It’s that time of year again. Time for heated holiday debate over whether “Baby It’s Cold Outside” is genuinely problematic or just innocuous art from another era.
While seemingly innocent enough to nab PG-rated spots on “Glee” and “Elf,” the song’s lyrics describe a night of booze and questionable consent. She wants to go home, he wants her to stay; she says “no,” he says, “What’s the sense of hurting my pride?” It’s behavior that some have referred to as “a little rapey.” Then there’s the argument it was written during a different time. Frank Loesser debuted his song in 1944 with his wife, which some consider proof of its consensual nature.
In this #MeToo climate of new awareness and vigilance over sexual assault and consent, does preserving the historical context really matter?
“I’ve never really noticed the lyrics of that song, but they’re really Weinstein-level creepy,” said Charlie Klarsfeld, founder of LUCY, a New York-based music collective that creates soundscapes and mix tapes for brands such as Chloe and Glossier. Clients have never requested the track, still he’s conscious that “it’s a time when we have to think twice about it. Now I know to flag it.”
Klarsfeld mused that controversial but classic tracks such as “Baby It’s Cold Outside” may have a similar “can you still like it?” conundrum as early hip-hop that objectifies women. “When you look back at those songs,” he said, “you could have such a nostalgic relationship with them that you dismiss it as, ‘Oh that was bulls–t talk and we were too young to understand, but now we know we should never say anything like that.’ It’s an ambiguous space to be in.”
Some artists have found ways to celebrate the song with updated tweaks. Idina Menzel and Michael Bublé altered the lyrics to remove suggestive and alcohol references in their duet for a music video featuring two children. Lady Gaga and Joseph Gordon-Levitt performed it with a gender swap in her 2013 “Muppets Holiday Spectacular.” (However, it was still a little creepy.) And in 2016, Minneapolis-based musicians Lydia Liza and Josiah Lemanski rewrote the male callbacks on the track completely, keeping the woman’s lyrics mostly the same.
“It’s the man’s responsibility to change,” Lemanski said on their song’s intent. “It boils down to that. It’s not on the women to dress differently or act differently. Men have to stop being coercive and rapey.”
In their updated version, “the neighbors might think” is answered with “that you’re a real nice girl.” And “say, what is this drink?” begets “pomegranate La Croix.” The couple then makes a plan to go on a date to the Cheesecake Factory before bidding each other goodbye. Meant to be “goofy,” their 21st-century rewrite was penned and recorded over a couple of hours last year. Their story was quickly picked up by their local news, before spreading to CNN and NPR. The track has more than 1.7 million plays on Spotify.
But not all the attention was positive. “I would get periodic hate mail. Sometimes in the middle of May, someone would be like, ‘Kill yourself,’ ” said Liza, noting nearly all of the negative messages would come directly to her and not her male partner. “I think we’re adapted to it now, but it was really shocking in the beginning.”
Most common was the argument that the song was written in a “different time.” “Contrary to what people think, we do know the context of the song,” Lemanski said. “But then no one has any argument past that. They can still listen to the old [version] if they’d like. We haven’t taken that away.”
The backlash is thought-provoking for the two. “We don’t want to censor art,” Lemanski added. “But at the same time, [the song is] problematic, and it’s proven to be problematic from the types of reactions we’ve been getting.”
This December, the duo report the track has already received more than 600,000 plays on Spotify. And their hometown station, 89.3 the Current, has added it to their weekly holiday rotation. Liza and Lemanski plan to donate proceeds from the streaming track to RAINN, the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence, and the Sexual Violence Center of Minnesota.
They say they’ve received fan mail from listeners who said they replaced the original track with the updated version on their regular holiday rotation. While the events of 2016 — Brock Turner and the presidential election — drove the duo to their project, they believe their song is even more relevant this year, when the conversation around consent and sexual harassment dominates the news.
“This year has been so hard for femme-identifying people and women who have to relive traumatic experiences,” Liza said. “When I think about that, I do think maybe [“Baby It’s Cold Outside”] should be taken out of play.”