Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Baby, It's Cold Outside

One of the more repetitive themes of this Christmas has been the controversy surrounding the song Baby It's Cold Outside, particularly picking up after Cleveland radio station WDOK banned the song from the airwaves this year.  Canada's CBC Radio also followed in the ban.  In the couple of weeks since the ban was initiated, much has been written and ranted about, seeing this as part of the "War on Christmas" or an overreach by the "feminist/#MeToo movement."

The song as originally written by Frank Loesser in 1944 as a duet for he and his wife as a party trick, often used to signify to guests that it was time to leave.  On the printed score, the lyrics are written for two parties, a "Mouse" and a "Wolf", not specifying the gender of either party.  The song went on to be included in the Esther Williams film Neptune's Daughter, for which it won the Oscar in 1949 as Best Original Song.

It's an odd song for Christmas for a couple of reasons.  First, it's not really a Christmas song, but a winter song.  It has nothing to do with Christmas and has no mention of any of the celebrations.  Further, the song's premier in Neptune's Daughter did not even have any connection to winter in the context of the scene.  The only indications we have for winter are lyrics that indicate that it is cold outside and there's a blizzard.  The song could really be performed from November through February with no problem.  It's just developed a connection to Christmas through various Christmas albums. 

Secondly, the song has an interesting history, as it virtually dropped off the map from the 1972 until 1990.  The song had a strong resurgence post-2003 thanks to the movie Elf and the duet between Zoe Deschanel and Leon Redbone/Will Farrell.  Without that boost, we may not even be having this discussion today.

The beauty (and current concern) of the song lies in the flexibility of the lyrics, which enables it to present a few different scenarios.  It can definitely been heard as a willing Mouse looking to overcome societal expectation and enjoy a wonderful consensual night of fun with the Wolf.  It can also be heard to represent a pushy/persistent/determined Wolf breaking through any resistance the Mouse can offer.

If you look at the first version the public heard and saw in Neptune's Daughter (my favorite), it becomes easy to see how it can be interpreted both ways. When it is performed with a female "Mouse" and a male "Wolf" (Esther Williams and Ricardo Montalban), the song is understood as supporters believe. Williams clearly wants to stay.  "I wish I knew how to break the spell.  I ought to say no, no, no sir.  At least I'm going to say that I tried."  These lyrics in particular convey the struggle between societal expectation and inward desire.  Montalban is trying to give her every justification to do so, reaching for the most ludicrous of pretenses, as they are singing the song in the middle of summer.  It's cold outside indeed.

Neptune's Daughter then cleverly reverses the genders in the song, with a a male "Mouse" and female "Wolf" (Red Skelton and Betty Garrett).  In this scenario, Skelton is clearly trying everything to leave and Garrett is doing everything in her power to make him stay. Though it's played for comedy, the same words are used to convey both meanings effectively. 

Beyond the overall effect presented in this second scenario, there are two large problem stanzas for modern audiences that are continually raised.  First, there is the "what's in this drink" line.  This is one where context is important.  "What's in this drink" is a old movie line from the 1930s that means "I'm telling the truth."  It's used as a gag, where the person will do something out of the ordinary from their expected character and blame it on the drink.  The joke is that there is usually nothing in the drink.  The second stanza of contention is "The answer is no" line. Again a product of its time but nonetheless a big problem in the "verbal affirmative yes" culture.

And therein likely lies the biggest problem the song faces.  Without an understanding of history and culture, the song will likely be viewed as more and more of a problem.  Without the people who can spot the references and understand them, it will likely just be seen as that date-rapey song, as I've seen so often in comments. 

While you can, do yourself a favor and check out Neptune's Daughter.  And if the song's a favorite, continue to give it a listen. 

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