“I MOVE, THEREFORE I AM:” Elvis Presley, Rock ‘n’ roll, and the Liberation of the American Body
By Richard Koenigsberg
- The Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll
- Releasing Energy
- The Dead Elvis
- Twisting the Night Away
- Janis Joplin and Norman O. Brown
- Coming Down/Getting Down
- Move, Move: Free Your Body
I: THE BIRTH OF ROCK ‘N’ ROLL
In 1957 Jerry Lee Lewis sang, “You shake my nerves and you rattle my brain. Too much love drives a man insane. You broke my will, but what a thrill. Goodness, gracious, great balls of fire.” Rock ‘n’ roll was the force that split the atom and shattered the American ego: a nuclear explosion releasing vast quantities of heat and energy. We live today in the aftermath of a blast that occurred over 50 years ago. The great ball of fire continues to simmer. Everything is still “hot”, and we have barely come to terms with the radioactive fallout.
In the not so distant past—a long, long time ago—America was dominated by ideas of restraint and self-control. People took it for granted that one of the fundamental roles of society was to establish and enforce moral norms. Psychology texts in the Fifties—in chapters on “Socialization”—described the process whereby people learned to want to do what they had to do.
It was assumed that the requirements of society were in opposition to the desires of individuals. To become a civilized human being, one had to internalize these requirements. First and foremost was the learning how to “postpone gratification:” to defer fulfillment of one’s desires in the present.
If one obeyed the rules and did what one was expected to do, at some time in the future (somehow) one might expect to be rewarded with success, pleasure and happiness. This message—that it was necessary to defer or postpone gratification—was the essence of the middle-class morality that dominated the Fifties and early Sixties.
Psychoanalysis in those days drew a clear distinction between the pleasure principle and the reality principle. The pleasure principle represented the wish to gratify one’s desires and impulses, whereas the reality principle stood for society, which opposed gratification of desires and impulses. The reality principle was understood as that which compelled people to abandon gratification in the name of fulfilling cultural obligations.
Rock ‘n’ roll grew out of this austere world of middle-class morality that put forth the idea that it was necessary to wait. In opposition to the principle of deferral of gratification—keeping one’s shoulder to the grindstone in anticipation of rewards in the future—rock ‘n’ roll introduced the radical idea that pleasure and gratification were available now.
Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” (1955) was one of the foundational songs of rock ‘n’ roll, articulating the idea of a world of pleasure and joy that lay outside of society and the reality principle. “One, two, three o’clock, four o’clock rock,” Haley sang. “Five, six, seven o’clock, eight o’clock rock. We’re gonna rock around the clock tonight.” With this song, the ideology of rock ‘n’ roll came into being: imagining that music and dance would constitute a new form of reality.
The music would continue to play—and people continue to dance—throughout the evening and until “broad daylight.” If the band slowed down, dancers would “yell for more.” The rock ‘n’ roll dream appears full-blown with the appearance of this song. What was proposed was a world of perpetual bodily movement and excitement (i. e., “rocking”) stimulated or generated by “the beat” of the music.
Alan Freed was the disc jockey who brought rock ‘n’ roll to New York City and gave the music its name. He called his radio station—1010 WINS—the “home of the big beat.” It was the beat of Rock ‘n’ roll that stimulated peoples’ bodies, driving them onward and forward. Filled with energy, the human body would attain to a condition of perpetual, never-ending excitement.
In this new world of Rock ‘n’ roll, self-control and the postponement of gratification would no longer be necessary. On the contrary, self-control worked in opposition to the state-of-being that rock ‘n’ roll sought to achieve. Happiness or pleasure required that one let oneself go, give in to the music—get up and dance. By giving in to the music—dancing to the beat—one would to come into touch with and experience exciting sensations coursing through one’s body.
II: RELEASING ENERGY
Perry Como was one of the most popular singers and entertainers in the United States in 1954, a warm, relaxed and relaxing man who bantered with his audience as he stood perfectly still singing hits like “Don’t Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes (1953)” When Elvis Presley appeared on television two years later—gyrating wildly as he sang “Hound Dog”—we witness a new kind of man—and the beginning of the Cultural Revolution.
Elvis today is lionized as “The King”—a great and beloved artist. When he first performed, however, he was known for how he swiveled his hips. Reviewing Elvis’ television debut on January 28, 1956, critic Jack O’Brien observed that Elvis wriggled and wiggled with “such abdominal gyrations that burlesque bombshell Georgia Southern really deserves equal time.” Presley was known in the Fifties—not as the king—but as “Elvis the Pelvis.”
Although people focus on his sexuality, what struck me as viewed films of Elvis’ early television performances is the extraordinary amount of energy coming out of his body. Some primal force seemed to emanate from Elvis—something people had not seen before. Performers like Elvis, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis brought a new and more intense form of psychic and physical energy into American life. What had lain dormant was released into reality.
Alan Freed pounded a telephone book, rang a cowbell, and sang along with the music that he played on the radio. At the end of one record as he segued into the next, he often became very excited: “That’s a real rocker, and that’s what we’re gonna do, rock ‘n’ roll with the next record by Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters, their big hit…” This was unusual behavior for a grown man at the time. Adults were supposed to be calm and under control. They weren’t supposed to get so excited.
The phrase “Go cat, go” was used in the Fifties as a means of encouraging or spurring on a performer or dancer. As the performer moved—energy flowing out of his body— the audience implored him to keep going. This phrase conveyed the idea, “Don’t hold anything back. Don’t be afraid to let the excitement come pouring out.” Rock ‘n’ roll emboldened people to abandon inhibitions; to experience and share with others the power contained within their bodies.
Rock ‘n’ roll possessed a missionary dimension, seeking to spread its message and to convert everyone, everywhere. Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen” (1958) envisioned a nation of dancing, excited bodies in perpetual motion: “They’re really rockin’ in Boston and Pittsburgh, PA, deep in the heart of Texas and ‘round the Frisco Bay. Way out in St. Louis and down in New Orleans, all the cats wanna dance with, Sweet Little Sixteen.” Berry envisioned teen-age girl as a revolutionaries, sharing the excitement of their bodies, converting Americans to the religion of rock ‘n’ roll.
The idea of Rock ‘n’ roll as a planetary revolution appeared again in 1964 when Martha and the Vandellas invited people in cities throughout the world to come into the street and join the party. ”Callin’ out around the world, are you ready for a brand new beat. Summer’s here and the time is right, for dancin’ in the streets. All we need is music, sweet music, there’ll be dancing in the street.” This song evoked rock ‘n’ roll’s fantasy of worldwide cultural transformation through music and dance.
What could Danny and the Juniors have been thinking in 1958 when they sang, “Rock ‘n’ roll will always be, it’ll go down in history.” At the time, Rock ‘n’ roll was conceived as teen-age dance music. There were no scholarly treatises. Attempting to analyze the phenomenon, liner notes of a Fifties album concluded that the decade of rock ‘n’ roll would be known as the years when music “became danceable again.” Rock ‘n’ roll’s significance was measured by the fact that “more people are dancing than ever before.”
Yet the prediction of Danny and the Juniors—that Rock ‘n’ roll would go down in history—came true. What was it about Rock ‘n’ roll that was so unique and special? Perhaps this music embodied and articulated something that Americans had been longing for. Rock ‘n’ roll was the first salvo of the cultural project whose purpose was to overcome repression and liberate the American body.
Rock ‘n’ roll released energies that had been stuck within. The music hinted at a new kind of freedom—the possibility of liberating the self from the oppressive demands of society. Implicit within rock ‘n’ roll was the idea of establishing a new locus of identity. Human beings would be defined—not in terms of their relationship with society—but in terms of the exciting sensations flowing through one’s mind and body: “I move, therefore I am.”
III: THE DEAD PELVIS
In his 1908 paper, “’Civilized” Sexual Morality and Modern Nervousness,” Freud stated that under the domination of civilized morality the “health and efficiency in life of individuals may be impaired.” He posed the question of whether civilized sexual morality is “worth the sacrifices it imposes on us.” Freud theorized that neurotic disorders originated in the “sexual needs of unsatisfied people.” His idea that mental suffering was caused by sexual repression impacted profoundly upon the Twentieth Century.
I hypothesize that the human race—persuaded by his idea that health and happiness required the release of desires from the unconscious—embraced Freud’s theory and embarked upon the project of overthrowing sexual repression. Freud’s disciple Wilhelm Reich was the crucial figure who built upon Freud’s theory, and took it a step further. Reich encouraged people not only to explore their sexual desires and fantasies in the psychoanalytic situation, but to act them out in the real world.
According to Reich, internalization of rigid moral norms caused one’s body to become rigid, out of touch with the flow of energy within, and unable to move with fluidity. Reich extended Freud’s critique of “civilized sexual morality,” condemning the control of human beings through “moralistic regulation.” He declared that sexual morality was incompatible with the “natural gratification of instincts,” preventing the “efficient circulation of energy in the human organism.”
Reich attributed neurosis to the “damming up of sexual energy”—and put forth the view that mental disorders would disappear if human beings could achieve full sexual gratification. Coining the term “character armor” (1945), Reich pointed out that repression was not merely a mental event, but a psychosomatic process producing alterations within bodily tissues. Sexual repression, Reich claimed, manifested itself as deadness within the genital region or “pelvic immobility.”
Mental and physical health could be achieved, Reich believed, through the development of the “genital character”—human being capable of “orgastic potency.” Such individuals would be able to discharge completely the “dammed-up sexual excitations” through “involuntary, pleasurable convulsions of the body.” This phrase—pleasurable convulsions of the body—evokes not only orgasm, but also rock ‘n’ roll dancing.
Contained within the ethos and spirit of rock ‘n’ roll was an idea similar to the one presented by psychoanalysts like Freud and Reich—that health, vitality and happiness derived from the body’s capacity to express and release pent up psychic and physical energies. Like psychoanalytic treatment, rock ‘n’ roll music acted to liberate desires and impulses that had been stuck within. The issue of energy and the liberation of energy lay at the heart of both the psychoanalytic and rock ‘n’ roll revolutions.
Psychoanalysis hypothesized that—by virtue of repression—human beings were deprived of the natural vitality emanating from within their bodies. Because impulses, desires and fantasies were repressed, people did not have access to their own psychic and physical energies. Psychoanalysis sought, therefore, to release impulses, desires and fantasies from the unconscious.
Rock ‘n’ roll, similarly, revolved around the idea that it was possible to release hitherto hidden or unknown sensations and currents of excitement from within one’s body. Possessed by this new energy and the sense of power and joy that it evoked, the rock ‘n’ roller would experience a heightened, more intense form of existence. Indeed, the mission of rock ‘n’ roll music was to convey this vision of a new, heightened sense of existence to everyone, everywhere.
IV: TWISTING THE NIGHT AWAY
Albert Goldman (in Sound Bites, 1992) provides an impression of the Southern teen-age girls who attended early Elvis concerts and became ecstatic watching him perform. They came to shows, Goldman says, wearing voluminous skirts over crinolines over even tighter girdles and nylons. They curled and sprayed their hair, applied Pan-Cake make-up, lipstick, liner and nail polish, and bedecked themselves with earrings and charm bracelets. They jiggled on heels and some of them wore white gloves.
What perhaps fascinated these young ladies about Elvis was his evocation of a human being willing to do without impediments and accoutrements that kept one’s body bound and restrained. Elvis’ unbridled movements—the intense energy emanating from him—suggested a passion that each of us might discover if only we could throw off the shackles of social convention. Elvis symbolized abandonment of civilized constraint and release of the body’s soulful energies.
Elvis said that the first singing he ever did was in church, which led him to realize that blues and gospel music was about “lettin’ out what ya feelin’ inside.” This idea—that it is important to let out what one is feeling inside—lay at the heart of the Cultural Revolution of the Sixties. Psychological problems during that time often were attributed to difficulties expressing one’s feelings, impulses and emotions.
Therapeutic methodologies were devised whose purpose was to enable the individual to dismantle inhibitions. Rock ‘n’ roll did not represent itself as a form of therapy. Yet—like drugs—people embraced music and dance with the intent of overcoming inhibitions and freeing themselves up. Rock ‘n’ roll was an integral part of the ideology of the Sixties, which revolved around “letting it all hang out.”
In 1955, Jerry Lee Lewis announced that there was a “whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on.” Ray Charles declared in 1961 that the girl with the diamond ring knew how to “shake that thing.” One of the abilities valued most highly within the ideology of rock ‘n’ roll was the ability to move or shake one’s body with passion. People who were skillful at moving and shaking their bodies were imagined to possess qualities that people who were unable to move and shake their bodies did not possess.
Chubby Checker’s recording of “The Twist” became a number one best-seller in 1960 and again in 1962, leading to a dance craze and popularization of “twist parties,” as people throughout the United States undulated their hips. The Twist was a cultural form that arose as an articulation of the American project of liberating the body. Twisters—following the trail blazed by Elvis—focused upon releasing energy contained within the pelvic region.
In The Function of the Orgasm (1940), Wilhelm Reich stated that one of the most frequently witnessed neurotic disturbances was the “stiff, retracted pelvis.” The stiff pelvis created the impression of “deadness,” and was related to “weakness in the genitals.” Insofar as Reich found that many patients were unable to move the pelvis, therefore therapeutic work revolved around “relieving pelvic immobility” in order to enable the lower part of the body to participate in the “wave of excitation.”
During the Sixties phrases like “work” and “work out” replaced the expression “go cat, go” as phrases used to inspire dancers and encourage them to keep moving. These phrases suggest dancing as a form of body work. Reich declared that the “more intensely the inhibition of the pelvic movement is worked on,” the more completely the pelvis would participate in the wave of excitation. By “twisting the night away” (Sam Cooke), Americans worked on the pelvic region, seeking to release excitations believed to be located in this region.
Black people became role-models for white people seeking to liberate their bodies. White people imagined that black people already were liberated. Eldridge Cleaver declared in Soul on Ice (1968) that the Twist represented a “form of therapy for a convalescing nation,” affording white people the possibility of “reclaiming their Bodies again after generations of alienated and disembodied existence.”
V: JANIS JOPLIN AND NORMAN O. BROWN
The essence of the Sixties was the war between hip and square. The square or “well respected man” (Kinks) was someone who—possessing overly rigid moral standards—was uptight in mind, heart and body. Rock ‘n’ roll was a methodology for overcoming uptightness, enabling people to loosen in order—as Elvis put it—to “let out what one was feeling inside.” People who learned how to rock might be able to overcome their squareness, beginning the journey on the path to hip.
The blues singer Janis Joplin exemplified and acted out—in the late Sixties—the struggle taking place within many young people. Her performances, attitude and life-style symbolized the conflict between the middle-class morality of the Fifties and the effort to abandon this morality in the Sixties. What was sought was a more intense and passionate form of existence. Janis—believing she was acting on behalf of everyone—desperately strove to break through structures of control that she experienced as constricting and inhibiting.
Janis was a revolutionary and missionary, aspiring to bring rock ‘n’ roll’s message to the world. A film of a 1969 concert shows Janis working with and on her audience as she struggles to convey her message. She invites members of the audience to come onto the stage and to move with her. The dancers do their best to demonstrate a capacity for soulful abandon, but they haven’t quite got it. Janis implores them to try harder: “I want to see you people move.” The dancers continue to undulate awkwardly about the stage as Janis issues her command, the moral imperative that was to transform American culture in the second half of the Twentieth Century: “Feel good, right now.”
Norman O. Brown was among prominent scholars in the Sixties who challenged the Western emphasis on the intellect and drew attention to the significance of the body and sexuality. In a famous speech delivered at Columbia University (May 31, 1961) Brown declared that “Mind is at the end of its tether.” Order as we have known it, Brown said, is “crippling, and for cripples.” In opposition to the view that human beings are best defined in terms of their capacity for rational thought, Brown stated that—in spite of 2000 years of ‘higher education’—man remains “incurably obtuse,” and still thinks of himself “first and foremost as a body.”
Psychoanalytic consciousness, Brown suggested, is not an ascent from body to spirit, but rather the “descent of spirit into body.” Or as Chuck Berry put it, “Hail, hail rock ‘n’ roll, the feelin’ is there, body and soul (“School Days,” 1957). Rock ‘n’ roll constituted a revolution against the idea that the soul is separate from or higher than the body, proposing instead that the soul is contained within the body—that the body is soulful. People in the United States were beginning to “come down”—from the head to the body.
VI: COMING DOWN/GETTING DOWN
In the Fifties, women often were placed on a pedestal—worshipped or admired as spiritual creatures. In the Four Aces’ song, “Stranger in Paradise,” the stranger was the man—since the woman already was in paradise—an “angel” who would take the man’s hand and lead him to heaven. “I saw your face,” the Four Aces sing, and I ascended “out of the common place into the rare.”
In Bobby Dylan’s first record album (1961), he also sang to a lady, but approached her in a radically different way. “Baby let me follow you down,” Dylan sang, for I’d “do anything in this God almighty world if you’d just let me follow you down.” Dylan’s song is as soulful as the one sung by the Four Aces, only now ecstasy is associated with following the woman down rather with holding her hand and ascending up toward paradise.
We fast-forward to the mid- and late-Seventies. By now, the process of coming down (from the mind to the body) had transmogrified into a preoccupation with “getting down.” Music and dance moved explicitly into the sexual domain. The erotic element was implicit in rock ‘n’ roll from the beginning, for example, in Shirley and Lee’s (1956) song: “Let the Good Times Roll.” But the primary focus of rock ‘n’ roll had been physical movement expressed through dancing (i.e., rocking round the clock).
With disco, the erotic dimension becomes overt, as music, dance and sexuality fuse into a single package. Disco women abandon their role as spiritual mentors, embrace their corporeality, and become sexual instructors—teaching men how to get down. Donna Summer insisted that what she needed was “hot love.”
The group Musique implored the man to “push, push in the bush.” While the female singer in the SOS Band provides instructions on sexual performance: “Baby, take the time, do it right. We can do it baby, do it tonight.” With songs like these, the fantasy or project of overcoming sexual repression had been achieved. Liberation of the body through dance merged with sexual liberation.
The ideology of the Seventies was summed up in a song by K. C. and the Sunshine Band (1975): “Do a little dance, make a little love, get down tonight.” This was the essence of disco: dancing and making love. At last, actualizing the dream of physical liberation: from head to the body; getting down.
Several years later (1980), the disco group Conversion proclaimed, “Let’s do it, let’s do it, there’s nothing to it.” This song—and others like it—spelled the climax of the sexual revolution. The project of overcoming repression—put forth by thinkers like Freud, Wilhelm Reich and Norman O. Brown—had reached fruition. By that time, how simply it seemed! But what a long, long trip to get there.
VII: MOVE, MOVE: FREE YOUR BODY
In the New Testament, St. Paul warned his followers: “Do not let sin reign in your mortal body that you obey its lust.” He explained that those who belonged to Christ had “crucified their flesh with its passions and desires.” Rock ‘n’ roll represented rebellion against 2000 years of Christian civilization, disputing the idea that the body with its desires is sinful and that it is necessary to crucify the flesh.
When Elvis was criticized for the way he moved in 1956, he said that “old types” were making too much of his sexuality. He insisted that when he moved his body, he was simply being “natural.” Whereas St. Paul said that the flesh acted in opposition to the spirit, rock ‘n’ roll insisted that spirituality was contained within the flesh. Rock ‘n’ rollers embraced the unity of body and mind, claiming that their music, which excited the flesh, was—simultaneously—”soul” music.
In Saturday Night Fever, the most popular film of 1977 and one of the best- selling albums ever, John Travolta fulfilled the project of bodily liberation theorized by Wilhelm Reich and acted out by Elvis. In Tony’s dancing, we thrill to witness a male body comfortable with its sensuality, free of character armor, capable of expressing itself without inhibition. This was an actualization of Norman O. Brown’s fantasy of living the “unlived lines of the body.”
From the perspective of disco, Elvis’ movements seem forced and ungraceful, even spastic. However, given the historical moment, his movements could only have been what they were. Elvis Presley represented the initial phase of the American project of bodily liberation. He was struggling against internal and external resistances that impeded the flow of energy. By the time disco and John Travolta arrive—22 years of Rock ‘n’ roll have worked their magic. The body no longer encounters resistance.
A 1986 song “Move Your Body” (Marshall Jefferson) crystallized the Rock ‘n’ roll ideology linking dance to the liberation of the body. The singer proclaims that he “Just can’t stop dancing,” as he keeps “groovin’ to the rhythm, to the rhythm of the beat.” The refrain of the song, “Move, move, move—free your body” sums up the psychological imperative that had driven American culture for thirty years—ever since Elvis appeared on the scene. By this time, the message no longer was revolutionary, or even required.
Elvis is an iconic figure because he symbolized the birth or coming into being of a new kind of man, capable of expressing and revealing his power and personality through the vehicle of his body. His public movements valorized the “lower” parts—beginning a process of sexual liberation that would dominate America for the balance of the Twentieth Century.