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“He (Elvis) was already doing what the civil rights movement was demanding: breaking down barriers. You don’t think of Elvis as political, but that is politics: changing the way people see the world.” – Bono. The youthful generation during the 50’s were ready for this: The baby boomers were ready to break down barriers built on a foundation of racism. Elvis was the perfect neutral ground for the young generation to share as an idol and in turn, helped to kickstart a revolution that forced different races to coexist.
This was a generation for the rebels, the perfect time for kids who did what they wanted to do. Despite their parents wishes, white kids were going to black clubs to listen to the music. Music was the gate to a desegregated society and the youthful baby boom generation was the key. Kids in the 1950’s were known to reject their parent’s styles and to find their own style influences. Elvis was huge with 50’s teens because of his new style that parents hated – their parents’ hated it meant they loved it. (Baughman)
Elvis was born in Tupelo, Mississippi in a two room shack where nobody ever expected anything of him, nobody thought he’d ever be anything close to successful. His school teachers all said that he would go nowhere in life – until they heard him sing. At the age of 19, he started recording his music. Sam Phillips, the owner of Sun Records had been looking for a white kid to sing black music for some time. Elvis walked into his recording studio and got signed after recording a few songs. He went on tour with various famous musicians that same year. It was very controversial, the fact that a white man was singing black music, but it was the start of a revolution of good music, and full of teenagers celebrating life, not caring what color their friends’ skin was.
Elvis’s style of music was not taken well by adults. They didn’t like the fact that a white man was playing “black music” and dressing like a black man, meanwhile dancing in a very sexual way. This was a new type of music that scared most adults, mainly because their children were listening to it and it was influencing them heavily in a way parents didn’t like.
1950’s kids were ready for a revolution and Elvis, “…the pioneer rock ‘n’ roller became an idol for an entire generation of music enthusiasts” (Biography in Context). Music is a powerful mechanism and when in the hands of an idol who appealed to the whole baby boom generation, the biggest generation of teenagers yet, you get kids who don’t care about race, or where someone came from. They had the right idea and Elvis helped them express it through music. One might think Elvis sang and preached about equality and freedom, but nope! Elvis grew up surrounded by white people, went to an all white school, and even his musical influences were mainly white. He had no intention to influence the civil rights movement like he did, he influenced it by doing what he loved to do. Even during interviews when Elvis was asked a question about anything political he would respectfully decline. He kept all his political opinions to himself. This let the generation speak for themselves rather than having a leader tell a generation to desegregate. 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka Supreme Court decision was passed which now meant that public white facilities had to be offered to blacks as well. Big steps were being taken toward desegregation at this time but still, not everyone was on board. There were people fighting against civil rights, just as people are fighting against legalizing gay marriage today. Teenagers wouldn’t think twice if a person was gay, but it’s the adults who aren’t used to a new way of things who fight it. In the 50’s, adults were used to everything being a certain way and when that “way” was in jeopardized of being changed, they got scared. Kids minds are a blank slate, they see things for how they truly are and in the 50’s they saw people as people, they didn’t label them as colors.
Elvis opened the door for black artists. Before Elvis, there was black music and white music. The fact that Elvis was a white man singing black music challenged the older generation’s traditions, but opening this door was much appreciated by the young, music loving baby boomers who stood for equality. He helped create a generation who valued freedom and freedom of expression. This scared the crap out of the people running the country at this time. Before Elvis, black people and white people didn’t mingle, everyone wore conservative clothing, and values were as conservative as the clothes people wore, and all of a sudden kids were listening to black music, and expressing themselves! To the parents and grandparents of the baby boomers, there was really nothing worse that could happen. They all blamed Elvis for the craziness he started in the young generation but really he was just the gateway to releasing all this built up energy the kids had. Frank Sinatra said, “his kind of music is deplorable, a rancid smelling aphrodisiac. It fosters almost totally negative and destructive reactions in young people.” On the other hand, W.A. Harbinson said,“…a style and panache that come close to pure magic. Lithe, raunchy, the sweat pouring down his face, he now moves with the precision of an athlete, the grace of a dancer…flamboyant and flashy, sexy and self-mocking, he works with the instincts of a genius to give poetry to the basic rock performance.” Obviously there were very contradicting ideas about Elvis. Though the older generation couldn’t wrap their head around this rockstar, the baby boomers all shared him as an idol.
Elvis came from nothing. He never had anyone believe in him until he was out of highschool. Nobody thought he would ever go anywhere. Elvis came to be admired as one of the most successful recording artists of all time. The classic rags to riches story, but there’s so much more to it. Elvis helped start a revolution. He was an artist that every teenager from that time loved. He created a neutral ground that forced teenagers of all races to exist together and celebrate life and music.
The coolest thing about Elvis is that he inspired so many people. Not just kiddos, Elvis inspired artists. To inspire an artist, one has to be quite inspirational. Elvis inspired artists to keep inspiring generations of people. He truly showed how one person could change a country.
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