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Tuesday, December 22, 2015

A Poor Defense of a Christmas Standard: What IS in that drink?

Isn't this a duet? Where's Marilyn Maxwell?
"Baby It's Cold Outside" was--and remains--a song written by Frank Loesser in the late 1940s. Loesser, who is mostly known for writing music and lyrics to Broadway shows like Guys and Dolls, was not a man to weigh the pros and cons of the burgeoning feminist movement (one of his better-known songs, after all, is called 'A Secretary is Not a Toy'), but "Baby It's Cold Outside" has, in recent years, become a notoriously tone-deaf Christmas standard of lust, date-rape, and perhaps a bit of rohypnol.

I think the tone-deafness is actually in the modern ear of the listener, however.

Stay with me; I'm not defending Bill Cosby here.

First off, the song was written in 1947, and was performed at parties by Loesser and his then-wife, Lynn Garland. Garland adored the song and considered it "their" song. She loved topping off a night of entertaining by performing it, and was very angry when Loesser sold the rights to the song to MGM, making it less "our song" and more a Frank Loesser song.

In 1947, women were not Carrie Bradshaw. Obviously. The song, when first heard way back in the days before Helen Gurley Brown made her mark with Sex and the Single Girl, meant something else to listeners. Just as certain gay 'tells' were necessary to get the true character of a young man across to audiences, so to were there certain ways to reveal the very genuine character of the woman singing in this duet. The infamous 'Say, what's in this drink?' would've come across as such a tell to the audience back then. The woman is not suspicious of being slipped a mickey. She's genuinely curious, and feeling the temptation society says to her she must deny.

Lookit. In the 1940s and 1950s, it was not acceptable, even during a blizzard, for a woman to sleep over at a man's house unless that man was her father, her brother, or her husband. Her counterpoint to the man's reminder that 'it's cold out there' is to run through all the things others in her life would say should she agree to do what she is contemplating doing. This idea--that a woman might fear staying inside where it is warm and safe over braving a blizzard of disapproval and a cold world--is indeed and thankfully strange to anyone born after, say, 1980 (or 1990 in some warmer regions of the US).

She is not, and it is not written to imply, being railroaded into a night of date rape. The woman in the song is, yes, being boringly coy--like, typical male-fantasy-level coy; but Loesser isn't one to keep things simple. Most of the women characters he brought to Broadway seem, at first blush, to be vapid and meek but his lyrics (and the women who portrayed those female characters) bring a bit more to the table than just fainting couches and pearl-clutching and victimhood. There's a brilliance, for instance, behind Miss Adelaide's dim-bulb exterior; hell, even the song, mentioned above, about how secretaries are not toys has a brittle honesty in how women are not, for the love of god and no my boy, "toys," but useful and valuable members of the work-place.

There's a reason, for instance, Robert Morse, who starred in the original show from which that song comes--How to Succeed In Business without Really Trying--was asked to play the elder statesman on "Mad Men". Matt Weiner, Mad Men's creator, understood that the connection between that distant Pulitzer Prize-winning musical and his workplace drama was needed. Both share themes. It's just that Loesser lacked Weiner's modern, post-feminist experience.

Anyway, back to "Baby, It's Cold Outside." Interestingly, the woman singing the song, and doing much of the heavy lifting of the song, is usually called a "mouse." I do not consider her a mouse at all.

The song is not about a lecherous man pulling out all the stops, and perhaps some date rape drugs, to hold a woman against her will. It is about a woman trying to remind herself of all the reasons she shouldn't do what society tells her is wrong. The song, quite apart from being an anti-feminist piece of Rat Pack schlock, is the early stirrings of woman liberation.

No? Look, the end of the song. That crescendo. The two voices, the woman and the man, join in a moment of absolute agreement. Baby, it's cold. Baby it's cold outside. There's no hesitation. The man has managed to assure the woman he gets why she's hesitant. The woman understands he's aware of the consequences for her.

Certainly, to modern ears, this all sounds like bullshit, but this was the same period where we had Nellie Forbush (that name... oy) being assured of a wonderful enchanted evening, and all sorts of devil-may-care, love-conquors-all bullshit. What Frank Loesser wrote, initially for him and his wife to sing at parties, is about a man creating a safe place for a woman to be herself.

To be clear, I'm not denying this a wholly sexist and vaguely misogynist song. But it is a song of its time. Stripping the woman of her role in the song is just as bad to me as calling Huck Finn a racist novel. Portraying the woman in the song as a helpless victim is almost to infantilize her. So much so that in order for the recent Funny or Die parody to work, the woman must turn into Bruce Willis to break away from her attacker.

That said: This song is so easily misinterpreted it is perhaps, now, in 2015, best we just cut it loose for a while.

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