As the festive season draws ever nearer, some of the classic Christmas tunes have begun to resurface. One much-loved song looped in the holiday season is ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’, originally written by Frank Loessner and popularly sung by Dean Martin, and has ironically come under a lot of heat recently. The 1944 song has been banned by a growing number of radio stations in the U.S. amid fears that some of the lyrics contained within the song are unsuitable, in an age where the #MeToo movement is so prevalent in the advancement and platforming of women’s issues. There’s been quite a furore surrounding both the song and the subsequent decision to ban it, and since it’s a Christmas song that I haven’t really inspected lyrically before, I thought I’d delve in and see what kicked up this snow storm.
Some of the lyrics that have raised concern, at first glance, do seem to border on and possibly insinuate the glorification of sexual harassment towards the woman talked about in the song. Reading through the song in a literal sense gave me the impression of a flirtatious back and forth exchange between a gentleman and a lady, with the gentleman maybe persisting with his flirting a little bit more than what may be classed as socially acceptable. I’m all for backing yourself in a romantic situation, providing that you don’t make the recipient of your courtship feel uncomfortable with such advances. Lyrics such as “I ought to say no, no, no, sir (Mind if move in closer?)” and “Say, what’s in this drink?” do also appear to conjure up issues regarding consent and date rape, which are clearly contentious issues that do seem inappropriate to be publicly floated in a mainstream Christmas song, or any song for that matter. That being said, I’ve been a huge advocate for a less festive, but still hugely important C word – context.
Some research into linguistic and historic analysis of the social practices of that particular time period paints the moral standards of sexual desires in a much different light to 2018, which is to be expected. Pre-marital sex was a very taboo practice to engage in and given that this was before the 1960s, there were much greater risks for women who were having sex outside of marriage, considering this was a time when abortion was illegal and birth control was wildly unreliable. Digging a bit further, it seems that one lyric which has caused a lot of controversy may have had a completely different meaning in the 1940s than what has been construed in recent weeks. The phrase, “What’s in this drink?” can be interpreted to have been a classic tongue-in-cheek comment made commonly in that time period. The intention may not have been to interrogate someone of the possibility of the presence of a date rape drug in their beverage, but in fact a quizzical quip suggesting if there’s actually any alcohol in the drink at all, suggesting that it’s a weaker drink than they preferred.
Another quite convincing interpretation of the song that could also reflect the societal expectations of women in the 1940s is when deciphering the intentions of the woman in the song. Many recently have been quick to suggest that the woman is making a series of excuses in order to retreat from the unwarranted advances of a man that could be a sexual predator. This would justify the backlash of those seeing a glaring incompatibility with the #MeToo movement. But the song could actually reflect this woman actually being romantically/sexually interested in pursuing things with the man, but is worried about getting caught and the societal repercussions such actions could have at the time. There is lots of sexual tension evident within the lyrics, which can be attributed from her own inner desire to stay contending with society telling her that she must go. Lyrics such as, “My mother will start to worry,” and “My maiden aunt’s mind is vicious (gosh your lips are delicious)” are indicative of such an interpretation.
And this is the crux of the matter really. It is incredibly important to remember the context of when things were written, because social norms and culture attitudes change constantly, and so it is clearly unbalanced and clouded to judge certain themes of the past in the light of some of today’s progressive attitudes. It just doesn’t work, you can’t compare the social and political attitudes of a human now compared to someone from 1918, 1818, or 1018, the cultures are poles apart. When it comes to art forms such as music, there is so much varied interpretation from person to person which should be taken into consideration when mainstream radio stations are judging what is suitable to be aired. I’d argue that there have been songs released in the 2010s that receive massive amounts of air time despite containing lyrics that are more often than not explicitly derogatory and demeaning towards women, such as Blurred Lines (“I hate these blurred lines, I know you want it) and I Love It (“You’re such a fuckin’ ho, I love it”).
There was still some backlash of course, but notably, no real motion to have the songs banned from being played. There seems to be an inconsistency with the allowance of some lyrics versus others, which leads me to suggest that maybe it’s best to let artists express their creative freedoms and subject them to scrutiny as necessary, but not ban them outright. From a practical perspective, given that we’re living in the age of the expanse of the internet and independent music talents and platforms, banning will not stop it reaching the masses and so is an ineffective way to restrict the message of the song.
There is a clear responsibility for there to be a restriction of certain music played to the general public and any mainstream radio station, to be fair, has a right to choose what songs would be appropriate to play for their respective listeners. What I am confident in is this example, given that there is more than one interpretation of the lyrics than simply glorifying male predatory behaviour, the song shouldn’t be tarnished for that one interpretation. If you feel uncomfortable with the lyrics, that is perfectly valid and you so don’t listen to the song, which is a viable option given the vast array of other Christmas songs to choose from. But given that there are those who see the song as something wholly innocent through the lens of an alternative meaning, they should be free to listen to it and enjoy the song understanding the specific context of the time that it was written. Frank Loessner may have not intended to portray the man as creepy or predatory at all, and I find it disrespectful to art forms in general to judge a piece based on one interpretation alone, when there is ambiguity surrounding the themes presented. I am not denying the right of some to view the lyrics as uncomfortable and from that viewpoint, of course it could contravene the values of modern attitudes towards sexual harassment and consent. But to understand that the anti-#MeToo viewpoint is not the only valid interpretation allows there to be mutual respect to avoid the censorship of opinions that represent a diversity of views.
This recent uproar has done a good thing in reminding everyone to be more conscious of progressive attitudes in the treatment of women. We can agree that Baby, It’s Cold Outside isn’t the most wholesome Christmas song, much like Santa Baby, which to me conveys an over-sexualised, seedy tone. If you don’t think it’s creepy and can enjoy a favourite flirtatious tune understanding the context of the 1940s vibe, play it to your heart’s content. If you do find it distasteful, you’re perfectly entitled to that and you can object to it if it ever comes on at the work Christmas party. But don’t ban it because it won’t convince the people who interpret it differently to you to see your point of view.
It is the time for coming together and sharing after all.