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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 last four parts of this paper:
4. Twisting the Night Away
5. Janis Joplin and Norman O. Brown
6. Coming Down/Getting Down
7. Move, Move: Free Your Body


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.”


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.


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.


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.