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When Elvis Presley’s hips caused a cultural revolution


When Elvis Presley first appeared on CBS in 1956, pop culture had barely gotten off the ground. Its subsequent ascent, however, was akin to Conchord. This meteoric culture rise was, in part, due to his single rocket-fueled performance. When Bob Dylan croaked ‘The Times They Are a-Changin’’ some eight years later, Elvis Presley’s hip-shaking antics wouldn’t be far from the Book of Genesis in his tome of pop culture liberation. 

The year before Elvis thrust the future into living rooms, the first McDonalds was opened, cans of Coca Cola could be purchased for the first time, and Disneyland opened its doors to the public in California. Despite this seemingly liberal progression, conservatism was still the king of the zeitgeist. With birth control pills still five years away from approval, this conservatism was particularly apparent when it came to sex. 

However, Elvis would soon see to it that the picture would rapidly change. Although apparently borne from stage fright, The King’s hip-thrusting ways caused an incredible stir when he was first aired on The Ed Sullivan Show. While he dazzled millions by heralding the forthcoming wave of rock ‘n’ roll, certain critics in The New York Herald Tribune saw fit to label his performance “untalented and vulgar”.

The reason the 21-year-old shocked so many was due to the sexual aggression of his onstage bravura. He literally gyrated liberation into the living rooms of millions and for some that was unacceptable. In fact, CBS were so afraid of the potential controversy kicked up by the ‘Hound Dog’ star that they made a decree that for all future shows he would exclusively be filmed from the waist up.

Needless to say, he was definitely invited back. Thereafter his popularity began to defy censorship. CBS simply couldn’t stop his hips from shaking and as they did, pop culture’s raucously progressive ways edged further towards the future. Hell, even Frank Sinatra was made to look old hat by the new star as Ol’ Blue Eyes commented: “His kind of music is deplorable, a rancid smelling aphrodisiac… It fosters almost totally negative and destructive reactions in young people.”

However, Elvis continued to be the same greased-up snake-hipped singer he always had been and in a proto-punk fashion, his sexual antics any got groovier. This set many stilted living rooms ablaze. Sexual liberation was already well underway in certain circles, but Elvis now had the broad stroke of the mainstream by the short and curlies.

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Within a few months of his appearance, in the literary world, Peyton Place by Grace Metalious became the uber-salacious and provocative best-seller that thrust sexual liberation into the living rooms of the masses. Of course, there had been countless precursors to this, but for the first time the movement seemed to be escaping the clutches of niche subcultures and beginning to seed into society at large and when that happens, invariably the demimonde shifts further into the margins while simultaneously the less daring elements of the movement become accepted and engulfed into the mainstream.

In short, with a few swift hip swings and a refusal to stop the shifting despite threats of censorship, Elvis was most certainly in the building, and he was illuminating a rock ‘n’ roll future as he rearranged the furniture of civility.