Oh, those swinging hips and that notorious upper lip. Mesmerizing audiences everywhere with his guitar and slicked-back hair, Elvis Presley was certainly a star. But to Peter Nazareth, he wasn’t just a star, but a true artist.
The lecture entitled, ‘Elvis in the Third World’ was presented by Peter Nazareth, a professor of English and African-American World Studies at the University of Iowa.
The lecture was held on Oct. 2 in HIB 135 as part of a series sponsored by the International Center for Writing and Translation entitled ‘Other Ways of Knowing: The Challenge of Cultures in Contact.’
The core of Nazareth’s lecture and study revolved around Elvis’ twin, who died at birth. Based on the belief that many twins have a connection and even communicate in the womb, Elvis had an innate feeling of loss for his twin. Thus, Nazareth has studied how Elvis has constantly connected himself to others.
‘The scale is different. I haven’t found that scale [of connection] in any other singer,’ Nazareth said. ‘Elvis will do Little Richard but you won’t hear Little Richard do Elvis.’
Nazareth explored connections between songs, films and books to see where Elvis found the roots to his music.
‘Through Elvis, I go to all the others,’ Nazareth said.
In Elvis’ music, Nazareth saw more than just the songs that the ladies swooned to, but deeper messages about world culture.
During the lecture he played clips of Elvis’ songs and the songs he mimicked. The first song was ‘I Feel So Bad,’ which was sung by both Chuck Willis and Elvis. The two were very similar but Elvis had added a ‘whooping’ sound during a saxophone solo.
Nazareth explained that this song was about the loss of center of the colonial person and slavery. Elvis’ subtle change signified a sense of freedom and breaking away that the Willis version did not have. In his lecture, Nazareth said Elvis has had a constant curiosity in humankind and a quality in the music capable of bringing cultures together.
This could be seen in the film clip he showed of ‘Girls! Girls! Girls!’ where amidst the Red Scare, Elvis deconstructed orientalism rather than promoting it, by showing Chinese people in a different light.
Nazareth made a correlation between his study of Elvis’ music and the way literature and art is interpreted.
‘It is art,’ Nazareth said. ‘I want to discover, what does it mean? How does it change our consciousness and our society? I tell my students, I’m not expecting you to like it, just listen.”
According to Nazareth, there is no end to the amount of discoveries that can be made on Elvis.
‘No student has ever said ‘you\’re wrong.’ They go on to interpret more and bring up new materials,’ Nazareth said.
Nazareth also said that although Elvis has been criticized for not creating his own sound, Nazareth believes his mimicking is the beauty of it.
‘There is no other singer who does as many singers,’ Nazareth said. ‘It is like he has done many originals.’
According to Kavee Thongprecha, the Elvis impersonator who is referred to as ‘Thai Elvis,’ impersonating the King is not as easy at it seems.
‘If you try to copy [Elvis] it’s very hard,’ Thongprecha said.
Martin Vega, a third-year student in comparative literature, said Elvis’ music is not like the music of today’s artists who also create their own versions of original songs.
‘I kept thinking that today there’s a lot of taking from the past and people getting criticized, but with Elvis it’s more of an open dialogue rather than stealing,’ Vega said.
Despite the fact that Nazareth dedicates a whole class on Elvis, he never gets tired of playing the same music because his teaching style, like music, is not the same for everyone.
‘I do it different every time,’ Nazareth said. ‘I teach by intuition, just like a musician, seeing what happens.’
Other than affecting the life of Nazareth, the lecture provides a window into which students can see Elvis in a different light.
‘It was informative and neat to see Elvis in a different way, rather than thinking of him [as] an actor,’ said Noah Green, a third-year English major.
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