Just in case you missed it, Elvis released a book for children this week.
According to publishers Penguin, Elvis Presley's Love Me Tender is:
‘a heartwarming ode to the special bond between children and the adults who love and care for them-be they parents, grandparents, adoptive parents, aunts, uncles, or guardians. With its simple, timeless message … and the sweet, inclusive illustrations make it a book every family will treasure "all through the years, 'till the end of time."’
The new book sets the lyrics of Elvis's 1956 music recording to illustrations of babies being held, fed and looked at by the adults in their lives.
Elvis’s ex-wife Priscilla claims the book is:
‘a feel-good story of love and accepting and a happy ending. Isn't that what children want? … I can't imagine them not liking the book’
(Music News, Sept. 2017).
As such, Elvis Presley's Love Me Tender joins the fast-growing market of children’s picture-books based on recordings of iconic songs. The lyrics of ‘Blowing in the Wind’, ‘Imagine’, ‘Take me Home Country Roads’, and ‘This Land is your Land’ have all appeared as hard-back illustrated texts.
Don't get me started on the implications of the power relationships between adults as producers/authors and children as consumers/audience, or the issues of cultural translation that kick in when one group creates cultural products both for and about a less powerful one. Imagine if all (or almost all; children increasingly create their own culture through cross-platform media) films for and about women were made by men. Or if all books for and about black and ethic people were written by white people. Or maybe if all songs and music for and about working-class people were written by the middle-classes. You get the idea.
For me, the new Elvis Presley's Love Me Tender raises two main issues. Firstly, it highlights the problems of identifying 'the author'of a multi-media text, and secondly, it exemplifies the issues raised when 'adult' lyrics are recontextualised into the context of childhood.
You've guessed it. The author of the new book is ... Elvis! Amazon, Google Books and other retailers attribute the book to him.
Mmmm ... Elvis died over 40 years ago and as far as we know, he never wrote a book of any description in the jungle room, on his racquetball court or elsewhere in Graceland. To be fair, the new book does credit Stephanie Graegin as the illustrator (the retailers don't). But that only begins to describe the various layers of authorship that need unpeeling here.
Elvis fans may have spotted that there's already been a children's illustrated book called Elvis Presley's Love Me Tender. In the 2003 publication:
'artist Tom Browning reinterprets the ballad as a testament to the
bond between a father and daughter, portraying them together
in a variety of settings and seasons'.
Apparently, golf plays a large part in their bonding. At least this one's got an Elvis CD with it!
Love Me Tender was the title of Elvis's first film. Released in November 1956 but set in the 1860s, Elvis plays the part of Clint Reno, a real life historical person, one of three brothers who fought for the Confederates in the American Civil War.
The melody of the song ‘Love Me Tender’ was taken from the Civil War ballad 'Aura Lee' published in 1861 with music by George R. Poulton (not credited as an author on Elvis's recorded version) and lyrics by the splendidly named W.W. Fosdick. In the film, Elvis sings the song whilst strumming a guitar, directing his words alternately to his on-screen mum, his female love interest, his two brothers (one of whom was due to marry Elvis's now-sweetheart) and to the wider film viewing audience via the camera. Elvis performs on a porch acting as a stage.
This is where it gets interesting. When the ‘Love Me Tender E.P.’ was released in September 1956, (its popularity meant that the four songs were added to what up until then had been a non-musical film) Elvis was indeed credited as a writer, along with Vera Matson.
The words of ‘Love Me Tender’ were in fact written by Ken Darby. Vera Matson was Darby's wife. Vera Matson was Darby's wife. Elvis's name appears on the credits due to a deal struck by manager Tom Parker whereby song writers had to give up 50% of their publishing royalties to Elvis Presley Music. Lyricist Ken Darby claims he credited his wife as a statement about Elvis also not having anything to do with the writing of the song.
We know that Elvis was a highly 'musical' singer and musician, confident at making changes in rehearsals and in the studio, directing musicians and arranging vocal parts. However, it was Parker's deal that led to Elvis's writing credit rather than his apparently sizeable input into the sound and arrangement of 'Love Me Tender'.
Apparently, Elvis did in fact co-write two songs, the 1961 ballad 'That's Someone You Never Forget' and the 1965 rocker 'You'll be gone'.
Elvis's credit as the author of the new book raises some eyebrows and evokes the specters of authenticity (just who is the 'real' author?) and ownership (who owns the intellectual property and exactly who is getting paid here?).
I find a useful way to think about authorship, especially of the digitised, multi-media, sampled, airbrushed, intertextual images, songs and videos that most of us consume most of the time, is as a collective process with multiple authors.
French philosopher Michel Foucault coined the term 'author-function' to describe the discourse (the complex, fluid, contested process) of cultural production. Such a concept acknowledges the input of the various sound engineers, music producers, musicians, vocalists, writers, editors, funders, distributers, photographers, lighting technicians, film directors, stylists, hair dressers, book binders and retailers that have some part to play in the creation and dissemination of 'Love Me Tender', and its ongoing journey through films, picture books, cover versions and fan-made YouTube videos.
Recontextualising 'adult' lyrics
So, how do you interpret the lyrics of 'Love Me Tender'? Just what do they mean to you?
Love me tender. Love me sweet. Never let me go.
You have made my life complete and I love you so.
Love me tender. Love me true. All my dreams fulfill.
For my darling I love you and I always will.
Love me tender. Love me long. Take me to your heart.
For it's there that I belong and we'll never part.
Love me tender. Love me dear. Tell me you are mine.
I'll be yours through all the years till the end of time.
Who is singing to whom, about what? Who is the 'I' and who is 'you'? In the context of the original recording and of the film, most people would interpret them as romantic. Although still open to interpretation, their inclusion in a picture book designed to be read to children by adults points the reader to a new meaning in which parents, guardians and carers are expressing their love for the babies, toddlers and young children in their lives. A review of the 2003 Elvis Presley's Love Me Tender makes the problems of recontextualising 'adult' sentiment in the context of childhood explicit.
Publishers' Weekly point out that:
'Adults familiar with the song may be uncomfortable with the romantic implications of the words but children should have no such qualms.'
The idea of who is comfortable with what, and who should be exposed to what and at what age is central to the age-rating, scheduling and general accessibility of children's media to and for children. Conceptions of children as a 'special audience' who require some sort of protection from 'adult' ideas shape the products made for them and that have come to be associated with them.
This idea of what attracts the adult creators and gatekeepers of children's media to specific sounds, musical tropes, words, themes and visuals runs through some of my other blog posts. As a parent with an analytical PhD brain, I'm continually puzzling about how media creators frame their audiences by age, gender and other demographic attributes through the texts they create for them. Just what does an animated video for a song aimed at the under 6s look and sound like, and why? Ultimately, books and songs aimed at children, especially young children, have more than one target audience; adults as purse-holders are equally targeted.
Elvis did release an album for children.
RCA compiled some of The King's most child-friendly, childlike songs (full of what Peter Hollindale calls ‘childness’) in 1978 a year after he died to produce Elvis Sings For Children And Grownups Too! However, as a sensitive father (with his tongue firmly in his cheek), I deem the lustful urges of 'Angel', the militaristic allegory of 'Big Boots' and the guns and death of 'Old Shep' too ‘adult’ for my children. Ironically, my children’s childhood, defined as it is by social media and consumerism seems to be rendering them too grown up for the Elvis books, records and other children’s media products marketed for them.