A Christmas standard since the 1940s, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is an uncommonly catchy and witty song that is now — incredibly enough — controversial.
Anyone who has turned on the radio, walked in a shopping mall or watched a Christmas special is familiar with the tune, a duet featuring a smitten male suitor trying to convince a visiting female friend to stay with him a little while longer. Every time she sounds ready to go, he counters with an objection: It’s cold. It’s snowy. It’s impossible to get a cab.
The appeal of the song is obvious; its offensiveness … much less so. The indictment is that by pressing himself on his lady friend so insistently, the suitor has violated contemporary norms of consent. A cottage industry has sprung up denouncing the song as “creepy” and even as a “rape anthem.” Two singer-songwriters recently reworked the song so it could pass muster, say, at the holiday party of the Oberlin College gender-studies department. The result is predictably leaden and humorless.
Despite all the effort, there is no reason to try to spoil “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.”
First, there are the circumstances of the song’s composition, which don’t speak to a predatory mindset. One of the great songwriters of the 20th century, Frank Loesser (“Guys and Dolls,” “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying”) wrote it to perform with his wife at a housewarming party for their new place in New York City in 1944. An instant hit, they sang it at private parties for years until Loesser, to his wife’s chagrin, sold it to the studio MGM.
Then there are all the great female talents who have performed it in duets down to this day — Dinah Shore, Ella Fitzgerald, Doris Day, Velma Middleton, Dolly Parton, Norah Jones, Sheryl Crow — who presumably wouldn’t want to lend moral support to harming women.
Finally, there is the song itself. It’s not difficult to understand what is really happening. The lady guest never says she wants to go, and there is no hint of her being held against her will. What she says is that, “I really can’t stay” and “I ought to say no, no, no, Sir (emphasis added).”
All of her reasons for going have to do with what other people will think — this being a long-ago time when a young woman wasn’t supposed to be alone with a man. Mother will worry, father will pace, the neighbors will talk, sister will be suspicious and “my maiden aunt’s mind is vicious.” But for all her objections, the female guest allows that she’ll stay for “maybe just half a drink more.”
Of course, neither the boy nor the girl is being completely forthright, which lends the song its playful charm. The male host is coming up with excuses for why she can’t go (It’s practically a polar vortex out there! Just imagine the Uber surge pricing!), because he desperately wants her to stay; and she is coming up with reasons why she has to go, even though she wants to linger.
Those horrified by the song perversely wonder if when the lady guest asks, “Say, what’s in this drink?” she is being drugged. Pop-culture mavens explain that this line often shows up in movies of the time as a sly way for characters to blame a drink — even if there is no alcohol in it — for something they don’t themselves want to own up to.
In our culture that puts such a premium on the literal and explicit, it’s no wonder that some people can’t handle anything subtle and implicit.
The informal, socially enforced guardrails around the interactions of men and women that were the backdrop to “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” are gone forever. But any era understands yearning and flirtatiousness. The enduring popularity of Frank Loesser’s winsome handiwork is a testament to how, even at a time when killjoys will try to ruin anything, romance never goes out of style.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.