Ever since I first paid attention to it, I've been gently ragging on "Baby, It's Cold Outside" as "the date-rape Christmas carol." I got into yet another argument about this with kukla_tko42 at a party Friday night, so I figured I'd write up my case for it. Mind you, I still rather like the song. It's one of the best jazz duets ever composed and arranged. And it's really more of a parody of seduction and date rape than a celebration of it. To take it too seriously is to fall into the kind of trap where you'd label "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" as a pro-drunk-driving Christmas carol. That being said, let's take a look at the lyrics. But first, I have to label the parts. The alto (?) part is labeled, in Frank Loesser's original arrangement, "The Mouse," and the baritone part, "The Wolf." The Mouse leads off, and is interrupted near the end of each of her lines by The Wolf. So following the usual convention for displaying this song, I'll put The Wolf's part in parentheses. And I've taken the liberty of numbering the lines.
- I really can't stay. (Baby, it's cold outside.)
- I've got to go 'way. (But baby, it's cold outside.)
- This evening has been ... (Been hoping that you'd drop in.)
- So very nice. (I'll hold your hands, they're just like ice.)
- My mother will start to worry. (Beautiful, what's your hurry?)
- And father will be pacing the floor. (Listen to that fireplace roar.)
- So really I'd better scurry. (Beautiful, please don't hurry.)
- Well, maybe just a half a drink more. (Put some records on while I pour.)
- The neighbors might think ... (Baby, it's bad out there.)
- Say, what's in this drink? (No cabs to be had out there)
- I wish I knew how ... (Your eyes are like starlight now.)
- To break the spell. (I'll take your hat, your hair looks swell.)
- I ought to say no, no, no sir. (Mind if I move in closer?)
- At least I'm gonna say that I tried. (What's the sense of hurtin' my pride?)
- I really can't stay ... (Baby, don't hold out.)
- Ah, but it's cold outside.
- I simply must go. (But baby it's cold outside.)
- The answer is no! (I say that it's cold outside.)
- The welcome has been ... (How lucky that you dropped in.)
- So nice and warm. (Look out the window at that storm!)
- My sister will be suspicious. (Gosh, your lips look delicious ...)
- My brother will be there at the door. (Like waves upon a tropical shore.)
- My maiden aunt's mind is vicious. (Gosh, your lips sure are delicious.)
- Well, maybe just a cigarette more. (Never such a blizzard before.)
- I've got to go home. (Baby, you'll freeze out there.)
- Say, lend me your comb. (It's up to your knees out there.)
- You've really been grand ... (I thrill when you touch my hand.)
- But don't you see? (How can you do this thing to me?)
- There's bound to be talk tomorrow. (Think of my lifelong sorrow ...)
- At least there will be plenty implied. (If you caught pneumonia and died.)
- I really can't stay ... (Get over that hold-out.)
- Duet: Oh but it's cold ... out ... side!
Now, one of the oldest complaints that I've heard about this song is, "Why in the heck is this considered a Christmas song?" After all, it made its film debut, if not its recording debut, in a movie that had absolutely nothing to do with Christmas. It won the Oscar for best song in a comedy or musical for 1949's Neptune's Daughter, an Esther Williams film starring a very young Ricardo Montalban. But it pretty much has to be a Christmas song, because it's the only plausible explanation for what The Mouse is doing in The Wolf's bachelor apartment. He's in the city, living alone: he pretty much has to be a married man who's staying in his bachelor apartment for the night because either the late hour made him miss his train or the blizzard has stopped it. And for an unmarried woman, one still living at home (lines 5-6,21-23) to be inside a bachelor apartment at any time at all is scandal enough to cost any guy who has a bachelor apartment his job. Any time, that is to say, other than Christmas, where visiting people to convey holiday greetings and to drop off cards or presents for the family is a tradition that's older than Christmas itself.
The song's clearly meant as an amusingly rendered seduction. And seduction is controversial enough in and of itself. Up until only about a decade and a half ago, it was still a prosecutable crime in some states. And even shorn of the sexist legal principles aimed at protecting a father's financial interest in his daughter's virginity, there are still people who want seduction to be a prosecutable crime now. You don't hear as much about it the last few years (the war has been a substantial distraction), but you may recall that there are those who would extend the definition of rape to any act of sex where it wasn't both people's idea to start with. There are those who say that it is sufficiently difficult to draw the line between persuasion and coercion that there's no point in doing so, when it comes to sex. So that she says "no" specifically twice in the song (lines 13 & 18) and he keeps leaning on her to persuade her makes it, in no few people's eyes, rape whether she says yes later or not, and especially if she just fails or declines to say no one last time at the end of the song. Why not? Because, the theory goes, if he refuses to take "no" for an answer, how freely is her "yes" given? How certain can she be that a guy who hasn't taken "no" for an answer will draw the line at verbal persuasion? Note that her bargaining position is terrible, too. The song title, and repeated line, suggests that she's in substantial danger if she says no.
But if that doesn't clinch it, take a closer look at lines 8 to 12. To stall for time, or because she's flustered, or to get him off of the couch that is almost certainly the only piece of furniture in the room, she asks for a drink. And not long enough later to have taken more than a sip, she asks suspiciously what's in it. And her next two lines are about being unable to "break this spell," and the line after that says that she's trying to say "no" and can't. Even if the drink's just alcohol, remember that there are places where the law is that a partner who is inebriated cannot legally consent to sex, that sex with an inebriated partner is rape. But how sure are we, in the context of the song, that there wasn't anything in there but booze? If nothing else, it's obviously a whole lot stronger than she's used to being served. How does this color her concession (which, I note, still doesn't include the word "yes") in the last line?
Now, I know where Kukla gets her interpretation from. The first version she heard, and the one that she still considers definitive, is the very popular recording of it with Ray Charles and Betty Carter. And in the Betty Carter version, there's no doubt from the way that she vamps it that she made her mind to have sex with Ray Charles' character before she even came up to the apartment, that she's just trying to preserve her reputation by pretending to put up a fight. There's another classic recording, by Dean Martin and I forget whom, where the (somewhat obscure) female singer vamps her part so much that it's clear that her interpretation is even farther in the same direction than Betty Carter's. She's clearly trying hard to get laid, and sings her lines as nothing less frank than sexual teasing. And it's certainly true that by the standards of when the song was written in 1948, there would absolutely be those who would say that even at Christmas-time, if The Mouse wasn't willing to at least consider having sex with that man, what was she doing in The Wolf's apartment that late?
But it's worth pointing out that the Ray Charles' recording of it is in 1961 and Dean Martin's in 1959. The earliest recording of it was in 1949, by Dinah Shore. And the one that I consider definitive, the one I certainly hear the most often, is one from around 1950 by Bing Crosby and, no I'm not kidding, Doris Day. And while Doris Day clearly had sex at least once in her life (she was married 4 times and had one child), it was certainly the public's impression that only someone truly sick could imagine it. If you're too young to remember Doris Day at all, imagine if Britney Spears had kept her original reputation as sexy but wholesome. All the way to at least the age of 50. That Doris Day. And when Bing Crosby takes off her hat in line 12, right after she's had that drink, there's a seriously frightened gasp on the recording; her character was not expecting to be touched. How consenting is it that she stayed now, do you think?
I know, it's just a silly song. And a very catchy tune. And some truly great jazz. And, as sexy D/s fantasy, very sexy indeed. But if The Wolf found himself in a shoot-out with The Mouse's father on the day after Christmas 1949, or found himself brought up on forcible rape charges by The Mouse on the day after Christmas 2006, in either case his defense would look awfully ragged. Enjoy the song ... but take a word to the wise.