It’s that time of year again when even the most reserved retail outlets have given in and slammed on the Best Christmas in the World..Ever! CD. They’re all there – Noddy Holder screaming that it’s Christmas, Midge Ure bringing everyone down by talking about famine, and two crooners (or two Welsh people) playing out a creepy consent negotiation and joking about drugging one another.
Baby It’s Cold Outside, written by Frank Loesser who also wrote the musical Guys and Dolls and the mournful ‘What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?’, was not particularly well known in UK pop culture until Tom Jones recorded it with Cerys Matthews for his 1999 covers album Reload. Even then its creepy undertones were not really remarked upon until the early 2010s when it started to wheedle its way back into public consciousness when shows like The Muppets and Saturday Night Live started to play with its lyrics and meaning.
With issues of consent and sexual harassment continuing to dominate social discussion, there have been murmurs that this song should be quietly ‘retired’ from playlists because it just sounds too rapey, but the original meaning was much more progressive that people give it credit for. To the ears of a 20 year old in 2017 it might sound oppressive, but in 1944 when it was written, it was actually pertaining to women’s sexual expression and how it was being suffocated by social expectations. Baby, Its Cold Outside was what passed for a feminist anthem in the forties.
So why has it become trendy to denounce the song? The misunderstanding comes when people assume that the woman does not want to stay at the man’s house. In our ‘current climate’ it’s forgivable to assume that no woman wants to interact with any man, ever, especially when there’s alcohol involved. And there are certainly lyrics which, out of social context, sound like the weary excuses of a woman who has found herself cornered by the office drunk at one too many Christmas parties.
Her early protestations though are not about ‘wants’, they are all ‘can’ts’. She’s really CAN’T stay, she’s GOT to go away. And why? Well, the answer becomes clearer as the song continues. She lists all of the people who will be scandalised if she doesn’t leave this man’s house immediately; her maiden aunt, her father, her brother, her sister, her mother, the neighbours… And of course in 1944 they would have been shocked to find she was even considering spending the night with a man when they were both unmarried, this being set in polite society where people drink port and shit like that.
There are two lines which seem to betray feelings of genuine discomfort; “the answer is no” would be quite emphatic in normal conversation. (No means no, fellas, from ‘Would you like to see a picture of my penis?’ to ‘This Brooklyn lager is drinking well isn’t it?’ The answer is no.) However she has already been seen to acquiesce to staying for one more drink and she seems in no hurry to actually leave. The second line, and the one which causes the most consternation to modern listeners, is ‘Say what’s in this drink?’ – but here context is key. In the mid-forties when the song was written this was a common joke phrase used when someone had done something that they thought they shouldn’t have, because of alcohol. The joke is that the drink was to blame when actually, there was nothing in the drink at all. It featured in so many screwball comedies that it was basically the “Did I say that out loud?” or “That was one time!” of its day. Unfortunately, because it consists of standard vocabulary we tend to translate it to modern English in a way that we wouldn’t with something like “Say! That dolly is a ducky shincracker!”*
1940s audiences would have been in on the joke that actually, the woman wants to stay as much as the man wants her too, but she couldn’t possibly accept because she has to give an air of respectability. When someone offers you another pint and you roll your eyes dramatically and say “Well go on then, you’ve twisted my arm!” you are not genuinely suggesting any coercion and you’d be pretty gutted not to receive a drink. We all understand this because of the context of the statement, and so did people who listened to the song for decades before we just plain forgot and let it be featured on Glee.
If I’ve ruined your fun, don’t worry, there are plenty more creep Christmas songs out there – like Jingle Bells in a minor key. Sweet dreams!
* which means “Hey! That girl is a good dancer!”