Recently, the news came that the song, Baby It’s Cold Outside, has been taken off the playlists of a few radio stations in the United States and Canada.
It is because of its lyrics. In the age of the #MeToo movement, they do not pass the smell test.
Usually sung as a male-female duet, it has the woman trying to leave the man’s home and the man deterring her from doing so. The fact of him dismissing her wishes is one thing, but what pushed it over the edge for those who wrote in to complain, say the radio stations, are lines that hint at date rape, such as “Say, what’s in this drink?”.
Most of us know the song from Elf, the 2003 comedy starring Will Ferrell and Zooey Deschanel, though the song was written in 1944 and has the status of a Christmas classic in the US, where it has been covered by artistes from Willie Nelson and Bette Midler to Lady Gaga and Michael Buble.
Interestingly, many women in the US think the ban is political correctness gone mad. I saw on a YouTube video that on the American all-women television chat show, The View, every host thought the ban was ridiculous.
At least one radio station has reversed its ban after its audiences, like the hosts on The View, argue that the song talks about snuggling and smooching, because in the 1940s, a song about sex would have triggered mass swoonings around the country.
Not for the first time, baby boomers think that until the arrival of artistes Elvis Presley, Mick Jagger and The Rolling Stones, pop culture had been swaddled in Victorian prudery.
Not so. An entire genre, called dirty blues, flourished from the early 20th century. Performed by mostly African-American men and women, the form revels in ribald titles such as Good Grinding (1930) and Need A Little Sugar In My Bowl (1931) and many more too racy to print, even today.
Baby It’s Cold Outside is just a whiter shade of dirty blues. People in the 1940s knew exactly what it meant and they were fine with it.
Now comes the interesting part: If the song is indeed about sex, then is it about sexual coercion? Let’s be honest – it is.
When Frank Loesser wrote it, he was not shattering taboos. There has always existed a category of verse about ardent men who do not take no for an answer.
Generations of students have tittered over Andrew Marvell’s (1621 to 1678) To His Coy Mistress, in which the English poet tells the lady she should yield to him rather than save her virtue for the grave, “then worms shall try that long-preserved virginity”.
To me, the argument seems not to be about #MeToo or if our culture has become too coarse for a song written in a more innocent age. It is about civility, and its flip side, hypocrisy.
Dirty blues, and blues in general, because it was made by black artistes, was shunned by mainstream radio for much of its life. In fact, musical genres were famously racially segregated until white men like Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis made blues and rock acceptable for “white” stations.
Loesser’s song was not written for Christmas. It is a cold-weather song that over time got co-opted into the Christmas sausage-making machine.
Today, the ditty about two sophisticated adults doing what adults do finds itself wedged in a playlist that includes Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer and Deck The Halls. Baby It’s Cold Outside is too rude for a season now heavily skewed towards children.
As the season becomes more PG-rated, how long before songs such as Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer come under scrutiny?
It is, after all, the tragic story of a bullied reindeer which is never allowed to join in any reindeer games, but after that one foggy Christmas Eve, is happy to accept love from the monsters that only the day before had tormented it.
How about I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus? Is that not telling kids that as long as mum is unfaithful only with jolly fat men who bring presents, that is fine?
Santa Claus Is Coming To Town: Be good because there is profit in it.
Little Drummer Boy: A great way to show love to a sleeping infant is to stand close and whack a percussion instrument.
Last Christmas: Last Christmas, I took advantage of the season’s goodwill to ambush you with an overwhelming and inappropriate declaration of romantic love and, having failed at that, this year, I will do the same to someone else and I’m sure this time, he won’t think I’m a psycho. Emotional blackmail rules.
Sanitising the lyrics to make a tune more civil, as some have done, reminds me of the famous first appearance by Presley on the Ed Sullivan variety show, in 1956.
The cameras kept a chaste focus on his upper torso. The cameras moved downwards only when times changed, while Presley, wriggly hips and all, stayed the same.
That is the problem with Baby It’s Cold Outside. Christmas has become very nice, but the song has stayed as naughty as it has always been.
Its ejection from the Christmas playlist and into the arms of a more grown-up canon is all for the best. – The Straits Times/Asia News Network