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August 21, 2002

Elvis meets Rubens


I've been listening to a good deal of Elvis recently, and have become obsessed with a strange issue that derives from it. Sam Phillips, the Sun Records man, described "Don't Be Cruel" as a "sad song with a happy beat." I've been listening a lot to another Elvis song, "Mess of Blues" which is also, ostensibly, a sad song:

I got your letter, baby
Too bad you can't come home
I swear I'm going crazy
Sitting here by the phone

Since you've gone
I've got a mess of blues

I got your letter Sunday
Didn't eat a thing all day
The days are all Blue Mondays
Since you went away

Since you've gone
I've got a mess of blues (etc.)

Elvis is doing his operatic, booming, echo-chamber version of human suffering. However, the music is very swinging, strongly rythmic (if mid-tempo), with the beat emphasized by hand claps and background singers going "wooo-woo." In short, another "sad song with a happy beat."

The closest artistic analogy that comes to my untidy mind is Rubens' "Raising of the Cross" in which a suffering (but very athletic) Christ looks plaintively to Heaven as he is being hoisted by the combined efforts of huge, ultra-muscular ( and rather evil looking) manual laborers, with a few vigorous Roman soldiers and a beautiful leaping spaniel (one of the great dogs in painting) tossed in. Again, we have a "sad story" told with, well, a "happy beat."

In both the song and the painting, the protagonist's suffering is obvious, but the whole treatment (strongly rythmic in both cases combined with an extravagant, virtuosic execution) suggests an underlying energy or power that will, we know, shortly "resurrect" the protagonist from the dead.

This suggests that the attraction of Elvis is that he is a modern version of Osiris, suffering the dismembering wounds of adolescence, but with the superhuman vitality that makes his sufferings ultimately life affirming. (I don't think it was an accident that in the Osiris myth he is resurrected with an 'improved' penis in place of his sacrificed natural one.) When I say that art is at root religious, I may be saying that human nature seems to demand certain stories/rituals/ideas from both art and religion.

Osiris Rocks

I've been trying to think of a movie-analog to all this, and so far flopping. What is the cinematic analogy to the swinging rythmn of both the song and the painting, anyway?

I actually first noticed the tension between style and substance in 50's rock--where I think it is quite widespread--in "The Great Pretender." There the tension is between the operatic "doo-wop" form and the earnestness of the singer--he may be singing opera, but by God he's sincere. Does all of this derive from the fact that 50's rock was extremely self-conscious about being the art form of "teenagers"--who of course couldn't be taken seriously?



posted by Friedrich at August 21, 2002


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