Sunday March 17, 2019
Trow on Elvis '56
Re-reading George W.S. Trow. Always worthwhile. In the beginning of “Pilgrim's Progress/Media Studies,” he's ragging on a $3.1 millon study on violence that doesn't take proper context into account. It also ignores what Trow calls “sequence” and what I tend to call “chronology.” He gives a great example of why it matters:
My next note says: “No sense of sequence.” In analyzing violence on television, it was all treated as though it had been ever with us, like sugar use, as if, naturally we‘ve always had sugar in coffee and tea, and how much are we using now, and what does it do to our energy level, and should we cut down on sugar?—like that. No sense of when sugar was invented, no sense of the sequence of it. And the note I made at this point is, “Like analyzing rock-and-roll on TV—a big subject—without looking at Elvis Presley’s appearance on the Dorsey Stage Show in 1956.”
Well, in 1956, in January, Elvis began to appear on television, and his first appearance was on a program called Stage Show with Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey. Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, who'd been a hit with teenagers twenty years before, were now fifty years old, and the show was corny, and it was corny precisely because we'd been through the experience of the Second World War, which was a very puritanical experience, a military experience, an experience of privation and seriousness. ... The Dorseys presented themselves as something from the hall of fame of popular culture. They had jugglers, they had tap dancers, it was just the standard stuff that adults had grown up on, and Elvis came into that, and anyone who wants to see the moment, and nearly everyone should see the moment, can watch a documentary called Elvis ‘56. Elvis came into it, and you know—I hope you know what Elvis was like when he was twenty-one years old, and he was twenty-one—and he wasn’t dressed like Liberace, he was dressed to kill, and he did kill. He killed Stage Show, and everything it represented, in a moment. This has to do with the quality of unexampled people in life, it has to do with the quality of talent, it has to do with the history of Dionysian energy. Of course, there would have been no point in counting everything that was happening in television in December 1955, because in January of 1956 a human avatar of unparalleled power named Elvis Presley was going to change the whole thing forever, and to leave that kind of truth out of a media discussion is simply to have a discussion—well, worthless is the word that comes to mind.
I‘ve been sick for the past few weeks, and today was sunny, so I walked over to Seattle University and read this in the sun by the fountain where dogs play. Made me want to watch “Elvis ’56” again. Also made me think that Elvis' much-praised comeback special in ‘68 was just a ’68 version of Stage Show with Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey. It was the show for '50s kids who were confused by civil rights, anti-war protesters and hippies.
Anyway pay attention to chronology. I think of this every time the news brings up the U.S.-Chinese trade war without mentioning its obvious Trumpian origins.