“Baby It’s Cold Outside,” has been getting a lot of air time lately. Well, not literally. You might have seen backlash about this song the past few weeks after radio stations have removed it from holiday playlists because of growing opposition to its lyrics [posted in full below]. In the wake of the #MeToo movement, some people have found the cat and mouse game (or Mouse and Wolf, to be precise) that the two voices play a bit too suggestive of rape culture. Perhaps just as vocal has been the backlash against the backlash—people who find the censorship of this song to be a bit over-sensitive. 1
Now having been trained in interpretive techniques both in the artistic realm (as a professional musician) and in the literary realm (as a student of scripture and literature), I have learned how important it is to examine the “worlds” of the text. 2 When we ask about what a text “means” we have to think about three worlds: the world “of” the text, the world “behind” the text, and the world “in front of” the text. Let’s explore these three worlds a bit.
1. The World “Of the Text”
In this perspective, we look at the text as its own self-contained world. All we know is what the text itself tells us. We look at the words, the ideas, the characters all on their own merit. So what’s happening in this world?
The song opens in a blizzard with knee-high accumulations and freezing temperatures, both of which would make a trip home a dangerous undertaking. Two characters, named Mouse and Wolf, have spent a “very nice” evening together, and now they are reaching that always awkward part of a date (or so I’m told) at the end: do I come in for a night-cap and maybe a smooch or just go home? Mouse comes in and engages in a conversation with Wolf about whether Mouse should go back home.
Regardless of whether Mouse “should” stay, does Mouse want to stay? Mouse begins both verses “I really can’t stay” and “I simply must go” but ends both of them, “Ah, but it’s cold outside.” A setup and a reversal! Mouse’s need to leave seems to originate in worried parents, an overprotective brother, a suspicious sister, and a vicious “maiden aunt,” not to mention the neighbors who are bound to be talking about them, rather than Mouse’s own desire to go home.
“Has Mouse been manipulated by Wolf?” It’s a great question and brings us to a particularly tricky aspect of interpretation: the character’s motives. I have a feeling that the way we interpret this song depends greatly on the motivation we attribute to Wolf. Wolf is clearly enamored with Mouse—delicious lips, starry sky, tropical shores, and the thrill of touching hands. But is Wolf seducing Mouse in a manipulative way?
Given that this is a song, the “text” has to include the music as well as the lyrics. One published version of the score says it should be played “Loesserando,” a playful nod to Loesser’s body of work. 3 The song swings with dotted rhythms and syncopation, and the jazzy chords are articulated in a kind of boom-chick pattern on the piano. The vocal parts lie very much in the middle of both singers’ ranges—neither too high nor too low, making the song very easy to sing and to hear. (In contrast, something really high would suggest tension.)
I think that the “text”—music and lyrics—here suggests something playful, not manipulative. It’s a fun way to talk about romance without talking about romance. It might be a song about sex, but I don’t think it’s a song about rape.
2. The World “Behind the Text” 4
This world is the world of the composer—the context in which the text was written. It is in this world where we hope to look at “what the composer meant” as we build our interpretation.
The song was written in 1944 by Frank Loesser for him and his wife Lynn Garland to sing at the end of a party to let the guests know it was time to leave. The song quickly became very popular, and Loesser and Garland were asked to sing it frequently. Garland called it their “ticket to caviar and truffles.” So while in the world of the text, the characters don’t seem to live together, in the world behind the text, the couple singing the song are married. This detail would certainly have affected how people heard it.
Eventually, Loesser sold the song to MGM, where it was included in the 1949 film Neptune’s Daughter and won the Academy Award for best original song.
In terms of context, the line “What’s in this drink” has become one of the most troublesome lines, particularly for those opposed to this song. Some commentators have noted that this line might have been a stock joke in the 40s which everyone would have found funny. Others point to it as a way for Mouse to have plausible deniability about what happened when nosey neighbors, mom, dad, brother, sister, and that vicious aunt start asking questions. Regardless, Susan Loesser, Frank’s daughter, assures us that Loesser was not thinking about giving his wife some kind of date rape drug.
Although I have taken pains not to associate Wolf or Mouse with a particular gender, the reality is that in its first performances, Wolf was Frank, a man, and Mouse was Lynn, a woman. So it’s important to note that in the 1940s, a woman wasn’t supposed to spend the night with a man like this. Whether they slept together or not, simply the appearance of impropriety would be devastating.
3. The World “In Front of the Text”
This is the world that we bring to the text as we read it. It includes our experiences and opinions, world events that have shaped our culture that the original composer could have never imagined or foreseen. This is the part of the interpretive process where we can have significantly different “data points” that we are looking at. For example, as a white male who has never been sexually assaulted, I am less likely (I think) to see this song as about sexual assault than someone who has survived assault.
I wish that #MeToo wasn’t a part of our reality. I wish that no one had ever been raped, assaulted, or meant to feel unsafe or threatened. But they do. They really do. So with regard to that context which we all bring to bear on “Baby It’s Cold Outside”, we need to turn to the few lines that are the most challenging for us.
1. “Say, what’s in this drink?” ~Mouse
2. “The answer is no!” ~Mouse
3. “How can you do this thing to me?” ~Wolf
If you look at these three lines and can’t see any link with the #MeToo movement, you’re probably not paying close enough attention to the world around you. Unfortunately, real rapists put drugs in women’s drinks. Men don’t always listen to women who say “No!” Men do try to manipulate their sexual partners through guilt. This is all true for us, the listener, regardless of whether it was for Frank Loesser, and regardless of whether this song refers to our context.
Emotions run high sometimes. And if there’s one thing we know about emotions, it’s that they can really get in the way of careful, logical thinking. Sometimes my emotions are just so raw that my brain just shuts down. In addition, each one of us chooses to focus on particular details and ignore others. Psychologists actually tell us that we are more likely to pay attention to the data that confirms our opinions and ignore the data that refutes it. They call it “confirmation bias.” As important and charged as our emotional reactions are, they cannot be immune from reflection. Just as the world “of” and “behind” the texts must be subject to analysis, so must the world “in front of” it.
So What Now?
Good interpretation involves work…hard work. We can’t simply be fundamentalists and take the text at face value, using randomly-quoted lines to support our already-arrived-at positions. We also can’t rely only on the author’s intentions. He’s not here anymore. We also can’t only look at our own experiences and emotions since they require their own set of tools to understand.
Truth be told, I don’t care if “Baby It’s Cold Outside” is a playful repartee between two consenting adults or an insidious song about rape. I do care about you though. I care about your experiences—both of this song and otherwise. And I care very much about us talking about it. What I don’t want is someone else to do the thinking for us, which is why I think banning the song from the radio is problematic.
You might disagree with the interpretation I’ve offered here. That’s ok. In fact, I think that it’s great! You can disagree with me, and I’ll still care about you, your perspective, and the unique experiences that make up your world. We can and should talk civilly about our disagreements in interpretation: that’s the whole point of interpretation. It’s not about silencing some voices, but about really listening to one another.
“Baby It’s Cold Outside” lyrics:
I really can’t stay.
But baby it’s cold outside.
I simply must go.
But baby it’s cold outside.
- This radio station plans to play the song on repeat for several hours! ↩
- This idea originates with noted hermeneutic phenomenologist Paul Ricoeur ↩
- His works includes Guys and Dolls and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. ↩
- For a really good and thorough take on this “world,” take a look at this recent New York Times piece on the song. ↩