… Shouldn’t they at least change their name to reflect their modern-day programming? Guess I’ll just have to be like everyone else these days and watch scantily dressed pop stars shake their stuff in their meat suits and Japanese faux pas on YouTube on my dinky little laptop screen.

  2. Bill Gauthier says:

    D, I never said MTV doesn’t still have an influence on current pop culture, I said it’s a dying beast. And I really don’t mean to beat the “Why doesn’t MTV change its name since it doesn’t play music videos anymore?”, which always rings to me like a Jerry Seinfeld joke. There are other MTVs out there on cable/satellite systems for one to watch music videos on the TV. Maybe someday I’ll devote a post to the reality TV genre, since I remember the beginnings of The Real World.

    The dying part of my comment refers to the death of what it once was. Like Bravo was once a channel with interesting programming about the arts, and The Sci-Fi Channel was a channel for us mutants who like imaginative literature, movies, and other assorted things. Like how the Discovery Channel showed educational shows and The Learning Channel did the same, albeit in a different way.

    The homogenization of television is something that leaves me cold, and it always drives me back to reading and going online, where I can make my own television channel by watching what I want to watch. If it was my choice, I’d get rid of most of my cable channels and stick to Netflix, Hulu, and YouTube, as well as other websites.

    Thanks for posting!

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