The Common Good
September-October 1998

What Would Elvis Do?

by Danny Duncan Collum | September-October 1998

When I began writing this column, way back in the second Reagan term, I held a certain spirit of optimism about the possibilities of American popular culture

When I began writing this column, way back in the second Reagan term, I held a certain spirit of optimism about the possibilities of American popular culture–mainly meaning pop music, television, and Hollywood movies. That attitude was grounded main- ly in a populist's respect for ordinary people and the possibilities that reside in them. Electronic and commercial though it may be, popular culture is still, by default, the culture of the people, the populist argument goes. The people use it to express themselves in a variety of ways and, when the time is right, even to protest and resist their disenfranchisement.

Well, I've just spent a few hours surfing a typical 57-channel cable TV system, as I do from time to time. I'm ready to rethink that optimism, at least a little. My theory of popular culture held that the proliferation of cable outlets for cultural product would lead to a flowering of popular expression. Instead, the product is akin to a cultural landfill, where the old garbage of the past (from TV Land to the History Channel) is spread thinner and thinner to cover a bigger field. And when a shortage of old stuff occurs, endless commercials for investment schemes and exercise machines abound. Occasionally something good is on, but try finding it amid the noise and waste.

All criticism is autobiography, and I'm no exception. My positive vision of popular culture was formed by my own positive experience of it. I'm just one of the lucky millions whose "lives were saved by rock and roll,"to quote that PBS-certified American Master, Lou Reed.

That music brought the joys and possibilities of art into the lives of people who didn't know they were worthy of art. I was one of them. In form and spirit, rock-and-roll music provided the perfect vehicle for chronic dissatisfaction with the status quo and defiance of authority. At the same time, it stood upon an American tradition that reached deep into the pre-Elvis heritage of my people and of our African-American neighbors. I even had the good luck to be young enough (mid-20s) to have my life changed by rock and roll one more time in the late 1970s when punk and hip-hop were born.

In the wake of that greatest of democratic cultural revolutions, I, and the writers who inspired me (mostly folks associated with Dave Marsh's Rock and Rap Confidential), had a theory of popular culture that was based on our experience of rock and roll. Rock was a commercial commodity, but it was also an authentic democratic expression. Although part of the capitalist machine, it could not be contained by it. The rock industry worked within fairly rigid formal and economic confines, but it busted out and became a language of freedom.

People bought it, but they also made it. Their choices reflected their lives. They used music to define a collective persona, or make a community. A startlingly high percentage of consumers still took up guitar and drums (or turntables and drum machines) in their own defense.

In the first half of the 1980s, it seemed possible that the spirit of rock and roll would save the rest of American culture. It inspired the Scorsese-Coppolla-Altman Golden Age of American cinema in the 1970s. In the 1980s there was about to be a world with limitless cable channels and relatively cheap video cameras. Who knew what might happen?

NOW WE KNOW. That rock-based theory of American popular culture was right...about music. There is still a lot going on there. Rock (and its variant forms) still does the same things for younger people today that it did for me. The music has stretched beyond the bounds of youth culture sometimes to offer creative discomfort to the middle-aged.

But the theory was dead wrong about television. There appears to be no way around the lotus-land passivity of the TV-watching experience. Researchers studying the effects of television on children have found that the level of brain activity while tube-gooning is lower than it is during sleep. All the cable revolution has done is expand the availability of that near-death experience, making it almost possible to live in that state. I no longer see much positive function for television. At our house we've dropped cable. In our rural area that leaves us with two stations–PBS (clear) and NBC (fuzzy). And that's enough.

All my life, when confronted with questions of style and taste, I've asked myself, "What would Elvis do?"And he hasn't failed me yet. Elvis took up the guitar. Elvis wore pink and black. Elvis made a grand collision of white and black working-class cultures. So far, so good.

Elvis also picked up a gun and shot his television. Elvis was right.

DANNY DUNCAN COLLUM, a Sojourners contributing editor, lives and writes in Ripley, Mississippi.

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