We’re once again in the holiday season, which means it’s time for everyone’s favorite winter song debate: Is Baby, It’s Cold Outside acceptable or not?
Personally, while I certainly understand why lots of people today find it objectionable (and are even rewriting the lyrics), particularly due to the “hey, what’s in that drink?” line, I think it’s important to look at the original context of the song:
I’ve heard the take on “Baby” as “rapey” a couple of times over the years and the concern about the song usually centers in on one line: “Say, what’s in this drink,” which many contemporary listeners assume is a reference to a date rape drug. But narrowing in on this particular line divorces it from its own internal context, and having only passing familiarity with the song divorces it from its cultural context.
The structure of “Baby” is a back and forth conversation between the male and female singers. Every line the woman utters is answered by him, until they come together at the end of the song. When we just look at “Say, what’s in this drink,” we ignore the lines that proceed and follow this, which are what indicates to the listener how we’re supposed to read the context.
Personally, I’m a fan of the song. And thanks to that Wikipedia article I linked up above, it turns out that though written in 1944, it was broadly popularized in the 1949 film Neptune’s Daughter (which I’ve never seen), in which it’s performed twice: once by Ricardo Montalbán (Khan!) and Esther Williams, which in staging, I have to admit, seems to hew fairly close to today’s interpretation of the song, with Montalbán coming across as predatory; then again by Red Skelton and Betty Garrett, in which the roles are reversed as Garrett tries to keep Skelton from leaving.
If you’re not a fan, I totally understand — but for me, it will remain a staple of my winter playlists.