From accusations of cultural appropriation to his marriage to Priscilla Presley, these are the controversies that marked Elvis Presley’s life.
It’s 2022, and biopics are everywhere. Madonna (with a movie about her life, which will star Julia Garner), Marilyn Monroe, and even Weird Al Yankovic will have their own. But perhaps the most anticipated this year was the Elvis biopic, starring Austin Butler in a cinematic celebration of the life of the King of Rock & Roll. The question is: Is Elvis Presley a character worthy of celebration after being accused of cultural appropriation and grooming? After the movie’s release, many social media users have turned to TikTok to question this.
As Brittany Spanos writes in Rolling Stone, the tons of videos address issues such as Elvis’ dance style: the singer used the sound and movements of the African-American community, those that scandalized America in the mid-20th century, to propel his own career. “Plus there’s the Priscilla factor,” Spanos writes. “There’s no way to shake off nausea provoked by his developing relationship with his only wife. The couple met when she was 14 and he was 24. By the real definition of grooming, he basically trained her to be his teenage wife, making her wear the hair, makeup, and clothes he liked.”
But “cancellation,” for lack of a better word to describe the discomfort provoked by certain aspects of Elvis Presley’s life, did not emerge in 2022: previous generations had already addressed how problematic it was but had not gone viral because there were no platforms for uploading video essays with the potential to reach millions of people around the world.
Did Elvis steal other artists’ music?
Back on TikTok, Dara Tucker talks about why Elvis Presley isn’t exactly the most popular singer in the African-American community. For starters, he “borrowed” his sound from other artists he heard growing up, like Big Mama Thorton and Big Joe Turner, who wasn’t played on mainstream radio because almost all of the performers were white. “When white artists cover the music of lesser-known black artists, there’s always the risk of being accused of cultural appropriation,” Tucker says. “The blues music that Elvis and other rock and roll exponents drew inspiration from was created and performed by black artists, who were relegated to a genre known as ‘race music.’”
Racism was also embedded in the music industry. Thus, the true forerunners of Rock & Roll never had the opportunity to get national radio airplay or to achieve the level of fame and money that Elvis did.
But was Elvis racist, and did he claim to have created the genre? As Tucker explains, in an interview with the singer for Jet in 1957 he admits that he did not invent the genre and that no one could interpret it like the black artists who preceded him. He also said that Rock & Roll “is basically gospel and rhythm and blues.” At other times he was accused of making racist comments, but they were disproved years later. “Don’t forget that Elvis grew up in Tupelo, Mississippi, and Memphis, Tennessee,” notes the TikToker. “He grew up listening to Big Boy Crudup and Ray Charles.”
Elvis and his marriage to Priscilla
In the 50s and 60s, there was no word to describe what happened between Elvis Presley and Priscilla Ann Beaulieu Wagner, but now we know what grooming is: a technique with which an adult gains the trust of a minor to later involve him or her in sexual activities. As mentioned, Priscilla was 14 years old while Elvis was between 24 and 25 when their relationship began, and, over the next few years, he changed her physical appearance to suit what he liked: heavy makeup and dark hair. “He would put so much makeup on me that you couldn’t tell if my eyes were black, blue, or blue and black,” Priscilla told People magazine in 1985. “That’s what Elvis wanted.”
In her autobiography, Priscilla wrote that she was a kind of “living doll” to Elvis “who could dress any way he wanted. He taught me everything. How to dress, how to walk, how to wear my makeup and hair, how to behave, how to love him back in his own way. Over the years he became my father, husband, and almost God.” In the same interview with People, Elvis’ widow also said that it was he who introduced her to substances to “help” her stay awake to keep up with his nightlife and excesses.
They married when she was 21 years old, and nine months later, their daughter Lisa Marie Presley was born. As TikToker @dealarentina points out, based on the book Elvis and I, after that, the singer told his wife that he had never been attracted to women with children. In the same autobiography, Priscilla tells that he abused her.
Lisa Marie Presley is the universal heir to Elvis Presley’s legacy, so the proceeds from the King of Rock & Roll’s biopic are going to her and her mother. “Over there, zero problems,” notes @dealarentina, “you wouldn’t be giving benefits to an abuser in any way.”
Story originally published in Cultura Colectiva