Perennial yuletide ditty “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” was one of the most high-profile victims of “cancel culture” when it was withdrawn from several radio stations in 2018, including the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. The ban was due to public concerns about interpretations of the lyrics in the #MeToo era. In particular, lyrics such as “what’s in this drink?” viewed against the backdrop of Bill Cosby being found guilty of spiking drinks and drugging a woman in order to commit sexual assault.
The song began life as a “party piece” for high society soirees of the 1940’s. Guys And Dolls composer Frank Loesser wrote the song in 1944 to perform with his wife Lynn Garland at their housewarming party in New York. Garland reflected that the song was their “ticket to caviar and truffles. We became instant parlor room stars. We got invited to all the best parties for years…” Loesser subsequently sold the song to MGM in 1949 for use in the romantic comedy Neptune’s Daughter, a move that infuriated Garland. The song went on to win the 1949 Academy Award for Best Original Song.
In the 70 years since the original composition a diverse range of stars have covered the song, such as Louis Armstrong, Dean Martin, Ray Charles, Barry Manilow, Bette Midler, Vanessa Williams, Harry Connick Jr., Rod Stewart, Dolly Parton, James Taylor, Natalie Cole, Willie Nelson, Norah Jones, Avril Lavigne and Sia. But the world has changed dramatically in relation to our understanding and interpretation of gender roles, and a recent version of the song has caused a blizzard of controversy on both sides of the Atlantic.
Vocalists John Legend and Kelly Clarkson recorded a modified version of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” to address potential concerns around lyrics which could be offensive when viewed with modern sensibilities. For example, rather than the unrelenting persistence of the original, Legend concurs to Clarkson that it is “your body, your choice,” and offers to call her an Uber.
The updated lyrics have caused an intense backlash, with Legend and co-writer Natasha Rothwell being lambasted for daring to alter the canonical original. Sharon Osbourne called the original version a “master painting” and declared the update “ridiculous” on her CBS show The Talk, Deana Martin, daughter of Dean, called the remake “absolutely absurd,” while Piers Morgan was, perhaps unsurprisingly, apoplectic with rage. Morgan is no stranger to conservative fury, waging a culture war against easily offended millennial “snowflakes,” while being flamboyantly offended by novel items such as a Greggs vegan sausage roll.
Legend himself seemed bewildered by the furor, telling The Observer last week, “The song was supposed to be silly! It wasn’t supposed to be preachy at all. I never disparaged the old version.” During a Yahoo! BUILD Series interview, Legend said of the critics, “I think they wanted it to be part of the political kind of culture wars… I think people wanted something to be mad at.”
Mike Read, the Breakfast Show presenter on United DJs, reveals that he is decidedly unhappy with the remake. “Too revisionist. A handful of dissenters these days seem to have the loudest voices. Nothing better to do than look for anything that may appear to cause offense. The Few being offended on behalf of those who aren’t remotely offended. Bring back the stocks and the cat o’ nine tails!”
Millennial singer-songwriter Emily Capell is a fan of the original but is not offended by the new version. “I don’t mind John Legend and Kelly Clarkson’s cover; I think it’s great. Now a whole new generation of people can hear a classic Christmas song. But, I don’t think it needed to be updated at all. The lyrics are about the man asking the lady to stay, not forcing her. If there was a verse about getting physically abusive and or being sexist then yeah by all means change it. But it’s a call and response style of songwriting, and it works perfectly for this song. I like it. I class myself as a feminist, and I am not offended.”
Russian “queer disco troupe” SADO OPERA offer a nuanced view of the song from their vantage point. “Even though we like the original tune and both performances of it are hilarious in the movie, today the song itself sounds for us more like a ‘pick-up artist’ tutorial. And this bothers us most of all. What we observe is how suggestions you wouldn’t expect to be harmful or toxic are eventually promoting an abusive relationship.”
SADO OPERA elaborate through the lens of cultural history. “In 1949, the western world was still vigorously promoting the image of a so-called alpha-male, or what now would be an idol for ‘pick-up artists,’ men whose goal is seduction and sexual success often in a very sexist and misogynistic manner. Unfortunately, this image is still very much promoted in many countries. For example, many Russian public figures still make promo campaigns that are obviously inspired by outdated role models from old-fashioned movies and songs. Stubbornly ignoring that it not only looks at least ridiculous, but is as well sending a wrong signal and influences society to subscribe to sexist, misogynistic behavior. Which, for example, shows in the rise of domestic violence as the statistics say.”
The band approves of the sentiments behind the Legend and Clarkson update. “It’s been 70 years since the song was out, but this paradigm and attitude are still quite present. It makes us very happy to see that things are changing, and that pop culture is now showcasing new behavior patterns and a ‘new masculinity’ that is not necessarily toxic. Progressive thinking individuals of today would be unlikely to see the funny side of a man keeping on insisting, and ignoring when another person is saying, or singing, ‘the answer is no,’ even in a cute Christmas song.”
Perhaps the issue of “pop music being too P.C.” is being a convenient proxy for a culture war between the conservative and progressive movements in society, not unlike the humble and seemingly inoffensive vegan sausage roll. If so, it will be interesting to observe the next momentary flashpoint between those who are opposed to cultural change and those who feel it can’t happen soon enough.