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Elvis Presley’s rebellious spirit lives on in Lil Wayne

January 7, 2010 |  8:05 pm

The Times is celebrating what would have been Elvis' 75th birthday on Friday. Randy Lewis looks inside a new Elvis photograph exhibit at downtown's Grammy Museum, and pop music critic Ann Powers examines the continuing legacy of Elvis Presley in Friday's Calendar. An excerpt from her piece is below. 

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Elvis Presley's 75th birthday is upon us, and I can't stop thinking about Lil Wayne. Comparing the long-departed King to the soon-to-be incarcerated Best Rapper Alive might seem ludicrous to some; certainly Presley's accomplishments outstrip those of Dwayne Michael Carter. But there's a logic to the association.

Both artists leaped to stardom out of a troubled South: Elvis on the verge of the civil rights movement, Weezy in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Both gained fame on the strength of vocal performances that took established styles (rockabilly and urban blues; syrupy rap) to startling extremes.

Both combined a dandyish sex appeal with the classic American charm of someone getting over -- sneaking across the sturdy boundaries of class, race and region by deploying a talent that delighted its owner by coming naturally. Both have been compared to space aliens.

Rock music can be defined many ways: One is as a Southern-born, blues-based, multiracial, male-dominated genre exploring such risky subjects as sex, drugs and the high life in general while still aiming for a youth-driven mass audience. On those terms, rock's era of dominance begins with Elvis' "Hound Dog" and ends with Wayne's "A Milli."

Presley was the dark-lidded white boy whose illicit race-crossing sound enacted a musical era that paralleled the most transformative period in American race relations since the Civil War. Wayne isn't as historically influential, but as the most aggressively gifted representative of the Dirty South, he might be the last crucial voice in the cultural conversation leading up to the Obama era.

I don't believe in the term "post-racial," but I do think pop has entered a new phase, in which rock is no longer the defining force in American popular culture. Weezy's desire to be a rock star, embodied in his often-stalled Coldplay and Lenny Kravitz-influenced album "Rebirth," seems like the rock era's last transgressive gasp as it gives way to a new kind of hybrid that hasn't yet completely emerged.

Wayne even has a protégé, Short Dawg, who also calls himself Elvis Freshly. Old gods die hard and are always available for resurrection.

--Ann Powers

Read the full story here. Explore the photographs of the Grammy Museum's 'Elvis at 21: Photographs by Alfred Wertheimer' here. 

Photo: Rapper Lil Wayne carries the Presley flame. (Lil Wayne: Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times; Elvis Presley / Associated Press)

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