It’s the perfect time to consider another of those pop songs that really have nothing to do with Christmas but have become staples of holiday play lists. Among the most enduring of these winter songs is the playful duet Baby it’s Cold Outside. But lately the perineal favorite has been caught up in controversy.
The song had its origin in 1944 when Frank Loesser, a Hollywood lyricist turned composer wrote it as a novelty to sing at cocktail parties with his wife Lynn Garland. At the time Loesser was in the Army Airforce based in California where he penned songs for war effort broadcasts and moral boosting films including Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition, What Do You Do in the Infantry, and others. Some of the songs also made it to Hollywood films like They’re Either Too Young or Too Old for the 1943 film Thank Your Lucky Stars.
Baby it’s Cold Outside proved so popular among their friends that Lynn Garland objected to offers to buy “our song.” But after the success of Loesser’s first Broadway musical, Where’s Charley starring Ray Bolger in 1948, the offers became too lucrative to turn down. He sold the song to MGM which featured it in the 1949 film Neptune’s Daughter in which it was performed by Ricardo Montalbán and Esther Williams and in a role reversal version by Red Skelton and Betty Garrett. It was the highlight of the film and went on to win the Academy Award for Best Song.
That year in addition to versions by Montalbán and Williams and by Loesser and his wife—billed as Mrs. Frank Loesser—almost a dozen covers were released including four that climbed into the upper reaches of the pop charts and stayed there for weeks—Don Cornell and Laura Leslie with the Sammy Kaye Orchestra, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Jordan, Dinah Shore and Buddy Clark, and Johnny Mercer and Margaret Whiting.performed by Esther Williams and Ricardo Montalban won the Oscar for Best Song in 1949.
Since then, the song has been covered or included in TV shows countless times featuring a wide variety of duet partners. Among the most noted versions were by Dean Martin with a female chorus and later with various partners on his TV series and specials, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, Brian Setzer and Ann-Margret, Zooey Deschanel and Leon Redbone, Willie Nelson and Norah Jones, Lady Gaga and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood.
The song was always considered a bit coyly risqué but good hearted fun.
But in the #MeToo era it has drawn criticism that it is essentially a date rape song and a classic example of a man refusing to accept a woman’s no. The main point of contention is the woman’s line, “say what’s in this drink?” and protests that she has to go home. In response WDOK in Cleveland announced in 2019 that it was removing all versions of the song from its holiday playlist. Some other US stations followed and in Canada it was banned by Bell Media, CBC Radio, and Rogers Media which together represent the bulk of Canadian stations.
The bans stirred a voracious backlash. Right wingers, of course, paint them as an example of the infamous but non-existent War on Christmas despite the fact the song has nothing to do with Christmas. Other fans of the song are simply vexed that it has fallen victim to political correctness, whatever that is.
Susan Loesser, the daughter of the composer, has leapt to the defense of her parents and the song insisting that it was never a date rape song. She said the controversy actually began when Comedian Bill Cosby was accused of drugging and raping scores of women over decades. Both Saturday Night Live and South Park featured skits with Cosby crooning the song to a victim.
But Susan pointed out that in 1944 “People used to say ‘what’s in this drink, as a joke. You know, ‘this drink is going straight to my head so what’s in this drink?’ Back then it didn’t mean ‘you drugged me.’” Others noted that despite the woman’s initial demurrals in the end she wants to stay.
Dean Martin’s now 72-year-old daughter Deana Martin also defended the song and insisted that she would continue to perform it in her own act.
John Legend, as hot a male singer/songwriter as there is and an outspoken progressive, stirred the pot by penning updated lyrics that answer the objection. In a duet with another mega-star, Kelly Clarkson, they were all over the airways in December 2020 from The Voice, Clarkson’s daytime talk show, late night gab fests, to multiple holiday specials. Legend’s version made multiple changes. Clarkson’s lines are in standard type, Legend’s in italics, and both in bold.
I really can’t stay (Baby, it’s cold outside)
I’ve got to go away (But, I can call you a ride)
This evening has been (I’m so glad you that you dropped in)
So very nice (Time spent with you is paradise)
My mom will start to worry (I’ll call the car and tell him to hurry)
My daddy will be pacing the floor (Wait, what are you still livin’ home for?)
So, really, I’d better scurry (Your driver, his name is Murray)
But maybe just a half a drink more (Oh, we’re both adults, so who’s keepin’ score?)
What will my friends think? (Well I think they should rejoice)
If I have one more drink? (It’s your body and your choice)
Ooh you really know how (Your eyes are like starlight now)
To cast a spell (One look at you and then I fell)
I ought to say, “No, no, no, sir” (Then you really ought to go, go, go)
At least I’m gonna say that I tried (Well, Murray, he just pulled up outside)
Chorus: Kelly Clarkson, John Legend & Both
I really can’t stay
I understand, baby
Baby, it’s cold outside
I simply should go (Text me when you get home)
On I’m supposed to say no (Mm, I guess that’s respectable)
This welcome has been (I’ve been lucky that you dropped in)
So nice and warm (But you better go before it storms)
My sister will be suspicious (Well, gosh your lips look delicious)
My brother will be there at the door (Oh, he loves my music, baby, I’m sure)
My gossipy neighbors for sure (I’m a genie, tell me what your wish is)
But maybe just a cigarette more (Oh, that’s somethin’ we should probably explore)
I’ve got to get home (Oh, baby, I’m well aware)
Say, lend me a coat (Oh, keep it girl, I don’t care)
You’ve really been grand (I feel it when you touch my hands)
But don’t you see? (I want you to stay, it’s not up to me)
There’s bound to be talk tomorrow (Well, they can talk, but what do they know?)
At least there will be plenty implied (Oh, let them mind their business, and go)
[The driver] Ma’am, I really can’t stay.
Baby, just go
It’s cold, baby
It’s cold, baby
But, ooh, I don’t wanna go
It’s cold outside
Activists applauded the new version, but Legend was slammed by both the usual right-wing suspects and several musicians and performers who defended Loesser’s original song. Legend defended himself in several interviews. “The song was supposed to be silly. It wasn’t supposed to be preachy at all. I never disparaged the old version.” And:
People thinking we’ve gone too far speaking up for a woman’s right to not get raped or sexually harassed, when some would argue we’ve not gone far enough, when we have an admitted sexual assailant in the highest office in the land. People think that because some people have lost their jobs, or have been expelled from Hollywood, like [Harvey] Weinstein, that we’ve gone too far. I don’t agree. But people wanted the Baby It’s Cold Outside war to be a proxy war for all that.
I understand the objections to the song and am loathe to dismiss them out of hand. I am also totally cool with Legend’s update. But I also believe that songs can be sung and considered for the times in which they were composed. A hell of a lot of music from classic opera to county & western cry-in-your-beer juke box favorites, to blues and rap would have to be sacrificed along with this novelty song. And I am just not a fan of censorship in general.
But you be the judge.Johnny Mercer and Margaret Whiting in a Capitol Records recording studio.
My personal favorite version of the song was the one by Johnny Mercer and Margaret Whiting. Mercer was a prolific song writer and a popular singer who founded and ran Capitol Records in Los Angeles. Twenty-four year old Whiting was a Mercer protégé and one of the first artists he signed to his new label.
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