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More on Elvis and Cultural Appropriation, this time in Public Affairs , which argues “exploitation” and “cultural disrespect” are more useful terms than “appropriation.”
Author Briahna Joy Gray writes “The trouble with Elvis’s version of ‘Hound Dog’ is not that it is bad. It’s that it doesn’t make any goddamn sense.” Elvis’s version, with its different lyrics, is “sanitized for a pop audience” and “drained of its original meaning.” She continues “when Elvis sang ‘Hound Dog,’ it made him rich and he became ‘The King,’ while when Thornton sang what is—let’s be honest—an objectively better version of the song, she didn’t become a world-famous megastar.” She concludes, “If we embrace a strict prohibition on borrowing, as Kenan Malik says, we wouldn’t get Elvis Presley. But if we don’t recognize how racial inequities structure the success of different cultural products, we might lapse into an even worse fate: listening to Elvis’s version of ‘Hound Dog’ rather than Big Mama Thornton’s.”
What do you make of that “objectively better” line? Am I wrong in thinking that it isn’t supported by her argument and that deciding what is and isn’t “objectively better” has little to do with music criticism? And isn’t it possible to recognize and deplore that “racial inequities structure the success of different cultural products” and still prefer Elvis’s version of “Hound Dog”?
I sort of liked it better when the operative word was “theft,” as in “everybody does it.” But when someone weighs in on this subject with a phrase or an idea like “objectively better” you know they’re writing propaganda, trying to shut you up, make you stop thinking. There is no such thing in art. You make a case. How, why, is it better? Better for what purpose, for what values?
There are problems, since what’s really being talked about here is race. As I tried to work through so many years ago in Mystery Train , the song was first recorded by a black singer, but the songwriters were white. It was a number one R&B hit, though it didn’t make the pop charts. It became a hit for Elvis after he heard a white group’s cover of Willie Mae Thornton’s original—which as a constant listener to Memphis’s R&B station he surely knew. The performances, from the words to the rhythms, are completely different—they are close to different songs. Elvis doesn’t even seem to refer to Thornton.
I’ve heard Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller discuss how offended they were by Elvis’s version, how it was white, empty, hollow, pandering to the teen audience, and so on. When someone asked them, that day, how they could say such things when they themselves were white, Leiber said, “We weren’t white then.”
Best, though, was their story about teaching Thornton how to sing the song. She was bigger than they were, older, and a hundred times tougher. But they thought she didn’t get it, so scared to death, they sang it they way it was supposed to go—according to them. But what did they know?
You see? There’s no simple answer. Or maybe even a complex one.