Q. 6. “The impact of Elvis Presley on US society during the 1950s was more the result of TV coverage of his performances than of his music. ” Use the sources, and your own knowledge, to explain whether or not you agree with this view of the career of Elvis Presley. Elvis Presley would almost certainly not have made such an impact on US society without the television coverage of his performances. During the years 1945 to 1970, American citizens were experiencing unprecedented prosperity, as rapid growth of the economy provided middle-class Americans with comfortable lifestyles.
Due to many more people becoming affluent, television sets, along with countless other high-tech goods previously considered luxuries and rarely affordable, became necessities for ordinary people. By 1960, 90% of homes contained a TV set, and Elvis’ first major TV appearance provoked an unprecedented response, as shown in Source B. Elvis Presley’s impact was largely due to how controversial his performances were. Adults disapproved strongly of his suggestive, animalistic “grunt and groan antics”, which horrified them but delighted teenagers.
Elvis’ behaviour as well as his music was something American society had never seen before and was not considered acceptable. Even the prominent evangelical preacher, Billy Graham, was moved to comment after Elvis’ first TV performance: “Elvis isn’t the kind of boy I’d like my children to see”. Elvis couldn’t have wished for better publicity than this brought him, and more publicity (even though it was negative) meant more young people would buy his records, and eventually start to be influenced by him.
So basically, without the publicity he got from TV and the heated reactions from the adult generation, Elvis could never have achieved the level of popularity he did with teenagers. In other words, TV was directly responsible for his impact on society in the 50s. If Elvis had remained as just a stage performer, requiring people to pay for tickets to his shows or buy his records to be seen or heard, he might never have alarmed adults so much, as his impact would have been limited. Elvis was dangerous because of television.
All it took was to turn on the TV set that most families owned, and Elvis would be there, wiggling and shouting for anyone in a room of 1950s America to see. Source C backs up the fact that Elvis could not have made the impact he did on America without appearing on television. It says that “If his entertainment could be confined to records, it might not be too bad an influence on the young, but unfortunately Presley makes personal appearances”. This comes from a Catholic magazine, whose view is that the TV coverage of Elvis’ performances is more likely to lead the young astray than his music.
It is also of the opinion that “If the TV companies would stop handling such stuff” Elvis Presley would stop having the effect he was having on the young. Source E is an extract from an article in an American television and radio magazine written after one of Elvis’ early TV appearances on the Milton Berle Show, which achieved greater ratings than the usually more popular Sergeant Bilko, as a result of Elvis being part of the programme. It shows that even with all of the bad press Elvis got from his TV performances earlier in the year, he was still the performer people most wanted to watch.
In fact, Elvis’ bad reputation in adult newspapers and magazines would have helped him increase the shows ratings, because people would have wanted to make up their own minds about how appalling he was. Source B, C and E are all influenced by the television coverage of Elvis’ performances. If he had not made his shocking appearance on the Milton Berle Show, both B and C would be different, or would not have been written at all. Source B is describing how disgusting and crude Elvis was, and this opinion is due to his television performance, as are the opinions in Source C.
In Source G, Billy Graham’s comment was probably made after seeing Elvis on TV – he talks about his daughter, referring to the scenes broadcasted of a similar nature to those in Source F, a photograph of Elvis performing live showing young girls that seem to be screaming and going wild. The same is also true of the statement from the Ku Klux Klan member and from the Congressman Emmanuel Celler. Without Elvis’ performances on TV these views would never have been formed.
This would have lessened Elvis’ impact in terms of how he influenced the younger generation – teenagers were willing to embrace rock and roll (a type of music their parents despised), as they felt it released them from the dullness of their parent’s generation, which had lived through the greatest depression in history, and believed in conformity and hard-work. They were therefore in support of Elvis as a way of rebelling against the older generation, but they would not have been able to do this if Elvis’ TV appearances hadn’t caused such negative reactions from adults, adult newspapers, religious organisations and politicians.
This illustrates just how important a role TV coverage played in allowing Elvis to impact on society so much, but also shows how there were other factors involved, such as the changing attitudes of young people in the 50s. As already mentioned, they wanted to rebel against the older generation, and this was partly because the average teenager had more money to spend during this period than ever before.
This higher amount of expendable wealth meant that young people were able to take up their own hobbies and interests, different from adults’, for example, buying their own records whereas before they had listened to the same types of music as their parents. As can be seen from Source A, companies recognised this new and profitable market, and responded with products such as magazines aimed at the young that supported and idolized Elvis, making him even more popular.
Another reason for the youth of America becoming anti-authority was the threat to America of a nuclear war at the time, which created an attitude of ‘who cares? ‘ and heedlessness. Source B also demonstrates that Elvis’ impact may not have purely been due to his performances on television, as it shows that he was capable of having a hit record in March 1956, which is before he appeared on TV for the first time. Also, the fact that Elvis was then booked shortly afterwards to appear on a TV programme (which would have been done to boost ratings) shows he was already successful.
Despite having this early success, TV does appear to be mainly responsible for Elvis’ impact, as Source H shows that in 1956, the year Elvis first started appearing on TV, four of the top five selling singles that year were by him, whereas the year before none were his, even though he had been a recording artist and professional live performer since 1954. In conclusion, Elvis Presley’s impact on society in the 1950s was more the result of TV coverage of his performances than of his music.
Elvis attracted many young people because of how controversial he was – because “he looks so mean” and “he peddles dope” (these explanations of his charm disgusted and worried parents). His shocking nature would never have been revealed to the older generation however without his TV appearances. As well as this TV made it impossible for adults to control what teenagers were exposed to: parents could have stopped their children from going to see Elvis, but it would have been harder to the broadcasts being sent directly into their own homes, that were so outrageous to the old and appealing to the young.