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Written by Bob Keane
on December 20, 2018

We all know that language and attitudes evolve over time. When we’re in polite company, we tend to avoid using derogatory names for ethnic minorities or the LGBTQ community (except maybe when members of those groups  refer to themselves). And in the age of #MeToo, some elements that in the past might have been thought of as slightly suggestive or even humorous are now seen as problematic at best.

At this time of year, the prime example of this is undoubtedly the song, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” which many now refer to as the “date rape” song. This holiday season we’ve heard a lot less about the War on Christmas, but the skirmishes over political correctness continue.  There are radio stations that have banned it from their playlists and others, like the station in Louisville, that played it back-to-back for two straight hours, have it in constant rotation.

It May Not Mean What You Think

Granted, there were a lot of things people didn’t like to talk about in public 75 years ago, but, until recently, rape was not what most people thought of when they heard this classic tune. According to Susan Loesser, her father Frank (who composed the music for many great Broadway shows such as Guys and Dolls) wrote it in 1944 as something for him and his wife, Lynne, to entertain friends at parties.

The line in dispute is where the woman asks, “What’s in this drink?” In the modern context, the first thing that comes to mind is that he’s pulling a Bill Cosby, but a more innocent listener might wonder if the question was about the taste (What’s that spice? Nutmeg? Or the type of liquor used—Rum? Brandy?). But context is important, and if you look at the song in its entirety, it’s quite possible to see it in a different light.

A More Innocent Interpretation

I firmly believe that no always means no, but if you actually read all the lyrics, they can be interpreted in a less nefarious way. It’s obvious that the woman in question came to the man’s home unexpectedly and of her own free will (“Been hoping that you’d drop in.”) As the evening progresses, she indicates she wants to leave because of what others might think or say (“My mother will start to worry…my father will be pacing the floor…the neighbors might think…my sister will be suspicious…my brother will be there at the door…my maiden aunt’s mind is vicious…there’s bound to be talk tomorrow.”)

And at the same time, the storm outside is getting worse (““Baby, it’s bad out there…No cabs to be had out there… Look out the window at the storm…baby, you’d freeze out there…it’s up to your knees out there.”) To that last line, her reply is, “Say lend me a coat.” You mean to tell me this adult, empowered woman went out in a blizzard without a decent coat, and the man concerned about her welfare (“Think of my life long sorrow, if you caught pneumonia and died.”) is somehow taking advantage of her?!

With this song, like so many other parts of our culture, the context and intention really colors the message. In this version by James Taylor and Natalie Cole the couple are just good friends and the man is far from lascivious. And this one is a little more suggestive, but with the roles reversed.  And then there’s this one may be politically correct, but it’s just not a good song.

What's the Context?

The lesson from all of this, if there is one, is that in music, in business and in life, context matters.

In closing, best wishes to you and yours for a Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays and a healthy and prosperous New Year, and a link to my favorite version of “Baby It’s Cold Outside.”

 

 

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