Wednesday, June 30, 2010

6/30/10 - Songs of the Summer, #17-18, "Heartbreak Hotel" and "Teddy Bear"

Top Song of 1956: "Heartbreak Hotel" by Elvis Presley

Oh, Elvis.

My dad used to work with a guy who was famous for his "Graceland story", which I had the pleasure of hearing while on a work retreat in which a bunch of lawyers hiked up to the top of Mt. Laconte in western NC and stayed a night at the lodge; one of my first experiences with real hiking.

In any case, the Graceland story was an elaborate account of visiting Graceland on an air-conditioned tour bus, taking in the general ridiculousness of the place and the people who worship at the throne of the King of Rock 'n' Roll, and it memorably climaxed with a woman throwing herself on the ground in the Meditation Gardens where Presley is buried and letting out a primitive howl of "Ohhhhhhhhhhhh Elvis!" This was delivered in what can only be termed Charming Southern Lawyer accent, and it killed.

I understand a little more now some of what must have driven that kind of reaction.

If "Rock Around The Clock" is a radical change of sound on the summer charts, "Heartbreak Hotel" marks a transformational stylistic shift, embodied by Elvis Presley, who, when you strip away all of the craziness of the man's life and death, is a phenomenally talented vocalist (Obligatory note that Chuck Berry and Little Richard really should get more of the Founding Father treatment, but they weren't the lightning rods that Elvis became - not his fault, you can't control sometimes who the culture's going to suck up into its tornado). Bill Haley's playing rock music, but he still comes off as the MC facilitating a good time at the party. Elvis brings a shuddering depth of feeling to "Heartbreak Hotel", laying bare a whole suggestive world of sex, betrayal, and anguish. Match that up with the blues thump, and you can glimpse the kind of seismic shift that his emergence marked in pop music.

Elvis's intonations have been imitated so often that the real thing can't help but feel a little affected, but it's worth noting that his mumbled "so lonely baby"'s and buttery quaver sound organic and natural at this point in his career at least. It's really a powerful performance, to say nothing of the visuals of Elvis melting the audience into quivering pools in that YouTube clip above. The man brought it, you can certainly say that.

Top Song of 1957: "Teddy Bear" by Elvis Presley

"Teddy Bear" is the more playful Elvis. Less raw than "Heartbreak Hotel", "Teddy Bear" features a liberal dose of doo-wop influenced backing vocals, a barroom piano that gives the whole song a jaunty, carefree, air, and a cutesy central metaphoric conceit that plays nicely off of the volcanic virility of peak-era Elvis - despite being a figure of hip-shaking youth corruption, he doesn't want to be your tiger: they play too rough. There's a playfulness to Elvis's vocals, and the lyrics, that nicely undercut the swagger endemic to the sound of his voice.

What's interesting is that Elvis fits the template of "pop star" much more closely than the current conception of "rock star". Primarily a vocalist, he didn't write his own songs. He was billed as the artist, not his band. And sexual friction was his implied stock in trade. And, furthermore, the visual element of his performance was not to be underestimated, underlined by the famous dictum to not film him below the waist. Theses characteristics are more similar to modern pop artists like Ke$ha, Lady Gaga, Britney Spears, etc. than they are to the traits that would come to be associated with "rock" stars, where the templates were the Beatles (for the fresh-scrubbed turned experimental direction), or the Rolling Stones (for the bad boys out to seduce your sons and daughters). I would hypothesize that it's a reason that Elvis is subject to a lot of both a) parody and b) misunderstanding, where bands like the Beatles and Stones aren't. In a lot of ways, he was a groundbreaking figure for rock-and-roll, but existed more comfortably in the pop idiom from a cultural perspective.


ariyele said...

wow, heartbreak hotel gives me shivers. he does indeed, bring it.
not only that, but "buttery quaver" to describe his voice is just about perfect. the man ooozes sex and sexiness. and the lyrics are great. "take a walk down lonely street to heartbreak hotel" um. hi. i'll be there! and i think that's what is so captivating about it. elvis's vocal style has subtext and it's this: yeah, my heart is broken. wanna fix it baby?
it's almost as if he's not even remotely sad. if randy newman wrote this song it'd be from the point of view of a serial killer luring his next prey. maybe i've read a little too much stieg larsson this week.

ariyele said...

teddy bear is interesting--more playful and doo-boppy defintely. however, not sure what you mean by the pop comparison. is it that you think that elivs was more the king of pop rather than the king of rock? because with that, i would agree. plus, i think lady gaga does write her own songs.