Thanks to my few weeks working retail again during the holiday season, I've had occasion to think long and hard about what Christmas songs are really saying to us. For example, I had always assumed the moral of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" was that you should be nice to those who are weird or different. But really, if you think about it, the song is basically telling you you shouldn't make fun of weird people (or animals) because they might turn out to be useful someday, and won't you feel stupid then? What about weird people who never turn out to be useful to you—is it still fine to make fun of them?
The song that has caused the most mental turmoil, however, is "Baby, It's Cold Outside" (complete lyrics at end of post). Whether the classic Louis Armstrong / Velma Mittleton or Louis Jordan / Ella Fitzgerald versions, the simpering Jessica Simpson / Nick Lachey version, or the Elf soundtrack Zooey Deschanel / Leon Redbone version, it plays about once an hour in the beloved local bookstore where I've been a captive audience to its increasingly problematic lyrics.
The first time it caught my attention as more than a cheerful winter love song was when I caught the line "Say, what's in this drink?" over ambient noise that had until then kept me from noticing more than the tune. Upon closer listening when it played later, I also noted the line "The answer is no." When taken together, these two almost sound like a real roofie-fueled date rape is going on. Now, obviously I don't actually think that's what's supposed to be happening (if nothing else, Rohypnol didn't exist until 1972...though it seems GHB has been around since 1874), but lyrics that were intended to seem sweet or perhaps slightly risque (at the very least, clever and amusing) in 1944 have quite a different impact on the modern listener, particularly if she's a young woman raised in the modern "no means no" culture. The very occurrence of an explicit "The answer is no" followed by a wheedling "But baby, it's cold outside" can hardly help but activate one's creepometer these days.
Even then, I just thought there were a few unfortunate lines that had aged poorly and didn't really see the whole song as problematic. By now, though, I've heard it forty or fifty times this season and am thoroughly creeped out by the entire thing. Now, I don't know if this is supposed to be the case, but to me it seems like the guy (who apparently is identified as "The Wolf" to the girl's "The Mouse"—talk about creepy!) is older, while the girl seems younger, an ingenue overpowered by his suavity. (It seems he has his own place, while the girl lives with her family: "My mother will start to worry / my father will be pacing the floor / ... / My sister will be suspicious / my brother will be there at the door / my maiden aunt's mind is vicious...", so I envision him as an older, established man and her as some fresh-out-of-high-school stenographer or something.)
Nowadays I wouldn't be too concerned by an exchange like this because I would assume the two parties actually had equal power in the situation and the woman was just proffering excuses to seem like a nice girl while fully expecting to let herself be convinced and not actually caring what her parents or neighbors thought (not that this isn't a problematic exchange in itself), but since the song was written over six decades ago, it's hard to read it any way other than with all the power in the man's hands. The woman (The Mouse!) is scrambling for excuses, almost panicking in some versions, as she's overcome by the Wolf's wheedling ways. It's as if she's watching herself succumb while being unable to keep it from happening: "I wish I knew how / to break the spell..." Then either her will breaks or she rationalizes to herself: "I ought to say no, no, no sir / at least I'm gonna say that I tried..."
Even if you don't buy the power imbalance and prefer to think of the two on more equal footing, it's just plain aggravating. If I had decided not to stay over and was presenting my reasons, to have each one completely ignored as the guy attempted to flatter me ("Your hair looks swell"; "Gosh, your lips are delicious") or countered with a never-ending and irrelevant refrain of "It's cold outside" that completely disregarded everything I was saying, I would get more annoyed and considerably less likely to stay because I wouldn't feel like he was listening to anything I was saying and obviously didn't respect me as a person. At that point it becomes less about whether or not she actually wants to stay over (or just stay later; that's not really explicitly stated) and more about teaching this jerk a lesson for thinking her decisions are irrelevant and he can just unmake them. Nobody wants to be badgered into a romantic evening; that kind of kills the mood.
One of the last lines he sings, "Get over that hold-out," demonstrates just how little he's paying attention to what she's saying. Now, maybe she is being stupid for caring what everyone will think, but instead of answering that concern in a reasonable manner, trying to convince her she's old enough to make her own decisions and shouldn't care what people think about them, but as the lines "What's the sense of hurting my pride?" and the lamenting "Why would you do this thing to me?" make oh-so-clear, he doesn't really care about the reasons she's giving—what anyone thinks of her, any problems she'll have with her family the next day, or anything else; he thinks her holding out is just to torment him and ruin his evening. Get over yourself, forties creep! Seriously, "What's the sense of hurting my pride?"? That's like admitting he had already planned to crow over his conquest to his friends the next day and is upset she's taking that from him. Heaven forbid a woman take her own thoughts and feelings into account when she makes a decision instead of worrying what the guy is supposed to tell his friends in the morning. I guess they're both picturing the next morning and the people they have to confront, and she doesn't like that picture if she stays and he doesn't like it if she doesn't.
I really can't stay (But baby, it's cold outside)
I've got to go 'way (Baby, it's cold outside)
The evening has been (I've 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 (Hey 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 a record 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 this spell (I'll take your hat, your hair looks swell)
I ought to say no, no, no sir (You mind if I move in closer?)
At least I'm gonna say that I tried (And what's the sense in hurting my pride?)
I really can't stay (Oh baby, don't hold out)
Oh, but it's cold outside
I simply must go (It's cold outside)
The answer is no (Baby, it's cold outside)
The welcome has been (So lucky that you dropped in)
So nice and warm (Look out the window at that storm)
My sister will be suspicious (Your lips look delicious)
My brother will be there at the door (Waves upon a tropical shore)
My maiden aunt's mind is vicious (Gosh, your lips are delicious)
Well maybe just a cigarette more (Never such a blizzard before)
I've got to get home (Baby, you'll freeze out there)
Say, lend me a coat (It's up to your knees out there)
You've really been grand (I thrill when you touch my hand)
Oh, but don't you see (How can you do this thing to me?)
There's bound to be talk tomorrow (Well, 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)
Ah, but it's cold outside.
And then some versions end with the super-creepy:
Brr, its cold...
It's cold out there.
Cant you stay a while longer, baby?
Well... I really shouldn't... all right.
Make it worth your while baby
Ahh, do that again...