Elvis Presley, the Beats, Bebop, and the Privileging of Intellect

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The beat poets, as well as the bebop movement in jazz, have much in common with the countercultural phenomenon of rock and roll, largely defining the American cool, “hipster” aesthetic that Elvis Presley came to exemplify. In this indirect sense, the proto-beats and bebop musicians had a profound effect on the culture that produced Presley, though the beat movement is usually marked as beginning in earnest on October 7, 1955, the occasion of Allen Ginsberg’s first reading of “Howl,” more than a year after the release of Presley’s first single, “That’s All Right,” on July 19, 1954. Regardless, neither the beats nor bebop, which had begun in the forties, were on Presley’s radar, so to speak. While the work of Jack Kerouac or Miles Davis allowed high cultural access to the more intuitive and somatic modes that Presley embodied, there does not seem to be a direct link between the literary movement of the beats, the intellectual aesthetic performed musically by bebop, and the music of Elvis Presley. Thus, while acknowledging that the beats and bebop enacted a similar impulse to that of rock and roll, the analysis in my forthcoming book, How Does It Feel?: Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Philosophy of Rock and Roll, is primarily concerned with the influences and cultural domains that Presley and his milieu themselves saw as their immediate precursors and contemporaries, namely, popular musicians and actors.

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Certainly all of these figures—poets, actors, and different kinds of musicians—were part of a larger movement in culture away from the exclusive privileging of intellect towards intuitive and somatic modes, and these various countercultural expressions (though the term was not coined until Theodore Roszak’s The Making of a Counterculture in 1969) were ultimately reintegrated with intellect in complex ways, a point explored extensively in my book. However, whereas the beats essentially enacted the trajectory towards affect from the basis of a poetic genre that implicitly privileged verbal intellect even while it pushed against it, and bebop carried jazz, which had been the previously predominant musical incarnation of the repressed epistemologies, towards intellect, Presley and his contemporaries generally embodied a more pure expression of affectivity without immediate reference to intellectual domains. Nevertheless, there is little doubt that the original rock and rollers were ultimately reacting to this privileging, and that the further permutations of the genre, particularly those of the Beatles, Dylan, and their contemporaries, would engage with rationality much more intimately than Presley’s milieu. Both the beats and bebop were explicitly in dialogue with the predominant rational mode whereas Presley and the majority of early rock and rollers were not in any significant way. Rather, the privileging of scientific rationality in modern discourse, exemplified in the Cartesian equation of thought with human existence in general, formed the background against which rock and roll was brought into being. Thus, although rock and roll did implicitly gain its significance by contrast to the predominant discursive modes, the genre’s relationship with the intellectually privileging main streams of culture was qualitatively different than the aesthetic modes employed by the beats and bebop.

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[This is a (somewhat modified and expanded) excerpt from my book, How Does It Feel?: Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Philosophy of Rock and Roll]

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Elvis Presley, the Beats, Bebop, and the Privileging of Intellect

  1. Enjoyed your article. I used to always read writings by the Beat Generation. I especially liked Ferlinghetti’s “I Am Waiting” poem.

  2. Pingback: Thanks to the Elvis Collectionary | Rock and Roll Philosopher

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