Holiday jingle "Baby it's cold outside" needs context before cancellation, says Augustana music professor

The popular holiday song has come under fire recently for being offensive and sexually exploitative but those claims become largely unfounded once history and musicology are brought into the conversation, says musicologist Alexander Carpenter.

Tia Lalani - 17 January 2020

"The back-and-forth between the two singers features a subtle increase in melodic pitch as each verse progresses, suggesting an increase in interest and sexual excitement for both parties since the increase happens in tandem," says Augustana music professor Alexander Carpenter, who sees the piece as a product of its time that has been taken out of context.

"Baby it's cold outside" was composed by Frank Loesser in 1944, and later appeared in the 1949 film Neptune's Daughter. This was the listening public's first taste of the song, which has since become both a seasonal classic-popping up on radio playlists each year as Christmas approaches-and recently a magnet for criticism of the sexual politics in its lyrics. Indeed, for some years now, pop music journalists have been asking if the time has come to remove "Baby it's Cold Outside" from the airwaves, in light of what they assert is its inappropriate lyrical content.

Is this song that offensive? That's hard to say since taking offence is subjective. So, what might we say about these songs, objectively, that could aid our assessment and judgment of their worth? "Baby it's cold outside" is a male-female duet in which a man is trying to convince his date to stay longer; each time the woman sings a line about needing to leave-in order to preserve her reputation-the man immediately counters with a warning about the blizzard outside, or a compliment, or a cloying reminder that there's a warm fire, music and drinks to enjoy. The song has recently been characterized by critics as "rapey and coercive," as ringing "date-rape warning bells," and as "manipulative and wrong," especially in the context of the #MeToo era. Just last Christmas, John Legend and Kelly Clarkson responded to the ongoing concerns about the song by recording a new version, with updated, progressive-minded lyrics: the man affirms his date's decision to leave, calls her an Uber and asserts that "it's your body and your choice."

"Baby it's cold outside" can certainly be interpreted as an inappropriate song in which an oppressive male protagonist gradually overwhelms the protestations of his date. But, as a historian of music, I would argue that such an interpretation is a bit superficial and makes at least several mistakes. First, this interpretation is at best anachronistic, expecting a World War Two-era song to accord with 21st-century values; at worst, it is an example of "offence archeology"-the practice of cynically and actively seeking out objects or statements from the past, and viewing them through a contemporary lens in order to find them unenlightened or problematic and therefore worthy of "cancelation," of being expunged from culture.

Second, one only has to listen casually to hear the obvious ambivalence in the lyrics of "Baby it's cold outside," as the woman seems to gradually warm to her date's seductive entreaties-"I wish I knew how/To break this spell"-and whose protestations become increasingly pro forma: she coyly allows that she'll have "maybe just half a drink more," and later "maybe just one cigarette more." She may well end up staying the night after all, and people may well talk, but "at least I'm gonna say that I tried."

Finally, the music itself clarifies that, in this song, we are listening to a mutually-agreeable seduction scene. It is composed in a call-and-response style, with the male singer echoing the female singer nearly exactly (there is certainly precedent for this musical strategy-a man wooing a woman by mimicking or echoing what she sings-in music drama going back to Mozart if not earlier). The back-and-forth between the two singers features a subtle increase in melodic pitch as each verse progresses, suggesting an increase in interest and sexual excitement for both parties since the increase happens in tandem. As each section of the song ends, moreover, the man and woman sing the refrain "Baby it's Cold Outside" in harmony, coming together as musical equals at that moment, clearly sharing the sentiment that it might just be nicer for their date to go on a little longer, whatever that might entail.

Ultimately, it seems that music journalists are in a tiny and unpopular minority with respect to the cause of calling out this and other "offensive" seasonal classics ("Fairytale of New York" by the Irish band The Pogues, has also recently come under fire for its lyrics) for extirpation: the listening public is not offended and also not amused. Radio stations that have tried to pull these songs have been inundated with protests from audiences, and they continue to enjoy chart success and substantial global popularity. Of course, we can admit that while the songs have their charms, they can certainly also be heard as offering ambivalent and complicated messages-but perhaps we should talk about them before clamouring for cancelation.

Alexander Carpenter, Music, Augustana Campus, University of Alberta. This column originally appeared in the Camrose Booster on January 14, 2020.