It’s not silly to ask whether there’s a disturbing undertone in “Baby It’s Cold Outside.”
It’s just that after you look, the answer is no.
Every holiday season when “Baby It’s Cold Outside” resurfaces all over the radio, the debate resurfaces over whether the lyrics tacitly suggest date rape.
Date rape is serious. “Baby It’s Cold Outside” is not. It’s not a dog whistle. It’s a wink, clever banter under which does not lurk threat or discomfort.
The song, for those who don’t own a radio, is a back-and-forth between a woman preparing to leave a guy’s place after an evening’s visit and the guy who wants her to stay.
At one point she says, “The answer is no.” At another point she asks, “Say, what’s in that drink?” At a third point he says, “Get over that holdout.”
On paper, in the language of 2018, those could be red-flag phrases.
As written in 1944 and as performed by a hundred artists since then, they are not. What’s in that drink, in 1944, was a shot of strong whiskey or vodka or some other popular adult beverage. “Holdout” in 1944 was not a threat, and besides, it’s there mostly because it rhymes with “cold out.”
As for the “no,” she also phrases it as “I ought to say no,” which suggests the more likely possibility that she’s looking for a way to say “yes.”
She’s had a “grand” time with this guy. If we’re going to apply the linguistic psychology of 2018 to a 74-year-old song, a better option is this: She’s worried that if she stays, the rest of the world, like her family and the neighbors, will judge her.
Nowhere does the song suggest she’s unable to leave. He offers a drink, a cigarette and some music, but his weapon of persuasion is words. He tries flattery, logic, humor, guilt. He tries pleading. There’s no “or else” here. Go or stay, it’s her call.
Now sure, lyrics can be heard differently by different people. These lyrics will likely remain an open debate.
But the tone isn’t debatable at all.
Frank Loesser wrote “Baby It’s Cold Outside” in 1944 to perform with his wife Lynn as light entertainment at cocktail parties. He dusted it off in 1949 for the fluffy musical rom-com Neptune’s Daughter, where it won an Academy Award for best song.
Esther Williams and Ricardo Montalban sang it in the film. Seven other versions were recorded that year, four of which made the charts. It was recorded regularly for the next 20 years, took a break and has been recorded more than ever since the ’90s.
Johnny Mercer and Margaret Whiting recorded it. Dean Martin and Marilyn Maxwell. Ray Charles and Betty Carter. Al Hirt and Ann-Margret. Bette Midler and James Caan. Suzy Bogguss and Delbert McClinton. Willie Nelson and Norah Jones. James Taylor and Natalie Cole. Kelly Clarkson and Ronnie Dunn. Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga. Kelly Jakle and Shelley Regner. The list goes on. And on.
While I haven’t heard them all, I’d bet my fuzzy slippers that 100% sound playful and 0% sound ominous.
That’s how Loesser wrote it. That’s how every singer, including dozens of smart and perceptive musicians, has heard it.
Darren Criss and Chris Colfer did an LGBTQ rendition for Glee. Pearl Bailey finishes by asking Hot Lips Page about that other woman waiting downstairs. When Dusty Springfield did it with Rod McKuen, they switched gender roles for the second half, with Dusty asking him to stay and Rod lamenting that he really had to go. In fact, come to think of it, the original Neptune’s Daughter scene does the same thing. After Williams and Montalban have sparred, Betty Garrett tries to talk Red Skelton into staying. He ends up in her wrap.
The closest thing to a serious message in “Baby It’s Cold Outside” is the ending, which is always sung in harmony: “Ah, but it’s cold outside.”
It is. It’s a cold world and romantic company makes it warmer. Neither he nor she wants the evening to end because, well, because it’s cold outside.
Purely as a song, “Baby It’s Cold Outside” is a close relative of another seasonal fave, “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow.” In that one, too, the narrator wants his date to stick around because, well, because it’s cold outside. While the lyrics are more demure, the message isn’t a lot different.
“Baby It’s Cold Outside” is just more clever, with marvelous rhymes like “Baby you’ll freeze out there” / “It’s up to your knees out there.”
“Baby It’s Cold Outside” should weather this year’s storm — not because it’s dog-whistling something dark, but because it paints romance as a complicated game in which, when everyone understands the rules, there can be a happy ending.