I’ve recently been reading Charles Ponce de Leon’s (awesome name!) biography of Elvis, called Fortunate Son. One of the running themes is that Elvis’ “rebel” image belied an underlying conservatism that was born of his working-class Southern upbringing which emphasized deference to authority in order to earn “respectability.” But also important was Elvis’ love (and encyclopedic knowledge of) music from a variety of genres: country, gospel, R&B, etc. He was a true aficionado, who impressed even Sam Phillips with his wide and deep tastes. All of this combined to make Elvis skeptical of the direction rock took in the 60s, as Ponce de Leon explains:
By 1967 many musicians identified themselves as “artists” in ways that echoed the modernist commitments that poets, novelists, painters, and photographers had expressed in the early twentieth century but that would have been incomprehensible to Presley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, and Jerry Lee Lewis. Committed to writing their own songs and displaying their abilities through complex, often pretentious lyrical wordplay or instrumental virtuosity, they rejected many of the pop-rock conventions established in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Because they defined their own work in opposition to the pop mainstream, their inroads onto the pop charts seemed all the more like acts of defiant subversion. The surprising commercial success of much of this music encouraged record companies to sign artists working in the same vein. More important, it led many musicians and fans to believe that the record business–and perhaps all of Western civilization–was in the throes of a major artistic renaissance, a trend being spearheaded by a new vanguard: affluent youth. The rock and roll developed by Elvis and his comrades had morphed into rock, a more varied set of styles that perfectly captured the heady spirit of the late 1960s. In such a milieu, Presley’s records didn’t just sound dated; they sounded like they came from another century.
But as much as part of Presley might have yearned for such [artistic] freedom, another side of him looked on it with contempt. He was, after all, a child of the working-class South, where music was central to the forging of communities and linked young and old–and, if Presley and Sam Phillips had had their way, black and white. He had grown up enamored of the pop conventions he had encountered in the movies and on network radio. For Elvis, these pop conventions were the ticket to acceptance and inclusion, the basis for the forging of a national community that might transcend class, race, and region. He could never comprehend the desire to move beyond them, much less the belief, derived from the modernism that now influenced rock musicians, that they limited artistic creativity. Elvis loved virtually every kind of music, and he couldn’t imagine making the kinds of value judgments and critical distinctions that were becoming common among musicians and many fans. The concept of authenticity, which had arisen in many fields in response to the commercialism of the culture industries and provided fans and musicians alike with a yardstick for measuring quality and who had sold out, was utterly mystifying to him. He was equally bewildered by the cavalier attitude that artists like Dylan and the Beatles sometimes displayed toward their fans. He was appalled, for example, by Dylan’s decision to “go electric,” which caused a great row among folk music fans and, for Elvis, was evidence of Dylan’s disrespect for the people who had made him a success. (pp. 154-6)
There is something almost Ayn Randian in the “public be damned” attitude of a lot of rock musicians who see themselves as pure artists with no obligations to the wider public. Not to mention the insufferable game of one-upmanship where artists and fans constantly look to identify “sellouts” and establish their credentials as more authentic than thou.
Elvis, by contrast, always saw himself as primarily an entertainer, and he kept recording in a variety of genres until the end of his career. But, as Ponce de Leon points out, Elvis’ desire to please often prevented him from taking creative risks which might’ve led to greater personal fulfillment. He cites Elvis’ frustration as one of the reasons he ultimately retreated into a cocoon of hedonism and drug abuse, surrounded by sycophantic flunkies who couldn’t tell him he was heading for disaster.
“Guitar Man,” from the 1968 “Comeback” special: