In the 1950s, a fierce debate surrounding Elvis Presley erupted in the press and pulpit. Columnists and clergymen, from their influential platforms, frequently expressed their negative opinions about Presley and his rock ‘n’ roll music. In response, Presley’s loyal fan base, primarily made up of 14- to 16-year-old girls, flooded the letters-to-the-editor columns of newspapers with declarations of support.
College Students and Conservatism
While the press and clergy clashed, college students, known for their conservative views and musical preferences, were generally uninterested in Elvis. In fact, during a 1957 performance in Philadelphia, a group of college boys even egged the stage when Presley appeared. College students seemed to look down on Elvis and his music.
Academia and Elvis
Elvis Presley’s rise to fame didn’t garner much profound academic discussion during the early stages. The simplicity and seemingly nonsensical nature of rock ‘n’ roll music, along with its charismatic leader, didn’t pique the interest of scholarly circles. Nevertheless, there were occasional instances where the thoughts of college professors on Elvis Presley made their way into the press. Here are summaries of six published academic analyses of Elvis from 1956 and 1957.
Professor Wood, Art Department Head, Arizona State College
Professor Wood, as reported by the Boston Post on October 2, 1956, drew a comparison between Elvis Presley and ancient statues. The professor claimed that Elvis resembled statues of Hermes by Praxiteles and Theseus on the Parthenon in Athens, pointing out similarities in facial features. Wood even went as far as declaring Elvis’s provocative moves as reminiscent of Greek sculpture.
The skeptical Post editorial writer lectured Professor Wood by stating that the comparison was far-fetched. The writer mockingly suggested that Elvis should be posed beside a statue while singing “You Ain’t Nothing But a Hound Dog” to truly appreciate the supposed similarities.
Professor Marshall McLuhan, PhD, St. Michael’s College, Vermont
Professor McLuhan made a supportive statement about Elvis Presley during an appearance on CFRB-TV’s “Youth in Action” broadcast on March 31, 1957. He described Presley as sophisticated, ironic, and someone who brings people together with a common interest. McLuhan believed that rock ‘n’ roll was a definite form of culture, although he didn’t go into specifics. It’s worth noting that he admitted to never having seen Presley perform.
Professor Archie N. Jones, Music Department, University of Texas
In an interview with Variety on April 30, 1957, Professor Jones explained that there was nothing inherently wrong with rock ‘n’ roll music itself. He attributed the objectionable aspects to the beer hall atmosphere surrounding it and some of the people involved. He believed that some performers could do justice to the same songs that Elvis sang, given they were done tastefully. Jones also expressed doubt that rock ‘n’ roll would have any lasting impact and dismissed it as another passing fad.
Dr. David H. Webster, English Professor, Temple University
In an address entitled “Elvis Presley and Shakespeare,” Professor Webster made a connection between Elvis’s music and sullen, ugly complaint. He saw danger and degradation in rock ‘n’ roll and argued that Elvis’s popularity tapped into self-pity and hatred among young people. While he defended the vitality and exuberance of jazz in the 1920s, he found only negativity in rock ‘n’ roll.
Dr. S. D. Clark, Professor of Sociology, University of Toronto
Dr. Clark’s column on Elvis Presley and rock ‘n’ roll, published in the Toronto Daily Star on April 3, 1957, focused on his observations of Elvis’s show in Toronto. Clark concluded that the show was phony and harmless, with no great stirring of emotions. He believed that the generation of young people at that time was tough and able to handle Elvis’s influence without negative effects. However, he expressed concern about society’s failure to prepare young people for adulthood, suggesting it could have economic repercussions in the future.
Dr. Ray L. Birdwhistell, Professor of Anthropology, University of Buffalo
Dr. Birdwhistell, an expert in the study of body gestures, analyzed Elvis’s pelvic contortions as a subject of anthropological speculation. He described Elvis as an entertaining showman who engaged with his audience expertly. Birdwhistell saw Elvis’s motions as a caricature of adult emotions, with a mocking attitude towards adulthood. He concluded that Elvis’s gyrations were not sexually explicit but rather an innocent and harmless ritual.
The Intellectual Divide
Despite their intellectual prowess, college professors in the fifties were divided on Elvis Presley’s impact. Their opinions on the cultural significance and moral implications of his music varied greatly. Just like preachers, parents, and the press, academia struggled to form a consensus on the true nature of Elvis Presley’s influence.