What Are We To Do With Baby It’s Cold Outside?
[Note: This post is a part of my Virtual Musical Advent Calendar from my own site — which in turn comes from a series I did for Ordinary Times back in 2013, though it has largely been both reworked and rewritten. Although I did write an entry for Baby It’s Cold Outside for the original OT series, this post is quite different from that one.]
So, we probably need to have a conversation about Baby It’s Cold Outside.
Over the years I have seen a number of classic holiday songs go in and out of fashion, but I’ve never seen one removed from the holiday music canon altogether. Still, there’s a very good possibility that this is what has already begun to happen to Frank Loesser’s Baby It’s Cold Outside. In recent years the song has gone from a Vegas-lounge-y, so-schlocky-it’s-cool hipster favorite to one that’s seen as advocating sexual assault. At the very least, both amongst its defenders and detractors alike, the song is sparking debate about tremendously complex questions such as the relative importance of an artist’s original intent versus the public’s, and whether or not art from the past must necessarily square with current political and social thinking in order to be considered art.
And all of that for a song which, more than any other classic wintery holiday song, was never intended to be either a holiday or a wintery song at all.
The famed Broadway and Hollywood writer Frank Loesser wrote the song in 1944, without the initial intention of ever selling or recording it. Loesser, who would later write Guys & Dolls, How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, and the family classic movie Hans Christian Anderson, thought a witty duet about an attempted tony Manhattanite seduction would be just the thing to trot out and sing with his wife Lynn Garland at tony Manhattanite cocktail parties in their tony Manhattan apartment.
In the original score, the two parts aren’t written out for “Male Singer” and “Female Singer,” but rather for “Wolf” and “Mouse,” which Loesser and Garland would sing respectively. It was never meant to be a winter song. It was originally performed in their apartment during the summer months, so that the “cold” the Wolf warns of is entirely fictitious and a poor excuse; to this who first heard it, at least, the “cold” was supposed to be funny. Loesser and the decidedly younger Garland would describe it to party guests throughout New York as “our song.” Garland was somewhat miffed, then, when Loesser sold it without her permission or knowledge to MGM studios.
That a song entitled Baby It’s Cold Outside might bring to mind snowstorms and freezing weather was a thought missed by MGM as well as Loesser. The studio used the song as the musical centerpiece in their 1948 film Neptune’s Daughter, a romantic farce set in a summery beach resort. The song is actually performed in the film twice, by two different couples. In the version sung by Esther Williams and Ricardo Montalbán (yes, that Ricardo Montalbán), it is Montalbán who plays the wolf to Williams’ mouse. Later, the genders are reversed, and it is Betty Garret who attempts to seduce a reluctant Red Skelton.
To say that the song was a smash hit upon its release is something of an understatement. Songs today simply don’t become smash hits the way Baby It’s Cold Outside was a smash hit. You could even make the argument that Baby It’s Cold Outside was more popular in its time than any other song has been before or since. Within twelve months of it being published the song reached the top of Billboard five times recorded by five different pairs of artists, including the now-classic rendition by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Jordan.
Stop and think about that for a minute. Imagine Taylor Swift having a hit so huge that Katy Perry, Justin Timberlake, Drake, and Ed Sheehan immediately rushed to their respected studios to re-record it, and each of those five different (but remarkably similar) versions also became smash, chart-topping hits — at the same time. Even by today’s overhyped mega-star standards, Baby It’s Cold Outside’s success was surreal.
Still, it would be almost a decade and a half before anyone would record the song in an attempt to attach it to the modern holiday canon. Not surprisingly, the first to make the leap was Dean Martin, who was looking for Rat-Pack-esque content for his own 1959 holiday album, A Winter Romance. (Also not surprising for those old enough to remember him: Martin chose to have the song’s Mouse role performed by an entire chorus of breathy chorus girls.) After Martin, recordings of the song began to be released each year in two distinct genres: vegas-torchlight albums and festive holiday albums.
All of this, however, is what happened to Baby It’s Cold Outside in the past.
Today, in the era of #metoo, for many the song has taken on a darker and decidedly non-holiday interpretation. Most young people today interpret the song’s Wolf as a predator and the Mouse as a victim struggling to get free. The truth is that the original interpretation of the song, the one meant by Loesser and Garland, is quite different and likely also a product of its time. Though no one today would ever think of Baby It’s Cold Outside as a feminist song, one of the reasons for its popularity at the time is that that era’s women absolutely did, even if the term had not yet been coined.
Baby It’s Cold Outside became popular in a time when it was still taboo to acknowledge female sexuality, let alone make popular music about the topic. The jazz age and 1930s saw numerous songs that subtly acknowledged the fact that both sexes actually enjoyed the physical parts of sexuality, but most of those songs were penned and performed by African American jazz artists. Indeed, when head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics Harry Anslinger began to repurpose his office to also persecute black musical artists for playing jazz music, the genre’s lyrics’ acknowledgement of female sexuality (and the disastrous effect he claimed they would have on white women who might hear them) was a large part of his political justification.
When Baby It’s Cold Outside was written, the artist’s intent was that the Mouse in the story wanted to stay, but was going through the necessary dance a woman of that era had to go through in order to say yes. In fact, the line “say, lend me your comb” was meant to infer that the Mouse had already gotten jiggy with the Wolf. Baby It’s Cold Outside was far more popular with the women of its era than with the men, for all of the same reasons that Madonna’s scandalously (for the time) sexual songs were more popular with the women of the 1980s than the men of that same decade. And like Madonna in her era, Baby It’s Cold Outside was far more likely to make 1940’s men than women uncomfortable with its insinuations about women. Like a Jane Austen novel, Baby It’s Cold Outside is both a product of its era’s patriarchy and a subversive, give-the-bird commentary on it.
Even knowing that, it’s hard to completely separate the song’s lyrics from the stories women are stepping up and sharing in today’s #metoo movement. It’s long been one of my favorite holiday songs, and knowing where it fits in our cultural history I very much want to give it a pass — but even I think of the Weinsteins of the world when it comes up on my playlist this year.
And so the question arises: what are we to do with Baby It’s Cold Outside?
Myself, I haven’t banished it completely, but I do listen to it far less. When someone talks about hating the song for the way it makes them feel, I don’t jump in and tell them they are misunderstanding the artists who wrote and recorded it seventy years ago, in part because I don’t want to mansplain and in part because part of me hears what they hear and agrees with them. Besides, I believe that part of what makes art transcendent is its ability to move different people in different ways, even if that movement is the opposite of what the artist intended one to experience. The moment Frank Loesser let his creation into the world, he gave up any right to tell you how that creation should make you feel.
In a perfect world, we’d all put the song away until we’d collectively changed the world for the better, and the #metoo movement had become one more curiosity about the things we used to put up with from men in power. Then, perhaps, we could take Baby It’s Cold Outside out again, and try to listen to it using the ears of those women who launched it to the top of the charts multiple times in the same year.
Until then, if you want to continue to make Baby It’s Cold Outside part of your annual holiday playlist, or if you want to give it a shot and try to hear what those who first heard the song in 1945 heard, there are plenty of options.
The list of those who have given Baby It’s Cold Outside a crack is legion: Tom Jones, James Taylor, Ray Charles, Harry Connick Jr., Lyle Lovett, the Barenaked Ladies, Robert Plant, Dionne Warwick, Ben Folds, Cee Lo Green, any major star who was once a Mousketeer or a Rat-Packer, rapper Mac Miller, Kelly Clarkson, Rita Coolidge, the list literally goes on and on. Zooey Deschanel has recorded it thrice: twice as the Mouse to Will Ferrell and Leon Redbone’s Wolves for the movie Elf, and once as the Wolf with M. Ward. Rainn Wilson played the Mouse to Selma Blaire’s wolf in a Gap commercial; Joseph Gordan-Levvit has done the same with Lady Gaga. It’s almost easier to compile a list of crooners and vocalists since 1960 who haven’t recorded Baby It’s Cold Outside at one time or another.
There’s even a kind of Baby It’s Cold Outside Hall of Shame, version I think we can all agree to hate on regardless of our general opinion of the song. Sometimes these are simply odd and ill-conceived pairings that never quite worked as planned. The recordings of Bette Midler and James Caan, Barry Manilow and KT Olsin, Dolly Parton and Rod Stewart, and Buster Poindexter and Sigourney Weaver all fall into this category. Still others have been placed in the Hall of Shame for simply being abominations against nature and good taste. These include Washed-Up-Era John Travolta and Olivia Newton John, Petula Clark and — I swear I am not making this up — Rod McKuen, the cast of Blossom, Barry Manilow and Debra Byrd, and the Simpsons. (No, not them — the other Simpsons).
With all of that said, let me end this post with a little confession — but you have to promise to never repeat this to anyone.
When I’m alone in my car and Baby It’s Cold Outside comes up on shuffle, I belt out both parts. When singing the Mouse lines (“I simply must go…”), I sing them with Tom Waits’ voice; when singing the Wolf lines (“But baby it’s cold outside!“), I sing them using the voice of Fred Schneider of the B-52s. It is, I am sure, a sight and sound most terrible to behold.
Remember, this last bit’s just between the two of us.
 This should probably have been something of a tipoff to Garland. Just as her own marriage was itself a product of her husband’s love of both seduction and younger women, so too was her eventual divorce. Her husband would eventually abandon her to marry Jo Sullivan, the far younger star of Loesser’s The World’s Most Happy Fella.