Monday, December 2, 2013

Making Sense of "Baby, It's Cold Outside"

I've always been a little uncomfortable with the classic wintertime tune "Baby, It's Cold Outside." Written in the early 1940s by Broadway composer Frank Loesser, the lyrics are written as a conversation between two people, named in the score as "Mouse" and "Wolf." Wolf is trying to convince Mouse to spend the night, and while Mouse has some valid reasons for leaving ("My mother will start to worry"; "My father will be pacing the floor"), Wolf forcefully knocks each one down in turn. Despite the charming words and lovely melody, it quickly becomes clear that Wolf won't take "no" for an answer. There's even a suggestion that Wolf may have slipped something into Mouse's cocktail ("Say, what's in this drink?"). By today's standards, what we're witnessing sounds suspiciously like a date rape, and while I'm no prude, it isn't a party in my view unless everyone's there of their own free and clearheaded will.

Of course, standards were slightly different in the 1940s. Loesser originally wrote "Baby, It's Cold Outside" as a duet to sing with his wife at a private party to signal their guests it was time to go home. Loesser eventually sold the song to MGM, where it was featured in the 1949 film Neptune's Daughter. It appeared twice in that movie, first as a duet by Ricardo Montalb├ín and Esther Williams, and later by Red Skelton and Betty Garrett. The song won an Oscar for Best Original Song, and has subsequently been recorded by scores of other couples including Rod Stewart and Dolly Parton, Rock Hudson and Mae West, and Rudolph Nureyev and Miss Piggy.

In most instances, Wolf's role is played by a man, while Mouse is played by a woman. That's the dynamic that causes most of the concern, I guess – a strong and determined male coercing a less certain and vulnerable female into spending the night. But what if the roles were reversed? Or what if the conversation was between members of a same sex couple? It's certainly been done that way. In Neptune's Daughter, for example, the song's second appearance featured Betty Garrett in the role of Wolf trying to convince poor Red Skelton to spend the night. I understand Bing Crosby and Jimmy Stewart also sang the song together.

The latest pair to try their hand at this one is Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Lady Gaga, and in this version, it's Lady Gaga who plays Wolf. I guess that's pretty consistent with my view of Lady Gaga. She strikes me as someone who's not afraid to fight for what she wants. It's not inconsistent with my conception of Joseph Gordon-Levitt either, for he seems like a talented and delightful guy who'd be fun to have around. All in all, I'm satisfied that each of these two can take care of themselves pretty well. But on the whole, the song still makes me uncomfortable.

1 comment:

  1. For a completely different spin on this tune, check out the version on Linda Eder's new Christmas CD. She takes the usual Wolf/Mouse conversation and recasts it to a Mother/Son debate about going out to play in the cold weather (which obviously required some liberal lyric re-writing). She sings it with her son Jake, who has a decent singing voice, but sounds quite a bit older than his 14 years ... it might have worked even better had they recorded it a few years ago before his voice changed.