It’s mid-December, and approaching winter here in New England, which means that the local radio stations are into playing a month-long orgy of “holiday music,” which means Christmas carols, Christmas-themed tunes, and a handful of “seasonal” (i.e., winter themed) songs. Personally, I get tired of them after about, oh, 20 minutes, but I manage to tolerate them for a few weeks. But even though I can turn off the radio, I still run across news and blog items about how much a partridge in a pear tree costs, humorous sketches about Santa Claus, and similar items that are not funny for the eleven other months of the year.
Lately, in some of the web forums on which I’ve been lurking, I’ve been running across discussions — apparently having gone on for the last couple of years — about the inherent creepiness or date rapey-ness of the old song “Baby, it’s cold outside.”
A date rape song from the 1930s? Seriously?
[Note: I am not going to offend your intelligence by interjecting at various points disclaimers about the prevalence or immorality of date – or any kind of – rape. Let’s assume that we’re all adults, and that we can agree on that point.]
Maybe we’ve gone collectively insane, or maybe my advanced age and privileged social status have given me a different perspective, but this is definitely going in the “What the freakin’ hell?” category.
For those of you who don’t have cow-orkers blasting the “lite” station on their radios or iPods, and have somehow missed one of the few enjoyable winter songs written, it’s a low-key duet about a woman who is considering an overnight stay at her swain’s house. The man’s half of the duo sings some enchanting, seductive phrases which intersect and rhyme with the woman’s part; the woman herself appears to be voicing concerns about what other people would say or think about her if she stayed. One of the points at issue is that partway into the song (after she asks for “half a drink more”) she says: “Say, what’s in this drink?”
And that’s it.
You don’t remember the lyrics? They’re all over the place, but I used this version for reference.
First, in the context of time this song was written, that was a pretty innocuous expression. People from the 1930s still remembered the Prohibition years, and as anyone who has watched the old movies from that era (Marx Brothers come to mind, as do the Nick & Nora “Thin Man” series, and almost anything with Mae West or WC Fields) could attest, characters often said such things, reflecting the quality of the alcohol available at the time. We probably don’t have anything analogous to it now, because you can buy brand-name liquor at the grocery store. Yes, they had “Mickey’s” that were often slipped into a drink, but the rest of that verse, plus the next one, don’t give any indication that this is a possibility.
Secondly, the male character (sometimes referred to as the “wolf”) is not being pushy or even overly seductive. The funny part about the lyrics is that woman’s character (sometimes called the “mouse”) is actually talking herself into ignoring the societal conventions of the time, and is desirous of staying.
I just learned that Zooey “Trillian” Deschanel and M. Ward have a gender-swapped version of this which is supposed to be less creepy. This would have been funnier if the gender-reversed version hadn’t already been done… back in the 1940s by Red Skelton and Betty Garret in “Neptune’s Daughter.” That version, played for laughs simply because it was a role-reversal, actually does come across as being a bit date-rapey, when taken in the context of being seen 60 plus years after it was made.
If you’re looking at just the lyrics — the way the song was actually written — it’s pretty easy to see how the woman’s side of the duo is thinking about what people will say, the possible talk about her reputation, and how she’ll have to explain her actions later on (and even as recently as the 1960s and 1970s, women in media often were seen to have the same concerns as this woman in 1936). There’s nothing that I can see that gives any signal that she feels unsafe, or pressured, or that her partner is forcing unwanted attentions upon her. Various other duets, seen on variety shows from the 1960s onward, generally seem to have highlighted the playful side of these lyrics; that is, the give-and-take of friendly, desired seduction.
There’s a Bob Dylan song from the late 60s or early 70s, called “The Talking John Birch Society Blues,” and I remember it mainly because of a verse near the end, in which the main character, on a mission to root out Communism from our society, discovers that “there are red stripes on the American flag.” In other words, I sometimes wonder if in our collective mania to find something by which we may delight in our feelings of having been offended, we aren’t making things up because in our society, we’ve already run out so many things that are actually offensive.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go marvel at a discussion group in which the members — all of them adults — just discovered that the song “I saw mommy kissing Santa Claus” (and I swear that I am not making this up) is not about adultery.