You’re waltzing through Macy’s, or shuffling playlists on Spotify, maybe sipping an overpriced holiday drink, or ice skating with your kids, and you hear it:
“I really can’t stay…”
The piano notes, the crooning voice — it’s unmistakably “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” And how does that make you feel?
Icky, we’re guessing. The Christmas song that has been a romantic classic for decades is becoming notorious for being creepy at best, encouraging of date rape at worst. The lyrics haven’t changed; the female role in the duet has always been singing “the answer is no” as the man pressures her to stay. But society’s evolving views on the prevalence of rape, especially between non-strangers, has pushed criticism of a Christmas classic into the mainstream.
The proof is in two parodies of the song released this month. On “Saturday Night Live,” a sketch showed Tina Fey sitting on a tufted red couch with a drink in her hand, telling someone off-camera, “I really can’t stay…” The shot then pans to Kenan Thompson, dressed as alleged rapist Bill Cosby.
They quickly jump to the one of the most damaging lyrics, “Say what’s in this drink?,” to which Cosby answers, “Oh, it’s like a vitamin for when you’re bummed out about your career or it’s to make you smile and help you reach your goals,” referencing the accusations that Cosby preyed on women whose careers he was guiding.
If that’s not blatant enough to make you squirm when you hear the familiar holiday tune, take this second parody from “Funny or Die.” It begins with Casey Wilson and Scott Aukerman singing to each other on a couch. Then he drops pills into her drink, chases her around the room and duct tapes her to a chair. All the while, they keep singing.
It’s horrifying, and the only relief comes when she escapes, hits the back of Aukerman’s head and tells the camera, “This is Casey Wilson, reminding you this is a completely inappropriate song.”
Defenders of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” argue that when Frank Loesser wrote the song in the 1940s, this was obviously not his intention, especially because he was known for singing it with his wife. His daughter Susan Loesser wrote that her parents imagined the song as two characters, “Wolf” (the man) and “Mouse” (the woman).
“My mother treasured that song,” Loesser said. “She loved performing it. She loved the fact that it was theirs alone to perform for adoring audiences.”
In 1948, it was featured in the movie “Neptune’s Daughter,” and soon enough, every artist of note was performing it, from Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and Ray Charles to today’s popular renditions by “Frozen” songstress Idina Menzel and the “Elf” soundtrack-version by Will Ferrell and Zooey Deschanel. Until the last decade, the song was rarely considered controversial. Songs like “Santa Baby” and “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” were seen as far more raunchy because they directly linked romance or sex with Christmas.
“‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ was a song about flirting, that’s all there was to it,” said Ace Collins, author of “Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas.” “This song was a little risque for the holiday charts in 1949, but it wasn’t unusual to hear flirting songs on the radio as regular pop hits.”
And once a song is an established Christmas favorite, there’s a slim chance of getting rid of it.
“These songs take you back to when you were small,” Collins said. “The people, the homes, the presents that meant so much to you, they become alive again. You can smell the house, you can hear the voices. The songs come back and touch us, generation after generation.”
So “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” has stuck — and has kept sticking — even once it was criticized. But with cultural influencers like “Saturday Night Live” directly associating the song with rape, how much longer will a place like Macy’s want to play it as you shop for holiday sweaters?
Perhaps they could switch to this “feminist-approved” version of the tune, recorded for YouTube last year. Problem is, it’s a bit short: