Baby, It’s Cold Outside

By Mackenzie Graham

In late November, a radio station in Cleveland Ohio announced it would be removing the song ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ from its holiday playlist, in response to listener complaints. Several other radio stations followed, including Canadian broadcasters Bell Media, CBC Radio and Rogers Media. These decisions proved divisive among listeners, however, with many of the US broadcasters, as well as the CBC, quickly reversing course and reinstating the song after conducting online listener polls.

The song was written in 1944 by Frank Loesser, as a duet that he regularly performed with his wife Lynn Garland at Hollywood celebrity parties. In 1949, Loesser sold the song to MGM Studios, who used it in the film Neptune’s Daughter, where it won the Academy Award for Best Original Song that same year. It has been re-recorded by more than 50 artists since that time, most recently in 2018, and is a staple of popular radio during the Christmas season, due to its wintery theme.

In the lyrics of the song, a party guest (typically sung by a female voice) and the party host (typically a male voice) sing back and forth about whether the guest should stay for ‘one more drink,’ or venture home (despite it being, presumably, quite cold outside). The female voice sings lines like ‘I ought to say no, no, no’, ‘what’s in this drink’, ‘you’re very pushy you know’, and ‘the answer is no’, while the male voice sings lines like ‘mind if I move in closer’, ‘what’s the sense of hurting my pride’, and ‘gosh your lips look delicious.’

Much of the debate about the appropriateness of playing this song on the radio centres around whether the lyrics of the song depicts sexual harassment. The claim of those advocating for the song’s removal from radio is that these lyrics are highly suggestive of sexual harassment, or possibly even date rape. After a cursory read (or listen), these concerns seem legitimate. The female singer doesn’t appear to want to stay (hence her repeated response of ‘no’), while the male singer is unrelenting in his attempts to convince her. By contemporary standards, this seems like a cut-and-dried case of sexual harassment.

On the other hand, defenders of the song argue that the overtones of sexual harassment are a misinterpretation, and the song is actually a rebuke of the constraints of 1940s sexual politics. During this time, an unmarried woman staying the night at a man’s house would have been scandalous (as indicated by the line ‘my sister will be suspicious’, among others). Thus, the back and forth of the song is really about the female singer wanting to spend the night, but being worried about he reputation, and the male voice attempting to give her a reasonable excuse. Additionally, it seems unlikely that Loesser would have written a song in which his wife would sing about being drugged. A more plausible interpretation of the ‘what’s in this drink’ lyric is that it refers to the use of alcohol to excuse one’s behaviour (a version of this line being common in movies of the era).

The controversy over this song is an example of a more common issue in judging works of art from a different era. Do we judge a song by the standards of its own time, or is it appropriate to judge it by the standards we would judge contemporary works? Those who oppose playing the song might argue that the original intentions of the artist, whatever they might have been, don’t really matter. What matters is the way we (should) hear the song now, and the social context in which it is being played. As a society, we are rightly starting to become more aware of the gross inequities of sexual politics; it is no longer acceptable to treat interactions in which a woman refuses a man’s sexual advances as her ‘playing hard to get’. ‘No’ has to mean no. Thus, even if the lyrics of the song didn’t constitute sexual harassment by 1940s standards (and given a charitable interpretation of the lyrics, this seems the most likely), they do constitute sexual harassment by 2018 standards. The norms according to which we evaluate an exchange like the one described in the song have changed, and thus, the lyrics mean something different now than they did at the time, regardless of the writer’s intention.

It is difficult to say which of these interpretations of the song’s lyrics —sexual harassment (by 2018 standards), or subversive sexual politics (by 1940s standards)—is the ‘correct’ one. It appears that the radio stations which removed and then reintroduced the song attempted to address this problem by simply asking their audience if they found the song offensive. But, while this may have addressed the concern of the radio stations (i.e., whether there would be more complaints if they played the song than if they didn’t), it misses the larger issue this case presents. How should we regulate ‘offensive’ content, when there is disagreement about whether something is offensive?

One consideration is the degree of harm that might arise from the offensive content, compared with the harm which might arise from removing it. Depriving people of one means of listening to holiday song is not a significant harm. Conversely, it is not clear to what extent sexual harassment is likely to be reduced by not playing this song (probably not much). The real harm is more likely to arise from the signalling effect that either removing or playing the song is likely to have. Those who interpret the song as not being about sexual harassment may be offended by public acquiesce to a view they do not share. Conversely, those who do interpret the song as about sexual harassment are likely to be offended by a lack of concern for a serious social issue.

We might think that by playing the song, a radio station is tacitly endorsing the appropriateness of the behaviour depicted by the male singer. Perhaps radio stations (especially ones funded by public money like the CBC) have a moral obligation to only play content with positive social value (or at least, content that does not have negative social value, like promoting sexual harassment). Notwithstanding the fact that such a commitment would lead to a lot less music available to be played, I’m not sure that radio stations have such an obligation. This is because there seems to be a difference between a song itself (that is, as a composition of music and words), and its meaning. This seems to follow from the fact that a song can have various meanings for different people; the words and notes don’t change, but the meaning does. One can approve of a song, without also approving of every interpretation of its lyrics. Even if I acknowledge that a song is about sexual harassment, I can still enjoy it/approve of it/endorse it, without also enjoying/approving of/endorsing sexual harassment as a practice. Watching and enjoying the most recent Mission Impossible movie with Tom Cruise does not mean that I think murder is appropriate, or that I approve of Scientology.

Because playing or listening to a song about sexual harassment does not mean that one agrees with sexual harassment, radio stations are not endorsing the appropriateness of sexual harassment by playing ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’. However, one might respond that it is insufficient to simply not endorse sexual harassment; we have an obligation to actively repudiate it. Murder is easily recognized as a moral wrong, and so it is less problematic to depict it in media. Conversely, sexual harassment is much more pervasive in our culture, and is problematic in large part because it often goes unrecognized as harassment by the (mostly) men who commit it.

Perhaps, then, not playing the song is a way of repudiating what it could be seen to represent. But if the real societal problem is the act of sexual harassment (and not the depiction of scenarios which can be interpreted as sexual harassment), it is not clear that removing the song from the radio is the best course. Given the relatively tame nature of the song, perhaps this is an example of a cultural artifact that would be better to be preserved and critically discussed, rather than simply removed. It seems unlikely that listening to this song would make someone more likely to commit an act of sexual harassment, whereas listening to it and critically thinking about the lyrics might serve as a reminder of the challenges of sexual politics that we still face.

This does seem a lot to ask of a holiday song written for cocktail parties, however. So maybe we should stick to completely uncontroversial holiday songs, like ‘Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer.’

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6 Responses to Baby, It’s Cold Outside

  • Simon Leigh says:

    Gangsta Rap clearly expresses the view that to be cool you have to hate both the police and women. I suspect this does intensify anti-social attitudes in young white males, who want to be cool, i.e. black. As an old white musician, I’m offended by “Music” that has no melody, expresses horrible sentiments and generates anger in the listeners. The culture of romance is, for me, more worthwhile than the current culture of complaint.

  • Michael Glass says:

    “Baby, it’s cold outside.” is useful in talking to young men about the issue of sexual consent. It really makes them think.

  • Justice for All says:

    I won’t be satisfied until all culture is purged in the name of justice for arbitrary marginalized groups.

    Nothing less than a Stalinist revision of the past will suffice.

    We can fill the void with content sourced from blue-check Twitter and Reddit. Nothing will be lost; the world will be a paradise.

  • Bubblecar says:

    “Given the relatively tame nature of the song, perhaps this is an example of a cultural artifact that would be better to be preserved and critically discussed, rather than simply removed.”

    But we have to ask: for what purpose is the radio station playing such a song? Presumably the answer would merely be “to entertain and amuse their audience”, and this is the context in which the song is presented.

    Is it ethically appropriate to try to entertain and amuse an audience with such a song in this day and age? This would depend to some extent on the nature of the audience. If it’s an audience that can be relied on to interpret the song in the context of the culture in which it was written, there would seem to be no harm done.

    If not, then it’s hardly controversial to regard it as a dubious song that might well be misinterpreted and therefore be an inappropriate choice, given that the intention of the radio station is merely to provide entertainment.

  • Simon Leigh says:

    Listen to the song. If you hear rape, you’re misinterpreting it. If you hear that it’s OK to drug and rape someone ditto. Stupid people misinterpret every song, which is not an argument for banning music or poetry. “We Shall Overcome” could be taken to mean we should arm ourselves and start shooting. “Helter Skelter” has been taken to mean let’s murder people. “Sympathy for the Devil”–every song can be and is misinterpreted, meaning listeners don’t hear the composer’s intent. Gangsta Rap can easily be taken to advocate killing cops and raping women. .If you ban songs you’ll end up banning everything there is. Grow up.

  • Lisa says:

    It is a lovely song, especially compared with the so-called songs of Beyonce and the misogynist lyrics of much rap music. When I was 18, there were warnings on any albums which contained swear words! The lyrics of this song have been entirely misinterpreted whether it is interpreted as a ‘rape’ song or an argument for sexual liberation! I agree with the last commenter. Grow up!

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