Friday, March 20, 2009

Liberace and Elvis: The Triumph of Kitsch

After my recent trip to Las Vegas, and a stop at the Liberace Museum, I started to ponder the odd similarities between "Mr. Showmanship" and "The King of Rock and Roll." Maybe it was the hot Vegas sun beating down on my forehead, maybe it was the glare from all the rhinestones, but it seemed to click in my head, Elvis and Liberace, two pillars of 20th-century kitsch, more alike than you might think at first glance.

When I say that Elvis was like Liberace, I'm thinking more of 70's Elvis, in Vegas, with the ostentatious outfits. But there were some similarities in their public personas dating back to the 1950's. Liberace became a star in the early 1950's in large part due to his TV show, which featured his colorful wardrobe, (this was before he was all about the rhinestones, and this was also a time when it was a big deal that Liberace wore a white tuxedo for a performance!) his brother George, and his mother, who was in the audience for almost every show. Liberace was a very shrewd performer, and he had discovered that he could win over audiences with his personality as much as his brilliant piano playing. He was able to take what might have been a shortcoming, his very swishy manner, and turn it into a huge asset. Considering how homophobic 1950's America was, this was no small victory for a gay man. This was, after all, a time when gays could be fired by the US State Department for being a "security risk." (Okay, so Liberace never publicly admitted he was gay, in fact, he even denied it under oath, but I'm pretty sure he was.) In this way, Liberace was actually quite subversive for the time. He was pointedly different, at a time when conformity was what people strove for. But what Liberace did was to temper this subversiveness with more "normal" behavior, like his emphasis on his family, brother George and his mother. And Liberace's personality was so sunny and warm that viewers couldn't help but be charmed by him. He was humble, gracious, and polite, and in this way showed that he was not a threat to the status quo, despite his differences.

Elvis Presley burst onto the national spotlight in 1956, and he seemed quite different and threatening to many people. Like Liberace, he was able to use television to greatly further his career and expand his appeal. And also like Liberace, Elvis was able to use TV to show people that he was not actually threatening, and that he was also humble, gracious, and polite. Eventually, as people began to know more about Elvis's personality, he seemed less threatening, despite his obvious differences. (Like Liberace, Elvis was also totally devoted to his mother. Some people conjecture that Elvis never really got over the death of his mother in 1958.) By entering the Army in 1958, and serving his 2 years like any other normal guy, Elvis again showed his essentially conservative, non-threatening persona.

There aren't many similarities between Liberace and Elvis in the 1960's. Liberace went through a brief period where he tried to tone down his costumes and his flamboyance, but the public wasn't interested. They wanted him to be his glittery self, and so he went back to the rhinestones, and his costumes started to get more outrageous. Elvis spent most of the 1960's proving that not only was he not threatening to the youth of America anymore, he was also in danger of becoming terminally boring. He shuffled his way through some incredibly crappy movies, didn't give any concerts, and recorded some really great songs that got buried on the second side of his soundtrack albums. (His gorgeous cover of Bob Dylan's "Tomorrow Is a Long Time" could be found on Side Two of the "Spinout" soundtrack. Really.) Amazingly, Elvis was able to reclaim his career and prove that he might still actually be a little dangerous in his 1968 TV special, "Elvis." (Now referred to as the "Comeback Special.") The following year he returned to live performing in Las Vegas. And that's when the similarities begin again.

By the 1970's, Liberace was now wearing tons of sequins, rhinestones, rings, everything sparkly that you could think of. Every new costume and stage entrance had to top the last one in fabulousness. He started being driven onto the stage in a Rolls-Royce! He started performing in bejeweled shorts. And Elvis was right there with him. In 1969, Elvis had been wearing tasteful jumpsuits on stage with very little accessories. But as the 70's crept on, the jumpsuits got a little more jeweled, and then a lot more jeweled, until he was seriously rivaling Liberace. That's been a mystery to me, why did Elvis suddenly turn into Liberace in about 1971? I don't get it. Elvis started entering his concerts to the sounds of "Also Sprach Zarathustra," by Richard Strauss. Where his style of singing before had been nuanced and often understated, now it became bombastic and overly emotional. (Just compare the 1956 version of "Love Me Tender" to how he sang it in the 1970's.) In fact, Elvis and Liberace's performing styles became very similar during this time. Both were highly emotional, sentimental, schmaltzy, florid, and over the top. The difference is that Liberace had always been this way, but it was only in the 1970's that Elvis's style changed. (They really should have recorded an album together in the 70's.)

Both Liberace and Elvis had amazingly ornate homes, furnished in the most garish way imaginable. Their plush lifestyles became a part of their public personas. How did they get away with such conspicuous consumption? By asserting their humble origins. As Liberace said, "Don't be misled by this flamboyant exterior. Underneath I remain the same simple boy from Milwaukee." And Elvis probably would have said the same thing, substituting Memphis for Milwaukee. Whether or not this was true of both men is not the point, the point is that people seemed to believe it. A difference between the two men is that while Elvis shut himself away behind the gates of Graceland, Liberace opened up his home for tours! (He had to stop doing this because his neighbors complained about all the traffic!)

As the 70's wore on, Elvis sadly became addicted to numerous prescription drugs, his weight ballooned, and his performances severely suffered. He had become a parody of himself. Elvis had become the Liberace of rock and roll. And I don't mean that as a compliment. The tragedy is that while Liberace knew he was creating an image, a persona for the audience, a caricature, if you will, Elvis never seemed to know how low he had sunk. In some of his last performances, Elvis, the man who had changed rock forever, was reduced to reading the lyrics to "My Way" from a sheet of paper. It was a sad decline for a man who had so much talent.


Anonymous said...

Liberace was also a twin. His twin died at birth just like Elvis' did. They both were mamas boys too.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Liberace was a brilliant American performer of his generation. Public records such as newspapers of the time show that he commanded high salaries, and pulled in large audiences to his venues in a consistent basis.

When the rest of the US was experiencing an economic downturn, that's when Liberace actually became wealthy because of his talent.

Hopefully his legacy will be looked at closer by new entertainers and the public, There was much to be learned from it.

Zeena Whayeb said...

Liberace told Elvis to wear more flashy and flamboyant outfits. He really encouraged him to do it.