“It’s the creepiest Christmas song,” one of my co-workers said.
“Kind of date rape-y,” another added.
Of course, they were talking about “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” the 1944 Frank Loesser duet that’s technically not a Christmas song but still is popular during the season. Coincidentally, it’s long been one of my favorites, with a relaxed cadence and impressive scheme — especially in a time of increasingly poppy tunes, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” and its numerous covers have remained rather classy and stylish.
The song has, unfortunately, gotten a bad rap over the years, as my co-workers banter indicates. The root of that reputation lies in a fundamental misunderstanding of the lyrics; they were written in a different era, and more than 60 years later some parts of the song certainly could come across as overly sketchy. While understandable, this misinterpretation represents a tragic loss of the context of the song, alienating it not only from its own time but from ours as well. A closer reading and consideration of the lyrics, however, will provide an understanding and hopefully even an appreciation of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.”
I really can’t stay – Baby it’s cold outside
I’ve got to go away – Baby it’s cold outside
This evening has been – 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 – Beautiful, what’s your hurry
My father will be pacing the floor – Listen to the fireplace roar
So really I’d better scurry – Beautiful, please don’t hurry
Well Maybe just a half a drink more – Put some music 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 – Mind if I move a little closer
At least I’m gonna say that I tried – What’s the sense in hurting my pride
I really can’t stay – Baby don’t hold out
Ahh, but it’s cold outside
I simply must go – Baby, it’s cold outside
The answer is no – Ooh baby, it’s cold outside
This welcome has been – I’m lucky that you dropped in
So nice and warm – Look out the window at that storm
My sister will be suspicious – Man, your lips look so delicious
My brother will be there at the door – Waves upon a tropical shore
My maiden aunt’s mind is vicious – Gosh your lips look delicious
Well maybe just a half a drink more – Never such a blizzard before
I’ve got to go home – Oh, baby, you’ll freeze out there
Say, lend me your comb – It’s up to your knees out there
You’ve really been grand – Your eyes are like starlight now
But don’t you see – How can you do this thing to me
There’s bound to be talk tomorrow – Making my life long sorrow
At least there will be plenty implied – If you caught pneumonia and died
I really can’t stay – Get over that old out
Ahh, but it’s cold outside.
The premise of the song is simple enough: a young woman has been visiting a young man. It’s late in the evening in winter, approaching the time it would no long be socially acceptable for them to be alone. She laments the societal mores that would tarnish her image should she stay too late; he provides possible excuses for her to use with her family, including, of course, that it’s too cold outside to walk home.
Of course, that’s the PG version. The adult version is that they want to have sex, but of course rumors would profligate at “Easy A” levels. Or, possibly, they already have, because she asks for a comb, indicating her hair is mussed from a roll in the hay. Even still, the plot remains both sympathetic and endearing.
The modern interpretation, however, is somewhat different, and relies around the misinterpretation of a single line of lyrics. She agrees to another half-hour, and he pours them both drinks, as people in the ‘40s (and, to be honest, today) are wont. “Say, what’s in this drink?” she asks. Most people I know cite this line when questioning the intentions of the man, and at first glance it could be interpreted to indicate her drink was roofied. But the true meaning is more complicated: just as people do today, she is blaming conscious action on inebriation, providing an excuse, if not a very desirable one, for her advances. Yes, her advances. Both the man and the woman are interested in sex, something that maybe wasn’t explored on “Leave it to Beaver” but which did, in fact, occur.
What proves the plot is less skeevy than modern interpretation would hold? She spends much of the song worrying not about her actually stay over but rather her family’s reaction, including a worrying mother, a pacing father, a suspicious sister, a brother at the door and a maiden aunt with a vicious mind. “But don’t you see / … There’s bound to be talk tomorrow / … At least there will be plenty implied,” she tells the man. “I really can’t stay,” she says, and he replies, “Get over that old out,” as in excuse.
As an example, the below video, a cover of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” by Chris Colfer and Darren Criss from “Glee,” showcases the appropriate tone and delivery of the duet. Colfer, singing the female role, is obviously not scared or worried, as someone who was in a predatory situation would be; rather, he is coy, hinting at deeper desires contrasting with cultural acceptability.
Ultimately, of course, she bucks acceptability: “I ought to say no, no, no, sir / … At least I’m gonna say that I tried / … I really can’t stay / … Ahh, but it’s cold outside.” The final line is sung not back and forth, as the rest is, but rather together in harmony. “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” isn’t about overpowering a woman or even really an inner conflict, but rather pushes away socially acceptable behavior in favor of personal desires. Unfortunately, that message has become muddled and somewhat lost to time. Ironically, never before has such a song been so reflective of society.
Photo via Flickr.