WEIRDLAND: “The King”, Elvis & Nixon, Rock frequency

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

“The King”, Elvis & Nixon, Rock frequency

Greil Marcus is one of the talking heads in Eugene Jarecki's documentary “The King” (2017), and he makes a deep and stunning point about Elvis and “the pursuit of happiness.” For the whole notion of pursuing happiness had been written into the American Declaration of Independence. For a long time the world was too harsh a place to make that pursuit anything but a luxury. The American experiment was to democratize happiness—or, at least, the pursuit of it. And Elvis Presley acted that out with every sexy-cherubic smile and jolt of his body and crystal-clear tremolo he sang. “The King” (released on Amazon DVD on August 17, 2018) lets you hear that. And then it asks: How, in a culture devoted to the pursuit of happiness, with an artist like Elvis as its king, did we begin to lose sight of how to achieve our own happiness? And how can we get that back? “The King” ends with a brilliant montage set to an astonishing piece of footage: Elvis, right at the end, when he’s a pale, drugged-out mess, seated on stage at the piano singing “Unchained Melody”. It’s wrecked, and it’s transcendent. We hear what Elvis was, what he became, and what he could have been. To watch “The King” is to feel, about America, that same fusion of memory and loss, devastation and hope. Source: variety.com

In the National Archive documents pertaining to the President Richard Nixon and Elvis Presley meeting in December 1970, there is a memorandum from Egil Krogh, explaining that “Presley indicated that he thought the Beatles had been a real force for anti-American spirit…The president nodded in agreement… Violence, drug usage, dissent, protest, all seem to merge in generally the same group of young people… Presley also mentioned that he is studying Communist brainwashing and the drug culture for over ten years.” The irony, of course, is that while Presley was seeking to procure an undercover narcotics agent’s badge, he was addicted to a combination of prescription drugs that would lead to his untimely death in 1977 at the age of 42. Most of Nixon’s years in office (1969-74) were consumed by crisis. The United States would suffer a major defeat in Vietnam during his administration. Nixon faced enormous unrest and the Watergate scandal ultimately drove him out of the executive office in disgrace. 

"Vietnam sucked you into the jungle, it sucked you in, and from there—whether you believed that we were good turned evil, or evil to begin with—you returned evil, all morality vanished. What happened there, he wondered: did you become evil, or did you just see your true evil self? Who was transforming whom? whichever—and you could never know—there you were stuck, there you remained. Vietnam was a mirror, and America—with each occasional glimpse at its true exposed self—took a step back, a step away from the mirror, from the truth; toward retreat and deceit, because self-delusion was easy… Vietnam was a swamp from which you never emerged. The best hope, the only way out, was to disengage. But what if you couldn’t disengage? What if we had become Vietnam?" Elvis stared at the box. Then he looked at Richard Nixon, into his eyes. The President seemed even more ill at ease than before, smiling nervously, and now Elvis saw—the thought flashed in his head—that it was all an act. That you construct a kingdom, lives around you, and then they turn you out. Elvis hovers just this side of caricature, but redeemed by his core sweetness. —"Elvis and Nixon" (2001) by Jonathan E. Lowy


The evolution of popular music: USA 1960–2010: Between 1960 and 2009, the mean frequency of H1 declined by about 75%. H1 captures the use of dominant-seventh chords. Inherently dissonant (because of the tritone interval between the third and the minor-seventh), these chords are commonly used in Jazz to create tensions that are eventually resolved to consonant chords featured in tracks such as “I Feel So Bad” by Elvis Presley; songs tagged blues or jazz have a high frequency of H1; it is especially common in the songs of Blues artists such as B.B. King and Jazz artists such as Nat ‘King’ Cole.

The decline of this topic, then, represents the lingering death of Jazz and Blues in the Hot 100 Billboard. Styles and genres represent populations of music that have evolved unique characters (topics), or combinations of characters, in partial geographical or cultural isolation, like country music in the Southern USA during the 1920s. Between 1967 and 1977, the mean frequency of H3 more than doubles. H6 combines several chord changes that are a mainstay in modal rock tunes. Its increase between 1978 and 1985, and subsequent decline in the early 1990s, marks the age of Arena Rock. Of all H-topics, H5 shows the most striking change in frequency. This topic, which captures the absence of identifiable chord structure, barely features in the 1960s and 1970s when, a few spoken-word-music collages aside (e.g. those of Dickie Goodman), nearly all songs had clearly identifiable chords. H5 starts to become more frequent in the late 1980s and then rises rapidly to a peak in 1993. Source: rsos.royalsocietypublishing.org

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