Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars. —Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary
“(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear” topped the charts for seven weeks in the summer of 1957. It was from the sound track to Elvis Presley’s second film, the vaguely autobiographical Loving You, in which the King plays a delivery-guy-turned-singing-sensation who engages the affections of Dolores Hart, better known as the starlet who left Hollywood to become a Benedictine nun.
Anyway, everyone knows “(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear” is kind of odd, with its BDSM undertones and its arbitrary hierarchy of animals—what’s wrong with lions? Plus there’s the one-is-not-like-the-others aspect of it: Elvis sings of a toy teddy bear in a menagerie of otherwise live animals. But the strangest thing about it is the characterization of teddy bears themselves:
Oh baby let me be your lovin’ teddy bear
Put a chain around my neck
And lead me anywhere
Oh let me be your lovin’ teddy bear
Okay, I don’t want to speak for Elvis’s native Mississippi—or, for that matter, early twentieth-century Philly, from which the two songwriters hail—but where I come from, we don’t play with our teddy bears by chaining and dragging them around. We cuddle them. What Elvis is describing here sounds less like the plush toy inspired by Theodore Roosevelt and more like a dancing bear being tortured cruelly in a town square.
If it is, indeed, a teddy bear that Elvis has in mind, chaining and leading it is a worrisome proposition. And if it’s a live bear, then cuddling it in bed is an alarming proposal, too. Either way, Elvis is advocating for behavior that one would hardly encourage in one’s small child or teenage daughter.
But maybe Elvis, the cuddling-obsessed man-child, had never actually experienced the comforts of a teddy bear when he was young. Maybe he just … didn’t understand what they were, how they were used. After all, a teddy bear doesn’t have “hair” so much as “fur,” which is kind of a giveaway in itself—he’s like a medieval artist attempting to portray a lion based on reports from distant lands.
Now, legends and rumors about the King are notoriously rampant. But according to one dubious source,
During his first few nights in an army bunk, Elvis slept with his teddy bear clutched close, a major U.S. newspaper reported in 1958. “The incident caused such a furor around the camp that the commanding officer had to order Elvis to do away with his furry friend.”
No report on whether Elvis had any encounters with dancing bears. But this we do know: the modern Haribo gummy bear was introduced to Germany in 1960. Before that, it had been called a Teddy Bear. And at its inception? The Dancing Bear.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.