Frank Loesser — 1944
I think we all knew this one was coming. I’ve been dreading writing about this song. First off, this is not at all a new observation, considering every year inevitably dozens of people write articles about how awful the lyrics are and pointing out the predatory implications of the song, and dozens more write in defense of a classic seasonal song. It’s a tired argument. We get it, “Baby It’s Cold Outside” raises more eyebrows than it does holiday spirits. The song is so suspect, it’s practically a meme in the holiday canon. The song even gets spoofed frequently, like Key and Peele’s “Just Stay the Night,” or singer-songwriters Lydia Liza and Josiah Lemanski’s 2016 rewrite that mixed in a little 21st century twist: consent. If I’m going to keep writing about Christmas music (which I am), I might as well dig in to this one and offer a little background.
The first step to get an idea what’s going on with this song, we need to look back to 1944. “Baby It’s Cold Outside” was written in by Frank Loesser, and though it may not seem that long ago, the Manhattan Project, the Holocaust, and Japanese internment camps were all in progress while this was being penned. The world was a very different place. Frank Loesser was an accomplished songwriter, best known for the music and lyrics he wrote for Guys and Dolls and How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying. He received several Tonys for those two musicals, as well as a Grammy in 1961 for Best Original Cast Show Album for How To Succeed in Business. Suffice to say Loesser was an accomplished songwriter.
In 1944, Loesser wrote a song for the film Christmas Holiday. Know which song that was? If you guessed “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” you would be wrong. He actually premiered the now-controversial number with his wife Lynn Garland at a housewarming party in New York. The song brought the two instant success and put their feet in the doors of every Hollywood party as a parlor act.
Four years later, Frank sold the rights to the song to MGM, which led to some unfortunate friction between the couple. Garland considered “Baby It’s Cold Outside” a special little song between her and Loesser, which changed when the song blew up with its film debuted. In a Christmas film, right? Wrong again. MGM used the song in Neptune’s Daughter, a 1949 musical comedy staring 1940 Olympic swimmer Esther Williams, comedian Red Skelton and Khan himself Ricardo Montalbán. Does this film have anything to do with Christmas? Not a single thing. It has everything to do with an aquatic ballet dancer seeking publicity through a professional water polo game.
So how did “Baby It’s Cold Outside” get wrapped up in glittery Christmas wrapping paper? It’s most likely because everyone in Hollywood wanted Loesser and Garland to perform at their Christmas parties. That’s pretty much the only clear connection. There’s really nothing to connect it to the holidays as far as its inception or lyrical content are concerned, unless you count references to “cold” (but then Darkthrone’s “Where Cold Winds Blow” also qualifies as a Christmas song). On that note, though, let’s take another peek at the lyrics.
The original sheet music has the roles labeled “Mouse” for the songs weary calls and “Wolf” for the aggressive responses. Immediately this seems to confirm the predatory undertones of the song, but it’s important to look at the time period it was written. Loesser’s intention was to make it a cute little number to sing with his wife, and if you look at it sideways, that’s kind of what it is. It’s just as easy to read it as “mouse” having a nice time and not wanting to leave, but knowing the implications of staying out late with a man, especially considering how it would look to her aforementioned worrying mother and father, suspicious sister, and defensive brother. The lyrics “There’s bound to be talk tomorrow…At least there will be plenty implied” expresses this concern for the way it appears to the judgmental folks around. One of the most suspicious lyrics, “Say, what’s in this drink?” also makes a bit more sense in context. It’s of course easy to see how wrong this is now, but in the mid 1940s, this was a fairly common idiom, implying the mouse’s actions were those of the alcohol, making for an alibi as to why they were doing something “bad,” though that’s actually exactly what they wanted the whole time. It’s incredibly contrived and it doesn’t make the song any less creepy now, but to the couple that made the song a hit, it’s almost sweet.
Is the song outdated? Hell yes it is. Unfortunately not all music, and art for that matter, can stay classic in a vacuum while the world around them changes. This is the case with most Christmas music, where weird, dated references pop up all the time. Why do the carolers in “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” want a figgy pudding and not chocolate chip cookies? In an increasingly secular society, why are Christmas songs with clear, religious imagery regularly played in public spaces like malls and schools?
Why does anyone play “All I Want For Christmas (is My Two Front Teeth)” when it makes more people miserable every year than the implications of “Baby It’s Cold Outside?” It goes without saying that on a surface level, “Baby It’s Cold Outside” doesn’t fit into the increasingly progressive conversation of gender politics. Maybe it’s run its course, but when we talk about setbacks and problematic messages, I think it’s time we move past this one.
As far as I can tell, “Baby it’s Cold Outside” was never intended to be a piece about a man forcing himself on a woman, written in a time when this kind of behavior was less egregious. It’s a weird, dated love letter, dated in much the way many nostalgic media are, and maybe we should treat it the way we treat other dated media: just leave them alone. If someone likes it and you don’t, or vice versa, just let it be. Take it off your holiday playlist if it bothers you. Replace it with another run of “Christmas in Hollis.” In fact, let’s just forget all this happened and listen to some Run-D.M.C.