Walk into nearly any store in December and you’re likely to be inundated with jovial holiday tunes. Songs like “Deck the Halls,” “Jingle Bell Rock,” and “Winter Wonderland” are blasted through the speakers of practically every department store, radio station, and coffee shop. Whether you adore or despise this music, its cultural influence is undeniable. While most of these Christmas classics are uplifting, romantic, and incredibly nostalgic for many, there is one holiday tune that is steeped in controversy: 1944 classic “Baby, it’s Cold Outside.”
Written by composer Frank Loesser of Guys and Dolls fame, “Baby, it’s Cold Outside” was originally intended to be a playful duet performed by him and his wife during a housewarming party. In 1948, the song was recorded for the score of Neptune’s Daughter with the male and female parts being labeled as “the wolf” and “the mouse” respectively. The idea of the song was to portray the wolf and mouse having drinks after a date while the mouse continues to make excuses for reasons she has to leave. With each excuse the mouse makes —“I really can’t stay”— the wolf counters with another— “Baby, it’s cold outside.”
Throughout the melody, the mouse goes back and forth on whether she gives in to his excuses, saying “maybe just a half a drink more.” Even as the mouse continues to spell out reasons she must leave, the wolf continues to push with the mouse finally relenting at the end of the song when they sing the line “Baby, it’s cold outside” together.
Despite some of the lyrics that we might find slightly disturbing today, for most of the song’s history, the only controversy was whether or not it could truly be considered a Christmas song. Although synonymous with Christmas and the holiday season, the song makes no mention of any holiday. It was only in 2004 that the public began to become concerned about the song’s message. “Baby, it’s Cold Outside has a lovely melody but it’s an ode to date rape,” wrote Rob McKenzie and Joe Bodolai in an article for the Canadian Post in one of the first articles criticizing the lyrics of the song.
Following the article in the Canadian Post, several others were published building off of McKenzie and Bodolai’s claims about the song’s disturbing message, specifically when the mouse says “what’s in this drink.” However, the controversy reached its peak in 2007 with the rise of social media sites like Facebook giving both critics and advocates of the song a platform to share their ideas. In 2010, Feminist blog Persephone Magazine emphasized that the historical context of the song was important because at the time an unmarried woman spending time alone in a man’s house was considered scandalous. The mouse’s fear of gossip is evident in the lyrics “There’s bound to be talk tomorrow,” and “My sister will be suspicious.” Looking at it this way, the song could be perceived to be about women’s sexual liberation rather than date rape.
However, in 2018 during the rise of the ‘Me Too’ movement, radio stations across the country banned “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” from being aired. In San Francisco, radio station 95.5 KOIT banned the song but faced severe backlash. “[There were] hundreds of comments on social media and via email demanding that ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’ be placed back to the Christmas Playlist,” said the station’s director Brian Figula in 2018. “[Listeners found the song to be] a valuable part of their holiday tradition.”
Despite this, many radio stations are firm in their decisions to keep “Baby, it’s Cold Outside” off the air.
In order to preserve the song’s place in holiday tradition, many artists have created new versions of this song with updated, less controversial lyrics such as the well-known Muppet rendition in which Ms. Piggy implores ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev to stay with her in a steam room. Just last month, singers John Legend and Kelly Clarkson released a duet with updated lyrics with Clarkson at one point singing “What will my friends think?” and Legend responding “I think they should rejoice.” Despite raving reviews of the new melody in Vanity Fair and all over social media, the new song has faced backlash from advocates for the traditional tune.
It’s clear that “Baby, it’s Cold Outside” is indicative of a time of the past. Whether or not the song has a place in modern society continues to be up for debate. Only one thing’s for certain: its controversy remains as persistent as the wolf.