Nov. 28, 2019
Baby, it’s cold outside — but it’s heating up on social media
Rebecca Sullivan, Faculty of Arts, writes in Conversation Canada about the sexual scripts behind controversial hit, first recorded in 1949
- Photo above: John Legend and Kelly Clarkson released their version of Frank Loesser’s 1949 Baby, It’s Cold Outside. Here they appear at the Billboard Music Awards on May 20, 2018, in Las Vegas. Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP
Did People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive just take the sexy out of Christmas? John Legend and Kelly Clarkson released their version of Frank Loesser’s 1949 novelty song, Baby, It’s Cold Outside, with updated lyrics that are ostensibly more in keeping with the #MeToo era.
But these claims are nothing more than a version of what media and communication theorist Michael Dwyer calls pop nostalgia: a collective remembrance of a never-was prompted by generic tropes and stylistic conventions that have very little to do with cultural history. How is it that a song released in May 1949 and was on the Billboard singles charts well before December, peaking at No. 4, can now be declared a sacrosanct holiday tradition?
Crucial holiday programming?
Baby, It’s Cold Outside was recorded eight times in its first year and sold to MGM for their Esther Williams musical, Neptune’s Daughter. Another 14 versions were recorded between 1951 and 1972, after which the song fell out of favour for nearly 20 years.
Barry Manilow’s The Classic Christmas Album.
Barry Manilow revived it for his 1990 Classic Christmas holiday album, and by the 2000s, it had become standard fare for any pop Christmas album (including a previous version by Kelly Clarkson with Ronnie Dunn in 2013).
The song rode the revival wave for 1950s swing and the Mad Menification of the sexual revolution until suddenly it became as crucial to holiday radio programming as David Bowie and Bing Crosby’s Little Drummer Boy (Peace on Earth).
But a funny thing happened on the way to the holiday cocktail party. A man who boasted he could do anything to women, including “grab her by the pussy,” was elected president of the United States.
The head of a major film studio reportedly hired a private paramilitary organization to harass a woman he sexually assaulted.
A network news anchor resigned after he was accused of locking a woman in his office and sexually assaulting her.
A comedian nicknamed “America’s Dad” went to prison after he was convicted on three charges of felony aggravated indecent assault — more than 60 women reported that he had drugged and assaulted them.
Somehow a song that has the woman ask “What’s in this drink?” doesn’t seem so flirtatious anymore.
Wine, women and song
Defenders of the song insist that its critics have the lyrics all wrong. Even the composer’s daughter said, “Bill Cosby ruined it for everybody,” and asked that the song be judged by its historical context.
Fair enough. The song was originally written in 1944 by the composer, Frank Loesser, and his wife, Lynn Garland, to sing at home parties. The story goes that after he sold it, Garland felt bitterly betrayed “as if I caught him with another woman” — adding another layer to the consent puzzle.
THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Anthony Camerano
The song took off, becoming a standard for Rat Pack members Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and Eddie Fisher. Their image of party playboys who could never get enough wine, women or song fit neatly into Loesser’s double-entendre lyrics.
Sexual scripts in flux
Meanwhile, American pop culture was changing and the sexual scripts for women were in flux. In my books Visual Habits and Natalie Wood, I detail this impeding double-bind affecting women’s sexual independence throughout the ‘50s and '60s.
Other scholars, including media critic Susan J. Douglas, sociologist Wini Breines and historian Beth Bailey, also document this double-bind and how popular culture urged women to freely explore their sexuality, with the understanding that an invisible line existed somewhere in their experimentations. If crossed, they could go from free-thinking individuals to foolhardy sluts, with their reputation and lives in tatters.
This new sexual logic was confined to white, middle-brow, educated young women who were allowed a few years economic freedom as maybe a secretary or a copy editor before exiting the workforce to make way for the next generation. Indeed, most jobs for women had beauty and age requirements clearly listed on the advertisements.
The expectation was for women to be sexually available enough for a man’s pleasure but not so much that she might either “spoil” herself for her future husband or — worse — decide that her own expectations and pleasure mattered as much as the man’s. No wonder the woman in the song has to talk herself in-and-out-and-into staying for another drink. As one young woman wrote in The Atlantic in 1959:
“Our liberally educated girl is not very likely to be swept away on a tide of passion. With the first feeling of lust, her mind begins working at a furious rate. Should she or shouldn’t she? What are the arguments on both sides? Respect or not? Does she really want to enough? And so on, until her would-be lover throws up his hands in despair and curses American womanhood.”
So to understand the song in its context is to understand an era of unchecked sexual harassment disguised as playful flirtation in which the woman had everything to lose no matter what script she followed. Don’t believe me? Check out Loesser’s other novelty hit song, A Secretary is Not a Toy.
Does that mean you can’t enjoy the “original” — all eight of them? Of course not.
We are all capable of consuming past popular culture without necessarily claiming that times were better back then. But sometimes a classic is made not because it transcends its historical moment but rather because it encapsulates it.
Baby, It’s Cold Inside is definitely the latter, a frothy, cheeky paean to loosening morals and mores. The updated lyrics keep that playfulness going and even offer a gentle reminder to young women that playing the hard-to-get game is no longer a marker of sophistication. And really, who better than the Sexiest Man Alive to remind us that consent is sexy?