TCS Daily


The King of Anti-Fascism

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - August 21, 2002 12:00 AM

The 25th anniversary of Elvis Presley's death has passed, and news reports have stressed his continuing influence on music, culture, and race relations. But those reports have missed Elvis's greatest achievement: as a cultural immune response to totalitarianism.

Elvis fighting totalitarianism? Yes, really. To understand how, set the wayback machine for, oh, about 1935. Imagine that you're a working-class guy with lousy prospects. You want to dress up in funny clothes, go to a major event with a terrific light show, and get a tremendous feeling of catharsis as, for a moment, you're part of something bigger than yourself. You might even identify with the guy at the microphone, getting a vicarious sense of what it must be like to be the focus of such adoration. When you leave, you'll feel bonded with a bunch of strangers: you all have something in common. You're part of a culture that some people think is strange, but that you believe will conquer the world.

What are you going to do? Well, if you're in Germany (where the prospects were particularly lousy) you could become a Nazi. Hitler will be the guy at the microphone, Leni Riefenstahl will do a hell of a job on the light show, and the funny clothes, well, you know.

Hitler - who was a mediocre artist, but a first-rate operational semiotician - knew how to work with symbols in order to give the crowd what it wanted, and to make the crowd do what he wanted. Indeed, as a superb documentary entitled The Architecture of Doom makes clear, Hitler's program was to some degree shaped by his artistic leanings, and his artistic sense was a considerable asset in getting his message across.

Hitler was aided by a new technological innovation: the radio. Nazism's totalitarian sibling, communism, spread largely by print and took decades to gain a foothold. But radio allowed Hitler to manipulate emotions wholesale, in a way that had never been possible before. And the masses - starved for entertainment and desperate for catharsis, and a sense of purpose - ate it up.

But now it's all different, and Elvis deserves a lot of the credit. Oh, there were big stars before Elvis: Bing Crosby's appeal is now nearly forgotten, but it was once huge, and Frank Sinatra was, in a way, a sort of proto-rock star. But after Elvis, the world was different.

Hitler used the tools provided by new technology. But Elvis owned them: radio, television, movies, it didn't matter: he conquered them all. And the changes that he brought about helped to topple totalitarian regimes, and make new ones less likely, for he left behind a changed culture that short-circuited the mechanisms that Hitler had used to secure power - and the mechanisms that other regimes used to maintain it.

If what you want is to dress up funny and bond with a lot of other people in front of a great light show, well, you don't need the Nazis to do it anymore - even in Berlin. Since Elvis, the bonding-and-catharsis element of mass media has expanded to outdo anything that any politician can deliver. We describe an especially popular politician today as looking "like a rock star," rather than the other way around, after all. (Could there be a worse insult than describing a rock musician as looking "like a Congressman?" I can't think of one.) And if you're a working-class guy with lousy prospects, well, you can learn to play guitar, or to make music on your computer, and then you, too have a chance at being the guy under the lights - and without having to invade Russia.

Music took over the airwaves, and today in most of the world a crazed orator would have a hard time getting enough listeners to take over a country no matter how persuasive his spiel. After Elvis, the commercial culture of rock and roll simply occupied the mindspace that totalitarians need, and it out-competed them.

Not surprisingly, totalitarians have always hated rock and roll. The Soviets tried to stamp it out, then tried to replace the real article with lame, government-sponsored bands that won few fans. Meanwhile anti-communist bands like the Plastic People of the Universe were undermining their rule despite the state's efforts to suppress them. It was no fun emulating Stakhanov when you could emulate Frank Zappa or Lou Reed instead. When the Berlin Wall fell, Elvis and the musicians who came afterward deserved as much credit as General Dynamics or the Strategic Air Command.

The same holds wherever people try to tyrannize the minds of men and women. It's no wonder that the Taliban opposed dancing and Western music, and no wonder that the increasingly desperate mullahs of Iran are flogging people for dancing at birthday parties. They can't compete with the King and his descendants. And they know it.

 

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4 Comments

Popular Culture and Fascism.
Thanks for your essay exposing Elvis as our primary cultural deterrent to totalitarianism. There is a very pressing related matter. Why is it that our popular culture has refrained from taking up the most important moral question of our time, namely, the brutal treatment that many Muslim women suffer on a daily basis. Why is there no movie about dress codes and other aspects of Sharia Law in Iran, to pick a country at random. Why do we not see Kathy Zeta-Jones with a face bruised and puffy from her husband beating her with a rolled-up newspaper? Why is liberal Hollywood totally silent about hundreds of millions of women who suffer the most illiberal oppression on a daily basis?

The King of Anti-Fascism
The 25th anniversary of Elvis' death was in 2002. The one that just passed was the 30th.

Che vs Rock n Roll
It's so very true. Che banned rock and roll in Cuba as subversive Yankee music. Che, like many Argentinians of European descent, looked down upon the US. He preferred classical music. If you listened to rock 'n' roll, wore blue jeans, or had long hair, you were liable to be picked up as a troublemaker under a new law Che invented, behavior indicating a predilection for criminal behavior. Pretty Orwellian, huh?

Cubans called rock 'n' roll "midnight music," because that's the only time they could play it, when everyone was asleep and down low so nobody could hear it. You couldn't afford to have somebody inform on you, like the block watch captain the Communists installed to ensure ideological conformity.

In that sense, Elvis is the anti-Che, standing for everything Che opposed: freedom of speech, individual liberty, fun, and the American way.

It started before Elvis.
I'm sorry to be a curmudgeon on this (okay not really). It was Benny Goodman and Swing what beat the *****, integrated the music business, tore down caste barriers, and looked good in lights. Glenn Miller vs. Wagner, poor Adolph never knew what hit him. I speak from some authority; my mother was a big-band groupie. A Swing Kid, if you will.

If you judge a culture's authoritarianism by the virulence of its opposition to rock'n'roll, you are under 50 for sure. Nobody hated the rock more than the American mainstream in the mid-50's, or all conservatives through the mid-60's, cf. Robt Bork. Perhaps a few of the old hippies (whose enmity we can't fathom) remember this as clearly as I do. Now is the Gomorrah toward which we slouched. Made manifest.

Anyway, do more homework on the big-band era, and it's great to know Che hated longhairs. I want his "butch" T-shirt!

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