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Elvis' Medal Of Freedom May Be A Dog Whistle...Or Not

It's also possible that the White House just wanted someone to appeal to the rural white base, and whoever was in charge of the selection was too lazy to look past the most obvious choice.

Chris Richards, a pop music critic at The Washington Post, thinks one of the White House's Medal of Freedom picks is a dog whistle:

Yes, the late Elvis Presley will receive the Medal of Freedom from President Trump on Friday.

Yes, Trump is sending a message here.

Yes, Presley is among the most pivotal and controversial musicians of the previous century, so yes, this is another needling MAGA maneuver — a little nod to the good old days, back when black visionaries could invent rock-and-roll, but only a white man could become the king.

Yes, this overture looks ugly to anyone who feels antagonism and regression radiating from Trump’s promise to “make America great again.” And yes, it all feels especially absurd to members of the hip-hop generation — its eldest citizens now past middle-age — who learned how to feel about the legacy of Presley the moment they first heard Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” blasting a hole through our national mood in the summer of 1989. Yeah, you know the Chuck D line I’m talking about: “Elvis was a hero to most, but he never meant s--- to me.”

Maybe -- except that it's very difficult to imagine Trump even being aware of that Public Enemy song, which was released the year he turned 43. Some middle-aged and older people keep up with contemporary music, but it's clear from the playlist at Trump rallies that the president never was one of those people. (These days he does seem to like Adele.) In 1989, Trump was probably listening exclusively to rock and pop radio stations that carefully excluded rap from their playlists. It's true that Trump has made efforts to be seen hanging out with hip-hop stars, just the way he likes to be seen hanging out with black athletes -- I'm sure he regards them as black people who are staying in their lane -- but there's no hip-hop at Trump rallies, not even during the brief period when Kanye West was trying to be Trump's best friend.

It's possible that someone on Trump's staff remembers the P.E. song and picked Presley for that reason. But it's also possible that the White House just wanted someone to appeal to the rural white base, and whoever was in charge of the selection was too lazy to look past the most obvious choice.


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The P.E. lyric is legendary, but there's been sonme reconsideration of Chuck D's premise. As Stereo Williams, an African-American music critic, noted a couple of years ago, a notorious Elvis quote that's been seen as proof of his bigotry -- “The only thing Negroes can do for me is buy my records and shine my shoes” -- is apocryphal:

The “shine my shoes” quote came from a 1957 article called “How Negroes Feel About Elvis,” published in a periodical called Sepia....

“Some Negroes are unable to forget that Elvis was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, hometown of the foremost Dixie race baiter, former Congressman Jon Rankin,” read the article. “Others believe a rumored crack by Elvis during a Boston appearance in which he is alleged to have said: ‘The only thing Negroes can do for me is shine my shoes and buy my records.’”

At the time of the article’s publication, Elvis Presley had never been to Boston. It was also alleged that he’d said it on Edward R. Murrow‘s Person to Person TV show—but he hadn’t appeared there either. Louie Robinson, Jetmagazine’s associate editor, tried tracing the actual origins of the quote and came up empty. So he tracked down Elvis himself, interviewing the singer in his Jailhouse Rockdressing room in the summer of 1957.

“I never said anything like that,” Elvis said at the time. “And people who know me know I wouldn’t have said it.”

“A lot of people seem to think I started this business,” Elvis continued, regarding his “King of Rock ‘N’ Roll” status and reputation. “But rock ‘n’ roll was here a long time before I came along. Nobody can sing that kind of music like colored people. Let’s face it; I can’t sing it like Fats Domino can. I know that. But I always liked that kind of music.”

“I always wanted to sing like Billy Kenny of the Ink Spots,” Elvis was further quoted as saying in the Jet interview. “I like that high, smooth style.” But Presley acknowledged that his own voice was more in line with the originator of the song that he would cover for his first single. “I never sang like this in my life until I made that first record—‘That’s Alright, Mama.’ I remembered that song because I heard Arthur (Big Boy) Crudup sing it and I thought I would like to try it.”

Williams concludes:

Presley had grown up on the “black side” of Tupelo, he’d run with the likes of Ike Turner in his early days as a musician and became close friends with B.B. King and eventually James Brown, Cissy Houston and Muhammad Ali. The racism that he’s been branded with because of a phantom quote seems to be a fabrication.

The business made Elvis a bigger star than his black contemporaries, but he admired the originators. Maybe a Medal of Freedom for him isn't the insult it may have been intended to be.

****

ON THE OTHER HAND:

Maybe it's his dog whistle.

Originally published at No More Mr. Nice Blog

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