Briahna Joy Gray in Current Affairs:
The trouble with Elvis’s version of “Hound Dog” is not that it is bad. It’s that it doesn’t make any goddamn sense. Big Mama Thornton’s original 1952 version of the song is sleazy and defiant. In a bluesy growl, she tells off the low-down guy who keeps “snooping round her door.” It’s a declaration of independence by a woman who is sick and tired of having a “hound dog” of a man take her for granted. The lyrics are full of dirty double-entendres: “You can wag your tail, but I ain’t gonna feed you no more.” In Elvis’s version, sanitized for a pop audience, the line is changed to “You ain’t never caught a rabbit, and you ain’t no friend of mine.” Drained of its original meaning, the song seemingly becomes about… an actual dog. Yet Elvis’s version of “Hound Dog” sold 10 million copies and became his single best-selling song. It’s ranked #19 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
The term “cultural appropriation,” a pejorative used to criticize certain types of ostensibly illegitimate borrowing from other people’s cultures, gets a lot of people into a lot of arguments. That’s especially true now that it is used to describe an ever-widening set of acts. What constituted “cultural appropriation” might once have been relatively clear: if you wore a ceremonial Native American headdress without actually being a Native American performing a ceremony, you were disrespectfully appropriating a culture that was not your own. But nowadays, the notion can be far more expansive in its scope. “Cultural appropriation” has been taken to mean that only blacks are entitled to create art about black historical figures: white artist Dana Schutz was boycotted and protested after displaying a painting of Emmett Till’s body, on the theory that black suffering was not a fit subject matter for nonblack painters. It’s also infamously been invoked to suggest there’s something wrong with people making foods from cultures other than their own.