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Elvis Presley, Rock 'n' roll, and the Liberation of the American Body
by Richard Koenigsberg
This issue of the LSS Newsletter contains the first three parts of this paper:
1. The Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll
2. Releasing Energy
3. The Dead Pelvis


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.


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.”


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.