I’ve never given much thought to Elvis Presley. I guess I’ve just pictured him hanging out somewhere near the top of a list of “most overrated musical artists of all time.” But I recently acquired a three-disc record album called Elvis: 50 Years, 50 Hits (I got it for free) and have listened to it twice now, and I’ve come to a better-informed opinion. I still think that for someone called “the king of rock and roll,” he has a pretty poor output of actual rock and roll songs. I’ll give him “Hound Dog.” That’s a rock and roll song, and a good one. And he’s got a few others along the same lines, though not quite as good. But his repertoire largely consists of excruciatingly maudlin ballads and swoony doo-wop numbers. It’s the latter category I want to focus on in this post because in listening to them, I think I’ve discovered why Elvis makes women…well, swoon.
It’s the lyrics, first of all. The aforementioned “Hound Dog” has this wonderfully bitter refrain (“well, they said you was high-class/but that was just a lie”) that puts in it the same category as Bob Dylan’s triumphs of nasty schadenfreude (OMG, I just spelled that word without looking it up–high five to me), “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Idiot Wind.” But that song is an exception in more ways than one. Most of Elvis’s songs have a tone not of ill will but of a plea for good will. He creates this persona of a heart-bruised lover who’s been hurt in the past and who is now turning to the unnamed female addressee of the song (with whom many female listeners identify, not by accident) and asking her to be gentle. You don’t have to go any further than the titles of some of the songs to see this persona: “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Love Me Tender,” “One Broken Heart for Sale,” “I Beg of You.” It’s as if he says to each fan, “I’ve been hurt in the past, honey, but I know you won’t do that to me.” (I’m pretty sure that’s not an actual Elvis lyric, but it could be.)
And there’s something incredibly endearing about that. I won’t make an overgeneralization and say all women, but many women are attracted to a man who is hurt, whether physically or emotionally, and needs our help. The cynical interpretation of this phenomenon would be that we like the power this gives us over a man; the more generous interpretation would be that we (everybody, but especially women) have an innate desire to nurture and care for people. The truth is that it’s probably a combination of the two. I have no idea whether Elvis Presley gave conscious thought to the psychology of all this, but I think he instinctively knew these things.
There’s an implied subtext in most of this songs–occasionally made explicit, as in “(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear”–that goes something like this: “If you treat me gentle, baby, I’ll treat you gentle too.” (Shoot, I think I missed my calling as a songwriter.) And this message, I would add, is not only sweet but also essential in a culture like ours in which masculinity is often portrayed as mutually exclusive with kindness and tenderness. If that message is sentimental, maybe we need a little sentimentality.
Elvis didn’t write his own songs, but his songwriters did write to that image. He certainly played his role well–by the end too well as he became a maudlin imitation of himself. The 1970 Vegas comeback Elvis was indeed the first Elvis impersonator, getting close enough to the real thing to almost make it work….but being Elvis is not the same thing as being “almost” Elvis and it was that difference that ended up killing him. But in a strange way, his death proves the validity of your argument as his popularity with that class of fan could love him more because he essentially sacrificed himself for the tender sentimentality.
I had a feeling he didn’t write his own songs, but, as you explained, that doesn’t negate my argument. He still had to play the role.