What the debate around Baby, It's Cold Outside means for pop hits of the past

06 Dec 2018 | Canada
What the debate around Baby, It's Cold Outside means for pop hits of the past

Baby, it's Cold Outside is a song that lends itself to many incarnations — ​and just as many interpretations. 

The 74-year-old tune about a man coaxing his date to stay despite her professed wish to leave is now being silenced on many radio stations (including two streams of CBC Music), but the debate about its merits, and the repercussions of the decision to shelve it, is still being aired.

Some voices are coming forward to defend the song, saying it had a proto-feminist message for its time, while others say it should be tossed. But as the debate continues deeper into December, some are pointing to the scrutiny of the song as a harbinger of things to come for other pop compositions that may offend the modern ear (hint: Mick Jagger might have reasons to be nervous). 

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Baby, it's Cold Outside began its life in 1944, when songwriter Frank Loesser, who also penned the Broadway hit musical Guys and Dolls wrote it to perform with his wife Lynn at parties. Loesser sold the song to MGM to use in the film Neptune's Daughter, starring Esther Williams. It became an instant hit, even winning an Academy Award in 1950. 

At first glance, the premise of the song is simple enough: a call-and-answer duet between a man and a woman, where he implores her to stay at his place as she demurs that she should leave. The man's refusal to accept the woman's "No" for an answer struck many modern listeners as "coercive and problematic," as Lydia Liza, 25-year-old singer-songwriter from Minnesota, sees it.

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"I think it is a beautiful song harmonically, but I think it doesn't matter if there isn't a mutual amount of respect going on in the lyrics," said Liza in an interview from her tour stop in Los Angeles. 

In fact, Lydia Liza disliked the song so much, she recorded her own, "consensual" version of it with fellow musician Josiah Lemanski, in 2016. 

But some people who have looked closely at the lyrics say we're failing to consider the constraints women faced in 1944, when there was a great pressure to appear modest.

"She's afraid of being seen as slutty or naughty and is fighting her own desire," jazz singer Sophie Milman said of the song on CBC Radio's Metro Morning. Milman, who is well-versed in the lyrical traditions of the 1940s, hasn't recorded a version of the song that's now generating so much controversy.

"I see it as a playful repartee where the only thing holding her back from spending the night is the fact she's afraid of social judgment."

Milman highlights the song's lyrics "I ought to say no, no, no, sir, at least then I can say that I tried." 

"That doesn't sound like a woman who doesn't want to be there." 

Milman's not the first to make that case: her idea echoes the ideas laid out by sociologist Elise Thorburn in a 2016 Globe and Mail piece, and feminist writer Cammila Collar in online magazine Medium, where she argued "the problem with Baby it's Cold Outside isn't consent, it's slut-shaming."

But Lydia Liza still doesn't think that makes the song acceptable by today's standards.

"I can definitely see that in the context of that generational time, but now, we're having too many important conversations to allow that to be an excuse for what we're trying to accomplish," said Liza, alluding to the gains made by the #metoo movement in making both sexes more aware of what constitutes unwelcome sexual advances.

Tip of the iceberg 
So where does that leave the other older songs whose lyrics celebrate the kind of attitudes listeners find questionable, or even repugnant today? 

"We have to be careful because context is everything, and if you view everything in the present day context, you lose the plot," says Alan Cross, music writer and host of the syndicated radio show The Ongoing History of New Music. 

"It's really creepy to go see Ringo Starr sing You're 16, You're Beautiful, and You're Mine, when he's, what, 78 years old?" says Cross. Starr was, of course, much younger when he released the song in 1973 (though to be fair, at 33, he wasn't exactly a teenager at that time either).

The list of rock standards that come off as creepy or downright abusive to a modern sensibility goes on and on. The Rolling Stones, apart from such self-explanatory songs as Bitch and Under my Thumb, also served up a hefty dose of both sexism and racism in songs like Brown Sugar and Some Girls. 

Then there's Elvis Presley, with his frequent lyrical fixations with very young women, who croons "I'd rather see you dead, little girl, than to be with another man," in Let's Play House.

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The lyric was so loved by John Lennon that it inspired an entire Beatles song, Run for Your Life, in which Lennon threatens his lover with what he will do if she strays, "baby I'm determined. I'd rather see you dead, little girl." NME magazine called it "the worst Beatles song ever."

Cross isn't sure these songs will get the same amount of scrutiny as Baby, It's Cold Outside. He believes one of the reasons the song's lyrics stuck in contemporary listeners ears is for the simple reason it's played so much over the holidays.

But he hopes that if and when the scrutiny falls on these other tunes, they're assessed in the context of the era in which they were written.