It’s that time of year again – the time of year when American radio becomes oversaturated with Christmas carols and other holiday tunes. In the past decade, however, we have seen a growing controversy surrounding one song in particular: the 1940s piece “Baby It’s Cold Outside.” Every year, just before the start of the holiday season and throughout, discourse around this jingle skyrockets.
Often, there are claims that the song is chauvinist. To some, it seems to promote sexually predatory behavior, specifically, the idea that men should not take no for an answer. Others claim the song was just from a different time. Each year, responses to the song grow in intensity. This year, some radio stations have even placed a ban on the song in response to public outcry. Yet, other stations still support the song and continue to play it. I have assembled a focus group, which discussed the issues relating to this controversy.
“Baby it’s Cold Outside” Then and Now
Composed in 1944 and recorded in 1948, the culture that birthed “Baby it’s Cold Outside” undeniably faced different issues than we do today. The song has since become a holiday classic, however, and lives on to this day. To find out where modern listeners stand on the controversy, I assembled a small focus group to discuss the song, its intent, and its ramifications. The group consisted of male and female listeners between the ages of 25 and 30. All participants made it clear they were familiar with the song, its history, and the discourse that surrounds it today. In order to obtain more open and honest answers, and also respecting the wishes of the participants, their identities shall remain anonymous.
The first question asked whether or not the group believed the song promoted rape, rape culture, or sexually predatory behavior. They agreed that the song did not intend to promote such behaviors. Though some did say that, in the context of today’s social climate, it easily came off as sketchy.
One participant said, “It addressed another issue women faced at that time. If a woman stayed overnight with a man outside of marriage, society would judge her for it, so she would have to make excuses to leave.”
Another participant agreed that the song needed some explanation today as it did touch on historical issues that modern listeners are not well aware of. But they added that the issues today are still real and even suggested examining what modern songs are saying. They cited recent songs that do, in fact, promote predatory behavior. The other participants agreed. Yet another participant explained that several lyrics in the songs were stock jokes at the time that do not mean the same thing now.
Since the group demonstrated familiarity with the song’s history, I posed two questions asking whether or not we should take this cultural context into consideration; the context of both then and now. The response was near unanimous. Cultural context is always important, especially in dealing with serious issues.
The final participant stated, “Yes, because it would be ignorant not to. It’s people with a modern mindset judging a past time. Right or wrong, what was socially/culturally accepted back then was different.” This participant also attributed the current outcry to the trends of resurging senses of social justice, admitting it to ultimately be a good thing, but adding that this outrage can be applied incorrectly. This participant added, “We need to start with a sense of commonality to really address these issues constructively.” Others stated that without context, we do not have a complete picture of what happened then. Overall, the group believed context to be crucial.
How Should We Handle the Song in Our Modern Society?
Finally, I asked the group where they stood on a ban for the song. Ultimately, most agreed that there should not be an outright ban on the song. Some claimed that it should be up to the discretion of the radio stations. One participant gave the impassioned response, “With the freedom of expression, as God intended, for all Americans. If it offends someone, then they should just turn off the radio.”
Other participants made the proposition that if it is going to be played, there should perhaps be a message before and after briefly explaining the motive and intent of the song for the culture it was created for. Yet someone objected, “If we restrict that, we are going to have to restrict current tracks too. What about the top 10? Top 40? Billboard hits? We should just let it be played without restriction.” A fair point, as the slope of censorship is a slippery one.
Ultimately, I found that the song itself is not the problem. The true problem lies in the deeper societal issues. Consent is always and important issue. Rape, rape culture, and sexually predatory behavior are serious problems that need to be addressed. This song does not necessarily intend to promote such acts. But it can sound as if it does in light of America’s current cultural climate. However, this is not the fault of the song, nor should action be taken against the song.
I can understand the outcry to remove something that could be offensive or upsetting. But what we need to remember is that doing so is a form of censorship. Censorship, by its nature, is cultural erasure. For good or ill, when pieces of pop-culture are banned, restricted, or erased we lose insight into the era it came from and the issues the time faced.
The song should be played if a station wishes to play it. Yet those who take issue with it should not simply be dismissed. Rather, we should address it from a different vantage point. One where each playing of the song is an opportunity. It is an opportunity to sit down and really discuss what the song is saying, how it sounds to us now, and the issues we face today. It is an opportunity to keep the discourse on consent, rape, and sexual misconduct relevant. It keeps us as a society talking about these serious issues. With hope, this will lead us to solutions for these systemic issues.