In defence of a much-maligned Christmas classic: why ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ is wonderful

In defence of a much-maligned Christmas classic: why ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ is wonderful

by Alan Grant
article from Monday 3, December, 2018

IN 1944, Frank Loesser wrote a call and response duet for he and his wife, Lynn Garland, to sing at the parties, as was expected of Hollywood celebrities. Since then the song, ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’, has gone on to become a Christmas favourite and has been re-recorded and performed countless times. However, in recent years, the song has become the subject of an annual controversy (much in the same way as poppies, ‘offensive’ Halloween costumes, and, allegedly, saying ‘Merry Christmas’ have been) for different sides of the socio-political divide to spar with until something new comes along. 

I first became aware of the conversation around ‘Baby’, as Ms Garland herself described it, in 2016 but a cursory check shows that this particular moral panic goes back as far as 2012 and maybe further. 

The song, so its detractors say, is replete with the imagery, language, and subtext of sexual abuse and non-reciprocal advances. Some go further, with one writer for left-leaning publication Salondescribing it as a “date-rape anthem” while others resorted to that most damning of criticism – that the song is “problematic” (dun, dun, dun!!) 

The, presumably, well-intentioned critics of ‘Baby’, some of whom, despite the sarcasm-laden things I’m about to say, are near and dear to me and whose opinions I respect immensely, argue that upon reading the lyrics – a plethora of terrible ideas present themselves. 

They argue that the male part (called simply “Wolf”) repeatedly ignores the female part’s (called “Mouse”) desire to leave, requests for assistance, and indications that their night is over. Furthermore, they argue that there is a “predator/prey dynamic” that is “creepily explicit” and some of the more trenchant among them argue that the Mouse’s questioning of, “what’s in this drink?” makes more than just a nod in the direction of spiking and date-rape. 

It should be clear at this stage that I do not agree with this view but I will concede that, on reading the lyrics, this argument does have some weight – it’s not too hard to infer something nefarious or down-right creepy about the lyrics of this Christmas classic. 

As should be painfully obvious, however, to anyone with a grasp on what a song is, the lyrics are not supposed to be read – they are designed to be listened to, and therefore critiqued, as a performance and, when this happens, I’m sorry, but the critics find themselves outside shivering in the cold rather than in the warm, with a drink, and the prospect of a winch. 

Take the version with which most people will be familiar – the 1949 recording that appeared in the film ‘Neptune’s Daughter’ sung by Esther Williams and Ricardo Montalbán and won that year's Oscar for Best Original Song. Anyone, providing they don’t have an overly-suspicious imagination, can see that both participants are ‘into’ what’s going on but, as often happens in romantic clinches, one party is being made to work for it. 

Everything from the singers’ tone, to the inflection they use, to the slight and seductive inclining of the Williams’ neck when she sits back down to have, “maybe just a half a drink more” suggests that they two are taking part, not exactly in a game of cat and mouse, but definitely of Wolf and Mouse. 

The entire scene vibrates with flirtation, sexual tension, pursuit, chastity, taboo, and pure lust; and at no point in the entire scene does it seem like anyone is being made to do anything they don’t want to do. It is, the difference between, “Stop it!” and, “Oh, stop it! Bad boy!”… it’s all in how you say it, when, to whom, and what you mean by it. 

Why does this matter? After all, it’s just a song, right? 

Well, no. In my view, the criticisms of this wonderful little ode to romance and bridled sexuality are indicative of a worrying trend in puritanism and suspicion on behalf of the swelling ranks of the uber-literal and the sexuality police. Whether it the latest salvo in the ongoing attack on laddish behaviour and masculinity or the constant policing by the prudes of how women behave in relation to their sexual partners or even how they dress or present their own bodies; there appears to be a consistent attempt to dampen down, attack, and kill off sex, flirting, romance, and fun – all of which is encapsulated in this naughty little number. The attitude of the progressive left appears to be anti-sex and sexuality, more interested in bollocking those who enjoy a little bit of the “chase me, chase me” or a firm, but consenting, slap on the arse, than in doing anything meaningful to combat sexism or abuse.

Chances are, if you’re reading this, then you’ve probably had some kind of sexual contact or activity with another person. Can you imagine if this kind of attitude were to become prevalent or normative? If the interplay of a dominant or submissive, top or bottom, chaser and chased, were allowed to be neutered and pulled-apart by these frigid and, worst of all, boring ideas, what happens to sex, romance, and lustful fun? Sure, it might just be one song for now but that’s how culture is ruined – one song, one movie, and one book at a time. 

‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ is, in my view, a stunning, beautiful, and sexy song and one that continues to be reinvented and discovered by generation after generation as an anthem for romance and lust. In recent years, we’ve seen it performed by the likes of Kelly Clarskon and Ronnie Dunn, Jimmy Fallon and Cecily Strong, and Lady Gaga and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Of particular note, and often suspiciously unmentioned by the pious, is the same-sex version performed to great effect by Chris Colfer and Darren Criss in Glee (seriously, it’s really very good) which hits all the notes for which the song should be lauded and celebrated.

In an attempt to reach a point of consensus, we are talking all things Christmas after all, I should say that I admire the intention. I think it’s a noble cause to go back and analyse older material through a contemporary lens and to focus that same lens on what comes down the cultural pipe – doing so has consigned a lot of terrible, archaic material to the cultural dustbin and a good thing too. 

However, let’s remember to use our powers for good and not to claim to find non-existent subtext where it simply doesn’t exist… particularly if it risks losing a song as gorgeous and well-loved as ‘Baby’. 

Now, if you’ll excuse me, “I really can’t stay…”



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