What Elvis Teaches Us About Performance: It’s Got To Cost You Something

Elvis was born on this day in 1935, Tupelo, Mississippi.


I don’t care who you are. If you think you are worth watching, it’s got to COST you something. The great performers understand this. The ones who are remembered actually leave bits of themselves on that stage for the audience to pick up, and those pieces are lost to the performer forever.

But that’s okay. They’ve got more. Artists like that have more to give than other people do, a larger capacity for what is even possible to give. They’ve got to get rid of it somehow. That’s why they do what they do: to give it all away.

There is grainy footage of Judy Garland, as an adult, singing “Over the Rainbow” where she lets us in on her drowning hopes, her dying dreams.

What she gives us there she cannot get back. She doesn’t want it back. The feelings there are unbearable anyway. The whole point is to share it, and transform that pain into something else in the sharing of it. As my great acting teacher Doug Moston once said: “I’m a big fan of sublimation. You take your pain and you make it sublime.”

Or then there’s James Brown’s legendary performance on The TAMI Show. If young performers don’t even know that a KIND of bar for live performing was set that day, then they will not realize how much better they have to be, how much MORE they will be required to give of themselves to even reach the outermost region of James Brown’s solar system of power.

As Kathy Bates said when she came and talked at my school, “If you’re lucky enough to have a gift, then just give it away. All day, every day, just keep giving it away.”

I see young performers sometimes and I wonder if they understand, actually, the job they want to do. I wonder if they actually get how much MORE they will be required to give, how much DEEPER they have to go. The great performers make it look easy, right? So it should be easy for me, too. But the great singers, even the ones who are not famous, understand the job. The great ones – the Lena Hornes, the Patti Labelles, the Barbra Streisands, the Frank Sinatras, and, yes, the Elvis Presleys – NEVER lacked understanding at what the job actually WAS.

Being young is no excuse.

Show business is a meritocracy. Get it quick, or get the hell out of the way. Or learn FAST. Steep learning curves are the name of the game.

13-year-old semi-illiterate ballerinas in class know what their job is and know how difficult it will be and how much work is required. They understand the rigors of their own business. Athletes know. Performers, however, somehow miss that memo, maybe because performing is seen as subjective, for some reason. It is to some degree, there is such a thing as personal taste for an audience, what may do it for you may not do it for me, but on the performing level it actually isn’t subjective at all. Put James Brown’s performance next to almost anybody else’s and you can see that truth with stark brutal clarity. It’s a challenge: Can you be as good as I am, as committed? Just go ahead and try.

On Season 5 of American Idol, Elliott Yamin did a duet with Mary J. Blige, which had to be the strangest pairing in the history of show business. They sang One by U2 together, and it is a perfect example of what an amateur looks like next to a full-blown professional. He was protected from that reality while surrounded by other amateurs, but then Mary J. Blige comes on – and she is supportive of him, holding onto him the entire time, but she goes to another level. She is already at that place when she walked on that stage, because she understands that that is the nature of her job. You can see Elliott playing catch up, furiously, as the song goes on. “Oh … oh … she’s … that big? That into it? That … huge? Oh … shit, I gotta get my game up …”

Unless you are prepared to leave something of yourself behind on that stage, you have no business being up there.

Which brings me to the following clip of another American Idol contestant.

I appreciate Justin Gaston’s words on Elvis, and his understanding that Elvis is “iconic”. That’s a start.

But watching Justin Gaston singing “If I Can Dream” in that studio hurt me, the way it hurts to see anyone not actually understand what their job is.

Dear Mr. Gaston, if I were your coach or your mentor, I would have nothing to say about your voice. Your voice is fine. It sounds great.

But I would give you one suggestion:

Why don’t you take your goddamn hands out of your pockets while you sing the song, and just see where that would take you?

Just see what it would be like to actually commit to a gesture. As the great John Wayne said (and nobody could do a gesture like John Wayne): “I think that’s the first lesson you learn in a high school play — that if you’re going to make a gesture, make it.”

Making a gesture changes how you actually FEEL. Try it. You’ll see. You have no idea how safe you are being, sir. You have no idea how much you are willing to skip off the surface of the water. You want to be a singer, but you don’t understand the job.

The Art of the Gesture is a dying art, in today’s more casual “over it” world. The singers who actually commit to gestures (and I’m not talking about dance moves, I’m talking about Elvis Presley-Judy Garland-Liza Minnelli-James Brown GESTURES) are few and far between. I could pontificate on why this is, although that would be boring speculation. Whatever the reason, the culture encourages “over-it-ness” and maybe performers don’t want to seem like they give a shit. They don’t want to betray their hearts or reveal how much they need love, how much feeling they have to give. They fear rejection, so even some big stars play it safe.

Anthony Hopkins came and spoke at my school. One guy asked him a question, referring to the scene in Nixon where he broke down while praying with Henry Kissinger. The guy said, “You were so vulnerable … I was just wondering … how you protect yourself doing something like that?”

The great Anthony Hopkins was kind, but it was clear he didn’t even understand the question. He looked quizzically at the questioner (almost like: “Are you an actor? Really?”) and said, “Oh, but you mustn’t protect yourself.”

In my opinion, if you don’t know that going in, you will never know it. Directors always say it’s easy to tell someone to “pull back” and “give less” but it is nearly impossible to get someone to “give more” (at least not consistently: you could browbeat someone into giving the performance of a lifetime, but it could not be repeated).

The great ones know going in: Okay, well, this is gonna COST me.

Maybe some will think I’m being too hard on the amateurs of American Idol but I would imagine that those people are not in show business. Because Elvis didn’t have to LEARN commitment, he didn’t have to be PUSHED to bring it out. He did so from the start. From Moment One. He put himself out there, not worrying about the COST.

Perhaps the true magnitude of the cost cannot be known at the outset.

Elvis Presley, as a 19-year-old virgin wailing “That’s All Right” in 1954, couldn’t know how MUCH it would cost him in the end, and how much he would actually be asked to give … and give … and give. He couldn’t have known the loneliness of the kind of fame he would achieve. Who could know it? No one had been that famous before. But at the outset, at the outset, from his very first moment performing live, when his wiggling leg made girls scream, he understood the job. I’m sure he didn’t even question it. I’m sure he never asked himself at the outset the question that that “actor” asked Anthony Hopkins. The great ones rarely look for escape routes from commitment and engagement, at least in their art. They do not flee from the implications of their greatness. They never actively avoid revealing themselves. That is why they are great.

Singing a song, even in a studio where no one can see you, with your hands in your pockets, betrays a complete misunderstanding of what being a performer is.

You don’t want to pay the price. You don’t want to give too much of yourself away, because you fear you won’t get it back. Well, kiddo, you won’t get it back. That’s the gig.

Ask Judy Garland. Ask Elvis Presley.

Yes, Elvis was “good-looking”, as you note, and “talented” and he had a lot of airplanes, which makes him super-cool. All true. He also had an arsenal of guns, a veritable zoo of animals, and a girl in every port ready to have pillow fights with him at a moment’s notice.

But he ALSO paid a price. I’m not talking about his early end, his death, his drug addiction. I’m talking about the performing itself. The reason WHY he had a lot of planes and a zoo and girls in every port was because he paid a price onstage, from when he was a young pimply boy to when he was an overweight ill man. He would collapse after shows. Sometimes he would lose seven pounds in a night from sweat. That’s how much he put out there on that stage, that’s how much it cost him! Night after night after night. When he made a gesture, he was with John Wayne: He MADE it. You can FEEL those gestures, even today, so many years later. They hover over the performing landscape like an afterimage, reminding us of what we miss. Reminding us of who is no longer with us. Who makes gestures like that anymore?

Even at the very end, when Elvis was bloated and very ill, he wouldn’t be caught DEAD singing a song with his hands in his pockets.

Now about the particular song in question: “If I Can Dream” was the epilogue to Presley’s 1968 television “comeback special”. Steve Binder, director of the special (who also, incidentally, directed The TAMI Show), had initially been at a loss as to how to “sum up” Presley in the special and needed a song to do it. Peter Guralnik, in Careless Love, describes what happened next:

[He] approached Earl Brown, the vocal arranger, about writing a song. “I took Earl aside, and I said, ‘Earl, let me explain something to you. We’re under the gun now, and what I need – instead of having him do a monologue at the end, let’s do a song where we incorporate what his monologue would say. That was all I contributed: this is what I would like the song to be. So Earl went home and at seven o’clock the next morning he woke me up and said, ‘Steve, I think I’ve got it. I really think I’ve nailed the song.’ So I went into the studio, and Earl played the song for me – it was called ‘If I Can Dream’ – and I said, ‘That’s it. You’ve just written the song that’s going to close the show.'”

Side note: they filmed the special in the wake following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., an event that destabilized the entire world, and devastated Elvis, not just because he was a supporter of Martin Luther King, Jr., but because it happened in his hometown, a shame and a blot on the city. Steve Binder was radical: could a song be written that somehow expressed that part of Elvis, a part of him never before seen? “If I can Dream” was what they came up with.

There was a slight problem in that Colonel Parker, Presley’s manager, was still under the impression that they were all actually working on a Christmas special and thought that the show would end with Elvis singing a Christmas carol. Binder was on a roll now, though. He bypassed the Colonel and went right to Elvis.

“So now I go to Bob Finkel [executive producer], and I say, ‘Bob, I’ve got the end of the show.’ And he said, ‘Do you realize what you’re doing? The Colonel will blow his stack. It’s got to be a Christmas song.’ I said, ‘It can’t be a Christmas song. This is the song Elvis will sing at the end of the show.’ I arranged for Elvis, Billy, Bones and myself to go in the dressing room, and Earl sat down at the piano and played it through. Elvis sort of sat there listening. He didn’t comment; he just said, ‘Play it again.’ So Earl sat there and played it again – and again. Then Elvis started to ask some questions about it, and I would venture to say Earl probably played the song six or seven times in a row. Then Elvis looked at me and said, ‘We’re doing it.'”

The network was nervous too. They had been expecting a Christmas song, too. But when Elvis said Yes, he got his way. Makes you realize his power, which he used so rarely. He used it onstage, but offstage he played along as best he could, making the best of every situation. But when he said, “Yes”, mountains moved. Even the Colonel didn’t fight it.

But here’s what I wanted to say. Here is what I thought of when I saw that poor misguided boy above think he can actually get away with singing anything with his hands in his pockets.

Once “If I Can Dream” was decided upon, then came time to record it. Recording was done on June 23, 1968. Elvis did only five takes. It took so much out of him that he fainted after one take. Binder describes the recording session. They did four takes. When it came to the fifth take, Elvis – perhaps knowing that this next one would be the one – asked that all of the lights be dimmed. The studio lights were dimmed, the control booth lights were dimmed. Elvis began the fifth take. Binder, in the control room, looked out at the darkened space, watching Elvis sing. He remembers:

“I think he was oblivious to everything else in the universe. When I looked out the window, he was in an almost fetal position, writhing on the cement floor, singing that song.”

You can see how much it is costing him in the actual performance of it below, one of the greatest performances in his career, in any career.

At the 1:31, 1:32 mark, when he sings “We’re lost in a cloud …”, he comes forward a bit, hand out, it’s a lunge, and no matter how many times I’ve seen it, it’s still startling. That gesture, made from his heart, wants something from me. It demands engagement. And what if I don’t want to engage? What if I feel I can’t engage on that level? Well, that’s my problem. Elvis still makes that demand.

And watch near the end, in the repetitive “While I can think, while I can walk, while I can stand, while I can talk” section: His gesture moves into something almost strange, and yet perfectly in tune with the beat. He moves his right arm back and forth, but not just in a keeping-the-beat way. If I could put that gesture into words, I would say that it looks like he is submerged in water, shoving water up our way into a splash. Watch how his arm stops, when it flies behind his back, as though there is an actual object there stopping him from going further. Because of that “stop,” the gesture – when it comes back towards us – has more force. It’s insistent, a push OUT. Elvis makes that gesture unconsciously (it’s not there in the other takes, it’s not planned), but taken onto the symbolic level and what that gesture expresses: it is not self-involved. He is demanding that we share his dream. That pushing-water-upwards-and-out gesture is pushing all of that feeling out onto us whether we like it or not. His arm don’t just go around in an ongoing circle: that would make the gesture stunning, perhaps, and theatrical, but without that emotional motivation behind it. It’s not a musical gesture. It’s an emotional DEMAND.

Indifference is the worst sin in a performer. The great performers know that it is up to them to bring us out. There are a couple of breathers in the song during the short bridges where you can see him collapse almost, and then gear up again to go back into the song. And he looks absolutely wrecked by the end of it. His final gesture is a gasp.

It is all he has left.

Singing that song cost Elvis something. And we out there in the darkness are so much richer for it. He left something behind, for us, eternally. He left something behind that he could never get back. Something precious, something he might have been able to use someday had he hung onto it.

But that’s not what his job was. His job was not to hoard that energy force, which was (essentially) his whole self. His job was not to manipulate himself so that he seemed bigger/engaged/charismatic. His job was not to hang on to his gift.

His job was to give it away. All day, every day, keep giving it away.

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23 Responses to What Elvis Teaches Us About Performance: It’s Got To Cost You Something

  1. Rachel says:

    I am shocked and amazed when I watch American Idol and they have to tell singers to pay attention to the story in lyrics they’re singing. And they look genuinely confused like the words coming out of their mouths don’t have actual meaning but are merely gibberish sounds that allow them to get on stage with a band. Any singer that needs that note needs to get off the stage and never return.

  2. sheila says:

    Yes,so often a disconnect between words and performance.

    So let’s give it up for EP, the original US Male.

  3. sheila says:

    Really my complaint is just an excuse to celebrate!

  4. Sharon Ferguson says:

    Then again, I knew a young man when I was in high school who was painful for ME to watch because every move he did was patently calculated – in my eyes at any rate, as if he had studied the gestures and was using them to evoke something from me (he wanted to date me and God bless him, I just couldnt rummage up any attraction) that he wanted from me, not because he FELT those gestures – and this was just in day to day interaction. He wasnt in theatre, but I was, and I had a hard time watching him because the gestures he was making were so false looking in my eyes.

    (guess this makes your ultimate point LOL) but your post reminded me of him. I think I would have liked him a bit if his physical manipulation wasnt so pathetic.

  5. sheila says:

    Nothing I am talking about here has to do with being calculating.

    It’s part of the issue with talking about Gesture. It’s a dying art so you have to define your terms. Nobody really does it anymore- except for a couple.

  6. sheila says:

    A fake empty gesture is almost worse than no gesture. Again, it all comes back to cost!

    Sounds like the boy you describe was making gestures that were all about HIM.

  7. rae says:

    ‘“Oh, but you mustn’t protect yourself.”’ I love this. You’re right — completely different level there. Do you think that will ever cease to be a dying art?

  8. sheila says:

    Rae – as long as there are gay men on the planet, and drag performers, the Art of the Gesture will never die out. They keep it for the rest of us for safekeeping.

    My friend Alex Billings is a gesture queen – she reaches her hand out when she’s singing and you get goosebumps up your spine. My friend Meghan also understands the fullness of gesture – she is fearless. There are more. I think Lady Gaga understands what she’s doing, knows why she’s there – and at least in her recordings, I can hear her “go” there (“Speechless” is my favorite of hers – she wails that song, it’s very personal, and it almost ends up sounding like a confessional monologue the way she sings it) – also the video of her singing “Lady is a Tramp” with Tony Bennett is a true testament to this young woman’s giant talent, and also her place in a long continuum of balls-to-the-wall giant star performers.

    But gay men are the keepers of the flame. And let’s not forget that Elvis saw Liberace in Las Vegas in 1956 and totally went apeshit over the guy’s theatricality. He took a lot from him. They were friends til the end. Every time Liberace opened in Vegas, he’d get flowers from Elvis. Of course, Liberace was in the closet at the time, but still: it just goes to show you that Elvis was no dummy. He took from everyone – everyone who had anything of value. He recognized value. He had great taste.

  9. sheila says:

    Josh Groban is another one. He’s subtle, but powerful and sincere. He’s not “over it”. Not a hands-in-pockets kind of guy.

  10. sheila says:

    And about the Justin Gaston clip: the woman he’s singing with is gesturing all over the place, but they are unspecific, filled with self-love, and absolutely not communicative of anything having to do with the song.

  11. Jaime says:

    I think that Jennifer Jason Leigh’s rendition of Van Morrison’s ‘Take Me Back’ in the film GEORGIA is an example of a performance that “costs” on so many levels – her fully playing the part of a less talented singer and nonetheless giving her all AS that character and singer no matter how excruciating it may be to witness for an audience, no matter how vulnerable that leaves Ms. Leigh to that same audience’s gaze, and for all that elevating both her character Sadie and in a strange way, the performance of the song itself.

  12. sheila says:

    Jaime – excellent example!

    I think one of the best ways to know if a performance has cost someone something if if you, in the audience, feel uncomfortable. The performance is demanding something of you – not something specific – just engagement.

  13. Nondisposable Johnny says:

    So right about the loss of understanding in how and why to move during a performance…It might be that we live in too insular an age. Everybody’s seen what they THINK works on Leno or Letterman or American Idol. Nothing wrong with learning from others as you rightly point out, but at some point you have to put something of yourself in it or it…I haven’t been to church in a long while, but I have this dreadful feeling that if I go and somebody–anybody–gets up to sing, they’ll look, sound and gesture exactly like a television performer. Just one more thing to keep me rolling over in my grave when I’m six feet under! Thanks for reminding me Sheila!

    The next post on Judy is really illuminating by the way…never thought to connect those two performances but you nailed it. Ultimately healing performances and meant that way…but there’s a certain amount of understated anger as well. Definitely two people who knew what was at stake in those turbulent times (despite their supposed distance from the “real” world).

  14. sheila says:

    NJ – I think you’re right. We are now so awash in pop culture references that often it’s difficult to know who to imitate, or what you are imitating. The highest goal is American Idol. Not to knock American Idol, I enjoy the show – but it’s certainly good to have a longer history in your mind when it comes to your own chosen career than just the last 10 years.

  15. Alexandra Billings says:

    I’m taking this to class with me and reading it to my students.

    The entire thing.

  16. MBerg says:

    Best. Burst of. Sheila manic writing. Ever.

    I’m going to borrow that “art of the gesture” passage.

    • Sheila says:

      Aw, Mitch, thanks so much!

      Your boy Bruce has it too as I’m sure you already know. He is one of those performers who watched Elvis, saw the bar set, and was competitive/vulnerable enough to go into that realm.

  17. Regina Bartkoff says:


    So many great posts on Elvis I don’t know where to start, but this one is a great one from you, a classic!
    I put up all kinds of pictures on my wall of my heroes and right in front of me is the famous one of Judy Garland singing making that gesture with her hands thrown out. You can’t fake that! How Elvis can swing that cape around he would sometime wear and be so hilarious and so real at once.
    As for American Idol, I think people want that silver bullet that’s going to skyrocket them. What they don’t know is most people, singers, actors, performers are in the trenches for years working. I liked what Dustin Hoffman said about “making it” what if it didn’t happen he was asked. I would be doing community theatre right now he said. There is a love for it and there is a feeling you have to do it that some of those people don’t have.
    I was watching last night a special on Elvis. At the end, and I think only weeks away from death where he flubs the words then makes fun of himself and says “plus tax” is one of the funniest things I ever saw, then he continues to make fun of himself. You feel so many things. He’s bloated, sick, near death, he at times looks like a little boy, you want to protect him somehow and yet he gives an all out performance for everyone. But his voice and his humor never left him!

    • sheila says:

      Regina – I’m catching up on all the comments that came in over the past week. It’s been so busy with all of these horrible deaths!!

      // How Elvis can swing that cape around he would sometime wear and be so hilarious and so real at once. //

      I know. Insane. Who else could pull that off? James Brown could. And he’s the Greatest Ever. Elvis did it in another way – equally as real. Equally as hilarious and absurd.

      I know that “plus tax” moment. Hysterical. His sense of humor about himself was irrepressible – part of that weird charisma he had. He could wear a freakin’ superhero cape with the American eagle on it – without a wink of irony – but somewhere you knew he was thinking, “This is all so insane, what has happened to me.”

      That final performance is terrible to watch – he is so clearly SO ILL and should be in a hospital and not onstage – but as long as an audience was there, he felt an obligation to put out 100%. Judy Garland was the same way, right? These people were professionals – vaudeville/burlesque in their bones. You do not let down an audience. You do not focus on yourself. You get out there and do your job.

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