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  • Writer's pictureMichael Sales

Elvis, Orgasm and Social Change

Updated: Mar 16, 2023

The Security and Sustainability Guide, at present, describes the activities of over 3,000 organizations that are dedicated in one way or another to the development of a saner approach the management of Spaceship Earth.[1]

The Guide details many threats and opportunities facing the world system and identifies hundreds of organizations that seek to address each of them.

Many of the conditions of the Anthropocene are grave. Much/most of humanity is not paying adequate attention to these trends. A variety of forces detailed in The Guide – inadequate education and dysfunction of the educational system, war, pressing financial concerns, an information glut worth of distractions, etc. -- keep billions of people focused on the short term. Many/most of the organizations identified and studied in The Guide seek to bring about change in social conditions and public attention to address these planetary pressures.

Social change is often described as a slow, iterative process. Full civil rights for people of color in the United States have yet to be achieved, for example, even after the passage of 400 years’ worth of servitude and struggle, Constitutional amendments and widespread statements of support for equality.

But I did live through a moment in history that belies the frame of social change as a plodding process.

One particular two-year period gives me hope when I think about the possibilities of achieving the rapid changes so desperately needed in this tumultuous era.

I was nine years old and living in the segregated South in 1954. The color lines were strictly enforced in Louisville KY as they were anywhere south of the Mason-Dixon line. Here’s a representative Florida Jim Crow law dating to 1865, which was on the books for quite a while:

Negroes or mulattoes who intruded into any railroad car reserved for white persons to be found guilty of a misdemeanor and, upon conviction, sentenced to stand in the pillory for one hour, or to be whipped, not exceeding 39 stripes, or both, at the discretion of the jury. Whites faced the same penalty for entering a car reserved for persons of color.

Given that African Americans constituted approximately 40% of the Southern population in 1870 and as much as 20% in 1960, strict separation of the races was difficult to achieve. The integration of technological advances and the expansion of the entertainment industry made the wall between white and black in the music industry ever thinner and thinner as the 20th century progressed. Many black musicians, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Louis (“Satchmo”) Armstrong, Nat King Cole, the Mills Brothers, Lionel Hampton, etc., etc., were widely popular with white audiences, especially outside of the South. In the South itself, “race music, including the Urban Blues, Rhythm and Blues, Swing, Gospel and Dixieland” had a broad following among Blacks and attracted white fans as well.

Many factors, e.g., Truman’s executive order integrating the military in 1948 and the overturning of legal segregation in the public schools in 1954, set the scene for widescale cultural change. A great deal of tinder was being strewn across this stage of history. Elvis was the spark.

In 1953, an 18-year-old truck driver from Tupelo MS made a birthday acetate for his mother, Grace, in Memphis’ Sun Records. Sun recorded Black artists like Howlin’ Wolf, Junior Parker, and Rufus Thomas. Famously, the white owner of Sun, Sam Phillips, was looking for “a white man who had the Negro sound.” His secretary, Marion Keisker, was the first to record Elvis. She heard something in his voice and delivery that convinced her that Presley had the chops that Phillips was looking for.

And the rest is history.

By 1956, Elvis had become the first rock ‘n’ roll superstar. As the game changer, the innovator, he was and remains unique, singular.

I saw him the day before my 12th birthday in 1956, at the Armory in Louisville, along with about 8,000 other people. That show was a formative experience that changed my life. It showed me what freedom looked like and how it affected people, me included. Seeing him move his body so sensually ignited sexual yearnings in millions of people, especially white people. Elvis’ pelvis took a wrecking ball to Victorian prohibitions.

If Elvis was only a white entertainer who manifested the energy of Black R&B and gospel singers and musicians, he wouldn’t have become anywhere near as massively popular as he was. He could also deliver! He was a helluva singer and performer. That the ugly, money-grubbing, capitalist pig, “Colonel” Tom Parker did all he could to squeeze every ounce of originality and integrity out of Presley as an artist was and is very sad. But he could not take away the star’s enduring power and joie de vivre. Of course, Presley didn’t sponsor or author particular pieces of social legislation. In fact, his musical material wasn’t particularly controversial, even saccharine. But his uninhibited and authentic white working-class persona was sensational. It was a radical, non-conforming way to be that encountered sterile and hypocritical sexual norms in particular.

Presley became the most famous man on the planet, and he is likely to remain an eternal cultural icon as long as there is recorded history.

Looking back on his life as a teenager, the renowned actor, Martin Sheen, describes Presley’s impact: “We worshipped him! He was the first artist who boys and girls loved just the same, just as much. He rose so high, so far, so fast. He changed everything! He changed the entire culture!”

Elvis was a cultural orgasm. All this pent-up and forbidden societal desire to Shake, Rattle, and Roll got released into the mainstream of American life by this excitable boy. Millions of teenagers worldwide decided it was time "to move it and to groove it.” I could argue that the cultural world we’re living in is largely the afterglow of Elvis stirring and emancipating a passion that had been too long denied and denigrated.

And it all happened in two years. That toothpaste called Elvis has never been put back in the tube.

So, what does the first Rock Star have to do with the rate of social change demanded by the Anthropocene? A lot!

The Anthropocene needs cultural “educators” of Elvis’ power today.

I use the word "educators" deliberately because he taught an entire generation something important about how and what to feel. He informed the inner life and the lived expression of billions of people.

Elvis was a citizen of the Anthropocene. But I am aware of no person, group, or movement comparable to him on the 'Cene at present. There are many strong players on the political scene that influence hundreds of thousands of people, e.g., Greta Thunberg and Al Gore. There are and have been charismatic citizens of the 'Cene with great economic power that influence taste and markets, e.g., Elon Musk and Steve Jobs. And, of course, there are some exciting artists and musicians, e.g., Billie Eilish, who capture the imagination of many, and so on. But there is no central galvanizing figure who embodies the zeitgeist in a way that can take us to the next level.

Spaceship Earth desperately yearns to achieve the lift-off velocity necessary to escape the nihilistic inevitability created by an increasingly dystopian present. To address the condition of the Anthropocene, our "now" needs to get past our past and take the consciousness of the planet to a deeper and more comprehensive kind of knowing. Once again, the stage of history is set for an even bigger kind of astonishing transformation than the one Elvis ignited.

An infinity of futures resides in every second. Good rockin’ is available every night. The moment when great change is possible is always now.

[1] This term was originally coined by Henry George in 1879 in Progress and Poverty. Bucky Fuller widely popularized the term in 1968 in his important and readable Operating Manual to Spaceship Earth.

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