All Geared Up: Elvis the Transhumanist

Elvis2 Occasionally an idea will come to mind that's claimed quickly and eloquently by someone else before you have a chance to execute it. When Michael Jackson died I began dabbling with the subject of Jackson as Transhumanist, but my piece was only half-written when RU Sirius pretty much nailed the topic. Nick Gillespie at Reason found the key lines from Sirius: “Michael Jackson is obviously not an example of transhumanism to be followed. But he is a signpost on the road to post-humanity. I believe the future will study him from that perspective, and in some odd way, it will learn from his many mistakes.”

Well said, and lesson learned: When it comes to the world of ideas, if you snooze you lose. (Unless you enhance your work capabilities with Provigil, of course, in which case you won't do as much snoozing.) But although the Michael Jackson moment has come and gone, a new event was commemorated this week: the 75th birthday of Elvis Presley. Elvis was the primogenitor, the Omo I of rock and roll culture. He didn't just “ship a lot of units,” as they used to say in the record biz (back when there was a record biz.) He changed everything.

Elvis was certainly considered different. From his early days on he was an agent of radical transformation in sexuality, culture, and appearance. At nineteen, he and his musicians seemed so unusual to the announcer at the Louisiana Hayride that he was asked, on the air, “You all geared up with your band there?”

“I'm all geared up!” Elvis answered.

But suspicious minds require proof for Elvis as transhumanist. Let's define transhumanism as a rejection of traditional human biology and its limits, an assertion of the right to remake yourself radically (what Max More called “morphological freedom”), and an embrace of technology as the instrument of both self-expression and self-transformation.

Let's consider the evidence:

Elvis was not willing to accept traditional gender boundaries. Even as a teenager in Tupelo, Mississippi, Elvis dyed his hair and enhanced the beauty of his eyes with eyeliner. He wore a pink sport coat, in violation of gender norms, complemented by black peg leg slacks. Yet he contrasted the seeming feminity of these gestures with hypermasculine body movements and abnormally large sideburns (facial hair being an evolutionary cue for male dominance.)

His voice – a startingly clear and expressive instrument – was electronically enhanced in his earliest recordings. Producer Sam Phillips used slapback echo on Elvis, exaggerating the effect to a degree that was unprecedented at the time. Slapback was a form of human extension in which a singer's voice was recorded on tiny tape loops and replayed while the the vocalist kept on singing, creating an almost spectral effect. What sounded like echo was really multiplication.

Bill Monroe's “Blue Moon of Kentucky” was a heartbroken lament built around nature imagery. It was agrarian in both content and style. Elvis' version added electric guitar and swapped the song's traditional waltz tempo for a factory-ready 4/4 beat. A cyborg was created, half electronic and half rural, and they called it rockabilly.

Elvis transcended racial boundaries, too, adopting a singing style so African-American that when he was interviewed on Memphis radio for the first time the DJ asked him which high school he attended. Why? Because Elvis went to an all-white school in those segregated days, and the answer (Humes High, for trivia buffs) told surprised listeners he had slipped from bonds that his white peers assumed were genetically sealed.

Elvis' physical relationship to the equipment he used – guitar and mike stand – was unusually sexual and intimate, too. It's as if he was trying to fuse with them. While he didn't play electric guitar publicly until his 1968 television special, he banged the hell out of that old acoustic. When a guitar is played passionately the player and the instrument become a human/machine hybrid. (Watch some Hendrix footage and see for yourself.) Elvis was technically crude, but nobody could doubt his commitment.

This was a man who obsessively bought fancy cars, the 20th Century male's ultimate mechanical extender. He shot televisions, too, when he didn't like what he saw. That makes him a pioneer in the world of media interactivity, if a slightly more violent one than those that would follow.

Another trivia item: What career was Elvis planning to pursue before he made it big? Electrician.

Then there's late-period Elvis. While rockabilly purists dismiss that fat guy in the sequin suit, flashes of Elvis' brilliance – and his nascent transhumanism – always lingered. Ever the experimenter, Elvis took performance-enhancing drugs to amplify his abilities until the end of his life. (Since medicine was more primitive then and Elvis appears to have been an addict, they may have caused the end of his life.)

Consider his late-period performances in Las Vegas, where sleep is outlawed and Leni Riefenstahl-like architecture proclaims the human desire to dominate nature. Watch the videos: Those on-stage karate moves? Projections of individual power through nearby space. The cape? A superhero trope. The rhinestones? Synthetic stars for the man who would be a galaxy. And the song that by then had become his theme song, “If I Can Dream,” could be a transhumanist anthem:

There must be lights burning brighter somewhere
Got to be birds flying higher in a sky more blue
If I can dream of a better land Where all my brothers walk hand in hand
Tell me why, oh why, oh why can't my dream come true

As long as a man
Has the strength to dream
He can redeem his soul and fly

Elvis Presley was a man so convinced of his own powers that late in his life, fueled to excess by pills and ambition, he insisted to his companions that he could move clouds with his mind. And what song was always played over the loudspeakers as late-period Elvis took the stage? “Also sprach Zarathustra.”

I rest my case.

That ends our discussion of popstar transhumanism, at least until we complete our disquisition on Keith Richards. Meanwhile the world waits for the first openly transhumanist pop star, the one who will tell the world in transformational ways that she or he is in love. And, of course, all geared up.