There’s snow on the ground, the sound of bells in the air, a turkey in the oven. Trees are inside of houses, instead of outside where they belong. Yes, it’s that time of year again: time for the annual controversy over a seasonal tune from 1944. Yep, it’s Baby It’s Cold Outside thinkpiece season once again. Is the song a romantic call-and-response ballad? Or is it a harrowing tale of date rape? Everybody vote on their phones!
Look, here’s the truth: I hate Baby It’s Cold Outside. But I don’t hate it for being about date rape (although I definitely do fall in the ‘this sounds pretty rapey’ camp). I hate it for the same reason I hate most Alanis Morrisette songs: for being tuneless and meandering. It baffles me that a song this terrible has become a widespread part of the seasonal playlist. As such, I’m not going to waste my time engaging with it by breaking down the exact terms of the debate around it, especially when so many other people have already done the legwork for me; if you don’t already know why people feel the way they do about it, read these annotated lyrics on Vox which break down fairly well how the two sides tend to read its controversial lyrics.
But I do feel compelled to engage in one area, because it touches on a broader point. Those who feel compelled to defend the song always fall back on one thing: historical context.
See, this woman is staying late, unchaperoned, at a dude’s house. In the 1940’s, that’s the kind of thing Good Girls aren’t supposed to do — and she wants people to think she’s a good girl.
And even more specifically:
Historical context matters a lot here. “What’s in this drink?” used to be a stock joke to which the punchline was basically, “Nothing, not even much alcohol.”
And honestly, it’s kind of impossible to defend the song’s lyrics while also paying attention to them without falling back on historical context because…I mean, it’s a song about a man pressuring a woman into sex. Without attaching historical context to it, there’s not a lot of wiggle room out from under that. And the historical context argument is a fairly strong one…or it would be, if I cared about the historical context. In this case, I really don’t.
That might sound like heresy coming from someone with a graduate degree in literature. Surely we always care about historical context, right? Well, if we were treating the song like a piece of history to be closely examined, of course would. But if that’s all Baby It’s Cold Outside was, we wouldn’t have annual bumper crops of outrage over it. Academics would no doubt continue to argue over it, as is our wont, but the debate wouldn’t make the editorial page of every major newspaper (as it does at least once every year without fail) because there would be no mainstream audience for it. Nobody would care.
Here in the real world, though, people do care. A lot. And here’s why: because Baby It’s Cold Outside‘s permanent place in the holiday playlist makes it perpetually current. Every year, it is piped into radio stations and shopping malls as-is. Every year, famous singers like Michael Bublé record and publish new versions of it, generally without changing a syllable of the lyrics. When people complain that Baby It’s Cold Outside‘s lyrics, they aren’t complaining about Baby It’s Cold Outside, the song from the mid-1940s. They’re complaining about Baby It’s Cold Outside, the ongoing cultural phenomenon.
In the 1940s, maybe the song was, as people have suggested, actually a sexually liberating piece for women. But the song hasn’t just sat in the archive since that time, it’s been continually revisited. Every year in December we return to the song and mindlessly reproduce it once again, renewing its pop-culture relevance for another year. The result is that the song has been unmoored from its place in history. If you took a random sample of 100 people who know the song well enough to sing along with it, I would be amazed if even ten of them could tell you it was written by Frank Loesser. Or that it was written in 1944. Hell, I’d be astonished if ten people in that sample could even correctly identify the decade it comes from! The historical context behind the lyrics doesn’t matter because what the song meant in 1944 isn’t really relevant to what it means now. Historical context is only a defense if the piece is historical. For most of the work academics of English and other cultural critics do, that’s just assumed, but it doesn’t apply to cases like these.
The song’s lyrics may have remained the same over the past 72 years, but the world around it hasn’t. When Frank Loesser put pen to page and wrote Baby It’s Cold Outside his lyrics may not have signified rape to his listeners, but for a lot of people they sure do now. And historical context only explains why Loesser created it as he did; not why we continue to recreate it every holiday season.