With just over a year to go before “The Roaring Twenties” begin, I’m astounded that we’ve spent the run-up to Christmas arguing over a song written in 1944.
The “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” debate, which has reared its head at least a few times each December over the last two decades, boiled over like a bad batch of eggnog when several North American media outlets – including CBC, BellMedia and Rogers – pulled it from its playlists.
Barely a week later, CBC sheepishly announced that a wave of audience support for “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” led the public broadcaster to re-introduce the tune to its Christmas line-up. Radio stations in Denver and San Francisco did the same after polling their listeners.
In the meantime, the social media gripe-o-sphere lost its collective mind over “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” A digital tug-of-war emerged between those who feel we’ve become an overly-sensitive, over-censored society too concerned with offending others in even the smallest way, and others who suggested that times and sensibilities are now different and it’s time to concentrate our energies on, for example, tending to people who are actually “cold outside.”
Before I get too deep into an issue I never thought I’d tackle in this column, let me first point out that my usual reaction to “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is a disinterested shrug. Perhaps that has something to do with its infrequent use on Christmas radio and TV playlists throughout my childhood and young adulthood. (Mind you, that makes perfect sense to me, because it never actually mentions Christmas).
The only time I remember hearing it during my formative years was on a second-season episode of The Muppet Show, which saw the gender roles flipped and the comedy ramped up as Miss Piggy musically pursued Russian ballet star Rudolf Nureyev – in a steam bath, no less. Decades later, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” still pops up in Miss Piggy’s repertoire; she’s sung it with Vince Gill on the 2011 edition of ABC’s annual CMA Country Christmas, and she teamed up with Michael Buble to add some porcine star power to his 2014 holiday special.
Miss Piggy’s aggressive approach is a far cry from the humble origins of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” which Broadway composer Frank Loesser originally designed as a humourous duet to perform with his musical and life partner, Lynn, at a party for their friends. The frothy nature of the song was more firmly cemented through its role in the 1948 movie Neptune’s Daughter, where Esther Williams and Ricardo Montalban (yes, Star Trek’s Khan and Fantasy Island’s Mr. Roarke) propelled “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” to an Academy Award for Best Original Song.
While Neptune’s Daughter was one of several flicks designed to show off Williams’ aquatic ballet abilities, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” was filmed on dry land. Maybe we could have avoided all this controversy if Williams and Montalban had recorded the song underwater, so nobody could understand the lyrics.
Apart from this, I had little exposure to “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” through my lifetime, so it’s mystifying to me that the song and its accompanying controversy have become an annual holiday season tradition, with passionate defenders and opponents on either side.
I suppose the best way to respond to this is by referring to my personal favourite rendition of the song, by Will Ferrell and Zooey Deschanel in the 2003 modern-day Christmas classic Elf. It’s not a deliberate, over-the-top performance; the pair, as Buddy the grown-up-elf and Jovie the disillusioned Gimbels’ department-store worker, wind up inadvertently singing it to each other as she takes a pre-shift shower in the store’s employee washroom.
Those of you who have never seen Elf might find that description even more salacious than the actual lyrics (and implied outcomes) of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” Instead, there’s a genuine sweetness to the whole scene – Buddy is drawn to Jovie’s voice, not her face or her body. He softly sings along to her while sitting on the washroom counter, never once looking at the shower stall. The only time their faces meet is when Jovie finally hears Buddy’s voice, peeks around the shower curtain and yells at him to get out. He covers his eyes and runs straight into a wall full of lockers. Cue audience laughter; end scene.
Bottom line: I don’t think “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is the Neanderthal male anthem its detractors make it out to be, nor do I consider it the timeless classic so fiercely protected by its fans (including a whack of bandwagon-jumpers who have never even listened to the song before this December). It’s not even remotely my favourite winter-themed composition, but it’s not that bad.
Feel free to ask me again, though. You know, in about 74 years.
Merry Christmas, folks.