Figleaf is asking what folks think are the creepiest old song lyrics, as viewed from our (now hopefully enlightened) present-day perspectives on gender and power. I have to agree with him on Rod Stewart’s “Tonight’s the Night.” (Virgin child indeed! How can you think that line these days without picturing Roman Polanski, Jack Nicholson’s hot tub, and a vat of Quaaludes?) Ditto on Paul Anka’s “Having My Baby.” Eww. Whose baby?? But it’s easy for me to despise the ideology in those songs, because I’ve always thought both of them were sappy, treacly, and musically insipid.
Other songs are easy pickins, too, even if I like and respect the musicians: “Under My Thumb” from the Rolling Stones romanticizes abuse. I can no longer hear “Wicked Uncle Ernie” from my beloved Who without wondering exactly what Pete Townsend was searching for on those child porn sites he visited (ostensibly for research). And then there’s the Gershwin oeuvre. “Someone to Watch Over Me,” indeed! I love Gershwin, I enjoy playing the songs on my piano, but some of the lyrics are just retrograde.
But back to figleaf’s list. I’m not ready to call “Baby It’s Cold Outside” a straightforward date-rape story, as he does. Let’s look at the lyrics. In case you don’t know the tune, it’s sung by alternating female and male voices, with the woman starting off first:
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
To break the spell – I’ll take your hat, your hair looks swell
I ought to say no, no, no, sir – Mind if I move 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 darling, 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 delicious
My brother will be there at the door – Waves upon a tropical shore
My maiden aunt’s mind is vicious – Gosh your lips are 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 coat – It’s up to your knees out there
You’ve really been grand – I thrill when you touch my hand
But don’t you see – How can you do this thing to me?
There’s bound to be talk tomorrow – Think of 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 hold out
Ahh, but it’s cold outside
Baby it’s cold outside
Brr its cold.
It’s cold out there
Cant you stay awhile longer baby
Well…I really shouldn’t…alright
Make it worth your while baby
Ahh, do that again.
So let’s start with a couple of lines that I do find creepy, sung by the man:
What’s the sense in hurting my pride?
Baby don’t hold out
This is definitely manipulative. The “hold out” prase is repeated later, too. It’s also icky because pride has no business in a make-out session. If his pride is that fragile, then he needs to get over himself. If pride is the only reason he wants her, then she has every reason to want to run back out into the cold. I don’t get a warm and fuzzy feeling from the line about “no cabs to be had out there,” either. While it’s probably factually true in a blizzard or ice storm, the man’s using it as an argument, conveying the possibility that the woman may be trapped against her will.
More ambiguous is this line:
How can you do this thing to me?
Is the male singer lamenting the woman’s possible departure? If that’s how you read it, the line is manipulative. But might he also be marveling at how much she turns him on? If so, that’s not necessarily pernicious at all.
I’m sure some people will read the cocktails as evidence of date rape. That’s only the case, though, if you assume that a couple of “half drinks” are going to render the woman incapable of consent. I’m not willing to read that much into the scenario; if you count every sexual encounter where alcohol is present as “rape,” then you’ve criminalized upwards of 90% of the sex that occurs on my university campus. (Whether that much drinking is desirable is another question.)
But along with the couple of definitely manipulative lines, the male singer also says some things that are solicitous and just plain warm:
Been hoping that you’d drop in
I’ll hold your hands, they’re just like ice
Beautiful, what’s your hurry
Listen to the fireplace roar
There’s a sweetness in those lines, as well as in the various compliments he gives her. (Quick! Somebody please tell me my hair looks swell!) But the really unexpected line comes right before the really objectionable one about his pride:
Mind if I move closer
Wow. He’s asking for explicit verbal consent! How often do you see that in a song – of any era? How often does that happen in real life, even today? This doesn’t neutralize the icky line about his pride, but it certainly complicates the potential date-rape narrative.
Turning to the woman’s lines, you see a lovely example of what figleaf likes to refer to as the first of his Two Rules of Desire: The woman is presumed not to have autonomous desires, and she comports herself accordingly.
But!! Look at why she’s resisting. It’s not because she’s not interested. She’s just playing the gatekeeper role. And she’s doing it for the same reason many of my students still do it, 60 years later: because she doesn’t want to be slut-shamed:
I ought to say no, no, no, sir
At least I’m gonna say that I tried …
My sister will be suspicious
My brother will be there at the door
My maiden aunt’s mind is vicious …
There’s bound to be talk tomorrow
At least there will be plenty implied
That’s the voice of a woman who knows darn well what she wants – she wants him! – but she’s hemmed in by the double standard. She ought to say no, no, no. She’s gonna say she tried – because she knows that otherwise she’ll be seen as easy.
And look at the social control! Her whole family has got her under surveillance. The reference to the maiden aunt is partly just reinforcing a stereotype of the shriveled up, sexless old maid, but it’s also describing one of the real ways that women have historically policed other women’s sexuality. In doing so, they may have thought they had the young woman’s interest in mind, but they ultimately, collectively helped enforce the patriarchal control of women’s bodies and sexuality. And the singer sounds as though she’s perfectly aware that this is more about family honor and community standards than her own well-being.
Maybe I’m a little soft on this song because I like it. There’s no question that the two singers are pressed into roles that undergird a rape culture. She means yes, and yet she says no no no – under duress. This is obviously some seriously fucked-up communication, and it’s just as obviously a way of navigating repressive social norms.
And yet – the song is more complex that the date-rape scenario suggests. I’m not nominating it to become the new third-wave feminist anthem of sex positivity, but there is that one shining moment where he asks permission. And there are those flying sparks of her fiery, authentic, and potentially autonomous desire, if only she didn’t have to fear slut-shaming. For the young woman, it’s cold outside, but it’s not the weather she fears; it’s the icy, judgmental reaction to girls who say yes. That raging blizzard? It’s the storm of shame she can expect the next morning.
Update 10-20-09, 10:45 p.m., better-late-than-never edition: Right after I wrote this, I checked out a bunch of different versions of it, and it’s amazing how different musical interpretations can slant the sexual politics of the song. Here’s Doris Day and Bing Crosby:
Poor Doris Day. I don’t think she was actually the prude that her reputation made her out to be, but she sure did play a lot of characters whose job it was to “hold out” while the male lead tried to whittle down her resistance. You can hardly hear her sing without those good-girl characters resonating in every note.
But when it comes to vocal mannerisms, I think Cerys Matthews (here with Tom Jones!) works harder than Doris Day to play the passive coquette. There’s also a clip where Jessica Simpson outdoes Matthews with the breathy girlishness of her voice, but it’s too insipid even for the standards of this lowly blog. Matthews sounds like she’s about eleven years old and Tom Jones is what he is, but they’re backed by a snazzy big band, which is really the saving grace of this arrangement:
Now, Dolly Parton brings a tartness to the song that makes you believe she really does want him. That is, until you realize what she wants is Rod Stewart. Given the choice between Tom Jones and Rod Stewart … well, I’d take Bing Crosby.
It’s striking what a difference the tempo makes. Just slowing it down can take it from chirpy coquettish to sultry. I like it slow. (Read that as you will.)
And then there’s the sole clip I found where the “male” singer acts rawly aggressive instead of suave – except that here, a woman (Selma Blair) takes on the “male” part and practically ravishes her partner.
It’s silly in its own way, in the tradition of “let’s destroy the patriarchy and replace it with a matriarchy!” But it’s worth noting that if Gap had made the same ad, with the same choreography, without reversing the sexes, we’d much more likely see it as a straight-up rape scene.