How to make 'Baby, It's Cold Outside' not so icky this Christmas

piggycold
Rudolf Nureyev and Miss Piggy in a Muppet version of ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’

Christmas is coming. There’s a chill in the air. Baby, it’s cold outside.

In other words, it’s the season when holiday music becomes ubiquitous, love it or hate it. And the not-actually-a-Christmas-song that’s far and away the seasonal duet you’re most likely to hear is still “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” that would-be cute-and-coy pas de deux written by Frank Loesser that made its Oscar-winning debut in the 1949 Esther Williams swimming movie Neptune’s Daughter.

Of course, there’s also a different kind of chill in the air this season: The bracing wind of shame felt by powerful sexual predator dudes seeing their careers destroyed after being exposed as serial workplace pants-droppers. From Harvey Weinstein to Charlie Rose to Matt Lauer, we seem to be on a schedule of at least one prominent big shot per day exiting in infamy while making a dubious statement of quasi-contrition, such as: “I will step aside and commit myself to continuing my personal growth, spiritual learning, and, above all, to listening,” as Def Jam records cofounder Russell Simmons stated this week.

What do those two things have to do with one another? Plenty, actually.

The always popular “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” has become ever more prevalent after being sung by Zooey Deschanel and Will Ferrell in the 2003 department store romance Elf. (Other notable newish versions include: Willie Nelson and Norah Jones’ 2009 take, Rufus Wainwright and Sharon Van Etten’s 2012 version, and Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga’s, which was used in a Barnes & Noble ad in 2015.)

And as “Baby” has gotten increased exposure — it was a No. 1 hit for Michael Buble and Idina Menzel, also in 2015 — pop culture observers have hastened to point out that the lyrics are about a guy (characterized as the “Wolf” in Loesser’s original composition) who is unscrupulous in using whatever means necessary to get the woman (the “Mouse”) to sleep with him.

In one key lyric — “Say, what’s in this drink?” — he seems to have drugged her, using the slip-her-a-roofie tactic accusers have said Bill Cosby used to sedate victims. In a word, the song is rapey. It’s not so much a cute flirtation to listen to while snuggling with your honey, the accusation goes, but more like a date-rape anthem that should make you queasy, if not appalled.

Of course, there’s a counter-argument. When Loesser wrote the song in 1944, and he and his wife would perform it at Hollywood parties, the idea of an unmarried woman spending the night at a man’s apartment was a social taboo. The game of pretending a drink was spiked, or that the weather was too forbidding to make it home, might have given a woman permission to be sexual in a prudish, repressive era.  “Baby” is not rapey — or at least didn’t used to be — according to this line of reasoning. In fact, it’s proto-feminist.

But times change, and sexual mores along with them. Nobody needs to fake that they’re drunk anymore as an excuse for a sleepover. And when the news is full of stories of powerful dudes who don’t think they need anyone’s consent to stroll around in an open bathrobe in front of female coworkers, a song like “Baby” — in which the lyric “the answer is no” gets shrugged off with a laugh — comes across as anachronistic, or worse.

“Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is easy to focus on because it goes from invisible to unavoidable in the last five weeks of every year. But pop music history is of course full of creepy, misogynist songs given a pass in their time and place.

“I’d rather see you dead little girl, than to be with another man,” Elvis Presley sang rather threateningly in “Baby, Let’s Play House” in 1955, and those adorable mop-top Beatles liked the line so much they lifted it for  “Run for Your Life” 10 years later on Rubber Soul. Sexual obsession in pop music is associated with deeply felt soulfulness. Sting is pretty clear that the protagonist in the Police’s popular wedding song “Every Breath You Take” is a stalker.

So what do we do with “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”? Should it be tossed on the trash heap of history?

Some are taking that approach. Robert Drake, who will host the 25th-anniversary edition of his 24-hour Christmas music show The Night Before on WXPN-FM (88.5) on Dec. 24, posted on Facebook last month that he had pulled all copies of “Baby” from his song library. And Andrea Duffy, a deejay at WBEB-FM (101.1), which plays nonstop holiday music at this time of year, announced in a tweet that “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” had been removed from the station’s playlist. She hashtagged it #Victory and #BabyItsCalledConsent.

But the song isn’t about to disappear entirely. The number of new recordings is down, but Fantasia Barrino has a (lame) duet with Cee-Lo Green on her new Christmas After Midnight. On the Billboard Holiday 100 chart, which ranks songs by radio airplay and number of streaming plays, the Menzel-Buble version is No. 47, up six positions from last week.

So here’s my proposition: If we are going to have to hear “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” can we please be selective about it? Let’s listen to the classic versions that feature unquestionably strong women who are among the greatest female vocalists of all time squaring off against their male counterparts.

For starter’s, there’s the Ella Fitzgerald 1949 version with Louis Jordan that Time magazine’s critics cited in a 2012 piece naming “Baby” one of the  100 greatest songs of all time. And there’s my personal favorite: Ray Charles and jazz great Betty Carter’s 1962 hit version, which is beautifully sung. I’d also put the Nelson-Jones, Bennett-Gaga, and Wainwright-Van Etten duets in the still-listenable, less-creepy category, as the sense of sexual predation is absent because the affection between the two singers is so devoid of sexual tension.

And here’s the other way to listen to “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” without the song giving you the creeps. Seek out versions in which the roles are reversed.

The intriguing, forward-thinking part about the tune’s debut in Neptune’s Daughter in 1949 is that it was included in two versions. In the first, Ricardo Montalban makes moves on Williams, who’s at first unrecognizable when not underwater. But in the second, the roles are reversed as comedian Betty Garrett plays the Wolf to her comic foil Red Skelton’s Mouse.

Among more modern “Baby’s,” there are two more notable takes that cast the female as the aggressor. One is on the first of two holiday albums made by Deschanel and her musical partner M. Ward, called A Very She & Him Christmas, from 2012. In their recasting, the soft-spoken guitarist guy acts sheepish and kind of scared, and his The New Girl actress singing partner plots to keep him indoors.

The other tables-turned rendition is older but worth digging up because it pulls off the miraculous feat of using the fraught no-laughing-matter issue as grist for a successful comedy bit. Maybe that’s because the situation isn’t entirely human: It’s from an episode of The Muppet Show, featuring Rudolph Nureyev, who plays the Mouse with great aplomb as he is preyed upon by Miss Piggy, who’s delighted to find the almost naked Russian ballet dancer alone in a sauna with her. She’s sorely disappointed, though, when he flees at the end of the song, despite how cold it is outside.