Elvis’ Sun recordings were the products of collaborations amongst amateur and professional artists, Elvis being the amateur. Does this mean that amateurs can achieve levels of creativity that match or better those of professionals? In some cases, yes. Amateurs established new institutions, new standards and new practices, but they would not have done so if professionals had not played key roles in their success. Elvis would not have carried off his recordings without the help of professional musicians Scotty Moore and Bill Black.
While not all amateurs reach the levels of creativity achieved by the Sun artists, amateurs can sometimes offer fresh perspectives and approaches when a discipline has grown stale. Amateurs gain specialized knowledge of their medium and discourse not through the standard institutions, but through alternative educational cultures.
Rock and roll artists shared the experience of hearing the history of recorded music through DJs like Dewey Phillips. Phillips played songs that would not be played together anywhere else, producing surprising juxtapositions. The musicians intuited patterns and traditions in these unusual juxtapositions and developed their insights into critical advances that found common stylistic and thematic features between songs of different genres. From hearing the history of music, the rock and roll musicians perceived the assumptions on which traditional forms rested and they invented new conceptual models to set the stage for the music they would make.
Rock and roll musicians chose unusual songs to champion. They championed songs that often turned out to be the most aurally interesting, even though they were not “well-made” songs. The result of their choices was that they produced an alternative tradition in which to work. Rock and roll musicians practiced a relentlessly intertextual art, openly mixing the sources of their inspiration. Their fascination with the forms and structures of music and their willingness to cite and mix these forms led to a new kind of music. The result is a dialogue across the culture, in which the listener participates by finding linkages or ruptures between various traditions put on display.
Rock and roll musicians often found what they liked in the archive and then justified their tastes. Elvis’ early recordings became manifestos for the movement, calls to arms. They transformed the subjective tastes of the group into a platform for a way of working, setting out a series of oppositions and objectives for future work. They set the necessary tone for the emerging youth culture by drawing distinct lines between competing camps. No longer could a musician deny responsibility for his work by arguing that he was only doing things a certain way because that was the way things were done.
If Sam Phillips, Dewey Phillips, and Elvis Presley were here to inform today’s artists about how to proceed, they would probably give us the following pieces of advice:
- Select from aesthetic, philosophical, and technological traditions those features you wish to propagate as well as those that you oppose. Systematize and justify your personal tastes, making them a viable alternative to current ways of working by drawing on the work of recognized authorities.
- Declare independence from the dominant mode of working.
- Create works that develop the inherent possibilities of the medium you’re working in. Theme alone is not enough of a reason to validate a work; the materiality of the form is at least as important. In other words, cinema is about images, not ideas. What is music about?