‘Kissin’ Cousins’: The disturbing Elvis Presley song that tries to justify incest

The central progenitor of rock ‘n’ roll, Elvis Presley, became one of the first-ever global superstars. As the Beatles’ John Lennon once famously remarked: “Before Elvis, there was nothing”. He was the first man to take the mantle as the 20th century ushered globalisation and technological enlightenment. Presley’s musical career blossomed through the 1950s, with US record shops making much of their revenue from his 7” singles.

In December 1957, Presley was drafted into the US Army. His fans launched petitions on an impressive scale to request that he be spared the duties, but Presley didn’t want special treatment. “The Army can do anything it wants with me,” he famously stated at the time. After one deferment, which allowed him to complete his movie King Creole, Presley was sworn in as an army private in Memphis on March 24th, 1958.

After serving most of his term as an armour intelligence specialist in Germany, Presley was honourably discharged in March 1960, just in time for the swinging ‘60s. This second wind for Presley’s career was less impactful. Rock ‘n’ roll had evolved for a few years without him, and the British Invasion was just around the corner.

Compounding Presley’s career woes, he tried in vain through the ‘60s to make a more profound mark in Hollywood. Despite enjoying a few high-charting movie singles, including ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love’, ‘Return to Sender’ and ‘Viva Las Vegas’, his presence as a serious actor was virtually non-existent.

One of Presley’s movie misfires was the questionably titled musical comedy Kissin’ Cousins. Directed by Gene Nelson, the movie cast Presley in two roles: Second Lt. Josh Morgan, an Air Force officer with dark hair, and Jodie Tatum, his look-alike hillbilly third cousin with blond hair.

The title suggests the movie might see Presley kissing himself, but it actually refers to two other distant cousins he encounters: Azalea and Selena. The two women compete for Josh’s affection, and after choosing Azalea, he sets Selena up with his friend, Master Sgt. William Bailey.

Much to Presley’s mounting despair, Kissin’ Cousins was panned by critics upon its release in 1964. “With the flavor of ‘Fun in Acapulco’ – and that it was – fairly fresh, Elvis Presley’s movie status takes a nosedive in his latest, ‘Kissin’ Cousins’,” Howard Thompson of The New York Times wrote in 1964. “Sam Katzman’s production is tired, strained and familiar stuff, even with double-barreled Presley.”

“This new Elvis Presley concoction is a pretty dreary effort, one that certainly won’t replenish the popularity of Sir Swivel,” Variety added at the time. “Presley needs — and merits — more substantial material than this if his career is to continue to flourish as in the past.”

The movie’s title and unsatisfactory content was topped off by the incest-encouraging lyrics heard in Presley’s title-track, which reached number 12 on the Billboard hot 100.

The lyrics, written by Bernie Baum, Bill Giant and Florence Kaye, read: “Well I’ve got a gal, she’s as cute as she can be/She’s a distant cousin but she’s not too distant with me/We’ll kiss all night/I’ll squeeze her tight/But we’re kissin’ cousins ‘n that’s what makes it all right/All right, all right, all right”.

The track’s moral standing depends on just how distant these cousins are, but the fact that they’re “kissin’ cousins” is certainly not a valid justification, as the lyrics comically suggest.

The justification takes a religious turn later in the track: Yes, we’re all cousins, that’s what I believe/Because we’re children of Adam and Eve/I got a girl and she wants a lot of love/That’s the kind of trouble I need plenty of”.

Listen the full track below and see what you think about Elvis Presley’s incestuous hit.

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