Elvis Presley had a remarkable music career that made him one of the most popular singers in the music history. His iconic voice, handsome looks, smooth moves, and charismatic personality has set the tone for a brand new era of entertainment. With his music, he can mesmerize people with a gospel song, serenade with a ballad, energize with rock-and-roll, belt out a country tune, and make then move their hips and legs like never before.
Everyone remembers the Las Vegas Elvis for his iconic, karate-inspired white jumpsuit, but don’t let it define the King. Elvis Presley had a remarkable, cultural impact on America, and probably the world. Here are some of the ways he influenced pop culture:
He broke down racial barriers in music
During a time when racial segregation was the norm, Elvis Presley shocked America by owing his talents to black artists. As a fan of early blues artists like B.B. King, Fats Domino, Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, and Ivory Joe Hunter, Presley wanted to share black music to the world. Presley’s first single was a cover of Crudup’s “That’s All Right,” and much of his original songs were written in blues progressions. Presley himself insisted on hiring Claude Demetrius as his songwriter, which resulted to the dramatic shift in the music industry.
At first, his music bothered people due to racial barriers. Black DJs did not want to play his music because he was white, and when DJs actually play his music, people often thought he was black. But nevertheless, Presley allowed African-American music to be accessible to the white American youth who was never exposed to it. Eventually, the society had Elvis Presley to thank for letting black music through. He played a significant role in the integration of whites and African Americans.
He brought a new genre of music
Elvis Presley is known as the King of Rock and Roll. He was a performer who kicked off a musical revolution by modernizing traditional genres such as country and blues for contemporary audiences. He had a sound and style that combined his diverse musical influences. Presley was able to integrate rhythm and blues, country music, and gospel and created what is known as rock-and-roll.
Elvis can alter his voice to suit every song. He can sing deep ballads to rockabilly tunes, and his diverse musical range is what made him appealing. His uniqueness is hard to duplicate, even if he’s the legend who had too much impersonators.
When Elvis emerged in the mid-fifties, it was so sudden, and the music was so fresh that it cannot be labeled or contained in the existing genres of music. America has never heard or seen anyone like him, and they adored it. Elvis brought in his guitar, trashed the piano, and coupled it with his hillbilly country twang. People went crazy, and there hasn’t been a mania quite like Presley. Rock and roll has been brewing for years before Elvis emerged, but he became the defining moment that changed its history forever. Since then, countless other subgenres of rock emerged.
He defined the “proper” rock-and-roll behavior
Music has always been a fascination and a passion for Elvis. As a child, he ran to the altar so he can be closer to the choir. All three of his Grammy awards were for his gospel work. Ironically, he ruffled the feathers of religious groups, who were concerned about the well-being of the Americans, particularly the youth. His pelvic thrusts, hip gyrations, fashion choices, and sexualized performances rendered him a pariah by the society. Performers never behaved that way, but today, such behavior is expected from rock stars. Someone had to be the first one to do so, and that was Elvis.
He shook up the world with his controversial dance moves
Today, it may seem that Elvis was loved and adored by all, but the singer was often the subject of controversy during his time. He provoked strong opinions among the press and the public. His performance-style and swagger consisted of overstated gyrations and other body movements that pushed the lines of what was acceptable with television sensors.
Elvis was labeled as a “sexhibitionist,” and his actions were called a “strip-tease with clothes on.” The movements were compared to riding a microphone and masturbation, so some saw the singer as a sexual pervert. His suggestive manner of performance was criticized by churches, claiming that his movements corrupted the minds of young Americans. Parents didn’t like him as well, and equated rock-and-roll with disobedience and delinquency.
Because of his unusually perverted manner of performing, there are people who attempted to restrict him. In 1956, a local juvenile court judge threated to arrest him if he shook his body while performing at the theatre, justifying this move by saying that his music and influence was undermining the youth of America. Presley stood still as ordered during his performance, but still poked fun at the judge by wiggling his finger. Other attempts to stop and sensor his “sinful gyrations” continued for more than a year, including his famous televised performance on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1957, where he was filmed only from the waist up because he refused to be restricted with his dance moves.
He challenged the social and moral values of their time
The biracial origins of rock-and-roll and Elvis’ prominent role in developing the genre led to accusations of cultural appropriation. Under the backdrop of racial discrimination, segregation, and the national movement for civil rights, the public resentment towards Elvis only escalated.
In the spring of 1956, Elvis Presley was fast becoming a national phenomenon. Teenagers would come into his concerts in unprecedented numbers. When Elvis began singing “Hound Dog,” crowds would scream, girls would shriek, and audiences would hyperventilate, literally. Anywhere he goes to perform, people would always react the same way.
But besides adoration from youthful fans, there has always been a riot in his performances. Reaction from teenage boys were frightening, and so many of them practically hated him. In Texas, a teenage gang fire-bombed Elvis’ car. Other performers became resentful that Presley would go perform before them, which they knew would kill their own act. At two concerts he performed at the 1956 Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show, there were a hundred National Guardsmen hired for crowd control to prevent any riot.
Some people considered him a threat to the moral well-being of young women, because of his sexually liberated manner of performing. Presley had an anti-parent outlook, and for many adults, the singer was the first rock symbol of teenage rebellion. He was unlike Bill Haley, a somewhat overweight rock artist who looked like everyone’s older brother. Parents impressed him as the visual and aural embodiment of sex, which is a threat to the innocence of their children.
A social historian said that Elvis’ “nigger music” was going to corrupt the youth of America. Musicians who have been giving people music that hit deep in their emotions, even below their belts, were always black. So his songs and performance style was usually criticized. His performances were always labeled as obscene, and he was considered a bad influence for teenage girls, as he aroused things in them that shouldn’t be aroused.
Because of his controversial style of performance and song choices, municipal politicians started to deny him permits for appearances. This caused teens to travel elsewhere to see him perform. Adult programmers did not play his music in radio stations due to religious convictions that his music was of the devil, and his music is “nigger music.” Many preachers warned congregations to stay away from rock-and-roll music and keep it away from their children’s ears.
Elvis challenged the social and moral values of the time, creating a generation able to have the freedom of expression. Seemingly bemused by all the criticism, he said, “I don’t see how they think my act can contribute to juvenile delinquency… I’ve tried to live a straight, clean life and not set any kind of a bad example. You cannot please everyone.”
His service to the US Army turned his bad publicity to a positive one
Although his rock-and-roll music is the defining factor of his life, Elvis has also had other important exploits that were not as well known. He served at the US Army from 1958 to 1960, at the peak of his career. His manager, known as “The Colonel,” attempted to get an exception for him, considering how the feat would affect his career. But instead of being given an exception to serve as a musical performer in the army, he chose to serve as a soldier instead. He had the choice to join special services, but he chose to take the route that many eligible young men were forced into.
Though it seems quite selfless and noble, this decision may have helped his career in the end. This was just what he needed to turn the bad publicity around. After his service, the American people would see him as more of a hero. His nobility and restraint in exercising privilege earned the respect of the public.
He was the godfather of bling
Elvis was born dirt-poor, at a wooden shack in the Deep South of America, and spent his childhood living a hand-to-mouth existence. But he rose from an impoverished childhood to live in luxury after he found monumental fame. When he scored his first Billboard number one, “Heartbreak Hotel,” at the age of 21, he was finally able to indulge his taste for flamboyant fashion. As Tommy Hilfiger once put it, Elvis was “the first white boy to really bling it up.”
He wore his bling spectacularly in 1957, when he sported a gold suit for the album cover of “50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t be Wrong.” The blinding suit communicated to the world that the once poor boy from Mississippi was ready to take his title as the golden boy of entertainment. The dazzling outfit costs $10,000, and it became a forerunner to bling culture.
Hip-hop stars followed suit, when they used flashy clothing and diamond-encrusted jewelry to show they’ve hit the big time. Rap’s love of bling is also obvious, and Elvis’ gold suit has become influential. A diverse range of entertainers including Tupac, Justin Bieber and Brandon Flowers have since sported the flashy suit.
He was a pioneering force for gender-fluid fashion
When Elvis birthed pop culture in the mid-fifties, he bent the gender rules of the time and encouraged young men to experiment with clothing, which was purely a pastime for females in the past. In a post-war era when conformity was the norm, Elvis disrupted the status quo with his fondness for bubble-gum pink clothing, lashings of mascara, lace, and navel-baring cropped shirts. He pioneered gender-fluid fashion before it was even a thing – paving the way for Harry Styles’ hot pink suits. Back then, “real men” would not wear pink.
Elvis kept on pushing gender boundaries throughout his career when he made floral prints cool in the 1960s. In the movie Blue Hawaii, he wore a red hibiscus shirt, and the Hawaiian shirt was born. Up to this day, tropical prints continue to symbolize leisure time and relaxation.
He made black leather a go-to rock-and-roll attire
It has become typical for rock stars to wear black leather jackets and matching black leather pants. The world has Elvis Presley to thank for that sexy, subtle, yet statement-making attire. One of the defining moments in rock-and-roll history was when Elvis gyrated his way through the 1968 Comeback Special concert, dressed head-to-toe in provocative black leather. He looked fetishistic in the slim-fitting leather, making a very powerful male look that unleashes his sex appeal in an empowering way.
Since Elvis, black leather has been the go-to for any on-the-ropes performer who wanted to reinvent themselves with an outlaw edge. Stars like Robbie Williams, Bono, Quatro, Lady Gaga and Britney Spears have all worn different interpretations of Elvis’ seductive leather suit. Brands and designers took note, securing its place in fashion folklore. Elvis made cowhide leather sexy and cool. If you want to know more about his life and spectacular career, check out these interesting musing on the life of Elvis.