“Jailhouse Rock” (Elvis Presley)

It seems right that rock’n’roll’s first principle should be its prison ontology. Elvis was in the jailhouse and Bill Haley was a slave to working hours. So we “rock” because we’re stuck in Parchman Farm, or on a chain gang, or queer in a world of compulsory heterosexuality, or stuck behind the Iron Curtain. We don’t ask permission. It’s intentionally disruptive. Sometimes what we do may not rise above putting an occasional spanner in the works, or utilizing “the weapons of the weak,” as James C. Scott puts it. But, other times, rocking might rise to the level of the general strike, and make the walls and borders of the world tremble. So it’s strange to remember that Elvis’ “Jailhouse Rock” (1957) involves a rock show staged and strenuously promoted by the warden and capable of making the prisoners complacent enough to forego escape so they can listen to the beat combo. Rock here is exposed as nothing but an aural strain of the spectacle, as conceptualized from Machiavelli to Debord. So perhaps we’re all in jail, in one way or another, but rock’n’roll, as soon as it calcified and corporatized, became one of our wardens.

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