How to Write A Christmas Song About Rape Without Really Trying
So it was cocktail hour over at my place recently. My friend Carol was lounging on the futon with my cats while I got the drinks together. It was a pleasant atmosphere. If you recall, I tend to keep Christmas songs on a continuous loop from about mid-November until New Year’s Day. I was just about to get the shaker going when Carol said, “Skip this song. This is the one about rape.”
Now, the song in question was Dean Martin’s version of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” If my dad taught me anything over the years, it’s an appreciation for Dino. (In fact, the Dean Martin thing is probably ALL my father hangs his hat on in regards to raising me.) And while this wasn’t the first time I’ve heard the “It’s a song about rape” take on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”, it was the first time I’d heard Carol bring it up. So I was both annoyed and dismayed.
“It’s not a song about rape,” I said, then started in with the shaker, hoping Carol would drop the impending argument by the time I finished.
Sadly, she did not. “It’s totally a song about rape. Come on. ‘What’s in this drink?’ Please.”
I was about to counter when I realized I was arguing the point of a guy accused of mixing drinks to take advantage of a girl and here I was…a guy…mixing drinks for a girl. Even though Carol knows I wouldn’t take advantage of her, the circumstances alone prevented me from putting up much of a fight. And that’s really the problem with defending “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.”
First, let’s get a few facts straight about the song. “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” was written in 1944 by Frank Loesser, who also wrote the music and lyrics for Guys and Dolls and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. He also won an Academy Award for Best Original Song for…wait for it…”Baby, It’s Cold Outside”. The song was written as a duet between Loesser and his wife, Lynn Garland, to be performed at parties, this being an era in which people were expected to perform rather than just drink endless martinis and puke (although I’m sure that went on as well.) The song graduated from party tune to bona fide hit after being included in the movie Neptune’s Daughter in 1949. Since then, it’s been recorded literally dozens of times and become something of a Christmas standard (not quite on the level of “Frosty The Snowman” but certainly a cut above “I Want to Go Skating with Willie”; a genuinely perverted song that tends to get overlooked.)
The “rape view”, if I’m going to be forced to call it that, is a fairly recent phenomenon, but has the momentum of a giant snowball rolling downhill. Within a few years we’ve gone from “Hey, anybody notice this song’s got kind of a rapey vibe?” to “That song is absolutely, completely about rape, no questions asked.” It’s one of those gifts of the internet, by which somebody’s hot take eventually develops into an accepted “fact”. And you wonder how Trump got elected.
At any rate, this view of the song has gotten so out of control that local songwriters, Lydia Liza and Josiah Lemanski, have rewritten the song to promote consent. Now, I’m all for the idea of promoting consent, but rewriting “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” for that purpose is a wrong-headed waste of time. It’s like rewriting “Louie, Louie” and taking out all the swear words…because there were no actual swear words IN “Louie, Louie.”
So, let’s break it down and see what we’re actually looking at. The most commonly quoted line to support the “rape view” is “Say, what’s in this drink?” Immediately, everyone (or at least Carol) jumps to the assumption the guy has slipped the girl a roofie. The fact is, date rape drugs as we know them did not come into existence until the early 1960’s and were not in anything approaching common usage until the 1990’s. (And yes, I had to Google “History of Date Rape Drugs” to do that research. So there’s another entry for my FBI file.) When the girl in the song is asking what’s in the drink, she’s noting that it’s REALLY strong (which by 1940’s standards would mean she’s probably drinking pure rubbing alcohol.)
The general vibe of the song seems to be that the guy won’t let the girl leave. That’s not precisely true. He’s insisting that she stay, but at no point does he get threatening in any way. The farthest you can go is to say the guy’s begging for sex, which is not an uncommon occurrence among guys (let he among you who can make eye contact cast the first stone.) Nor is the girl all that insistent in her denials. Lines like “Well, maybe just a half a drink more” and “Well, maybe just a cigarette more” show she’s not averse to the idea of staying. In fact, most of her concerns are along the lines of “What will people think if I spend the night here?” (This IS the 1940’s, after all.) But at no point is she saying anything along the lines of “Dude, you are ugly as sin and smell like a sewer rat. I wouldn’t fornicate with you if the continuation of the human race was on the line.” The song is actually about two people (well, actually one, the guy seems to have made up his mind) weighing desire against social stigma. In that sense, it’s an early version of “Wake Up Little Suzie” or “It’s Late”. (Go ahead and Google those songs if you don’t know what I’m talking about. I’ll be here when you get back.)
Now, all this said, I really don’t expect this argument is going to go anywhere. Once the internet community has made up its collective mind about something, fighting it is like trying to roll that snowball I mentioned a minute ago UP the hill. In fact, I’m wondering if I should even try.
There’s really only one way you can position yourself when the argument involves something as repugnant as rape and that’s to be against it. Obviously. Who the hell would want to argue in favor of rape? But it’s easy to be SEEN as arguing in favor of rape, even when that wasn’t your intention. In that sense, those who want to see “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” as a song about rape have a built-in advantage: they never have to question the rightness of their argument. Whereas somebody like me, who thinks the song has a different intent, has to constantly wonder, “Do I sound like one of those ‘The victim was asking for it’ types? Are people going to take this as ‘Hey, what’s a little rape among friends?’ ‘Is arguing against a now-common misconception worth it when I have to use the word ‘rape’ 15 times [and counting] in an article?'” You don’t get to argue a nuanced take AND sleep the sleep of the untroubled.
So maybe I should let the internet have this one. After all, what’s the harm in letting a little misinformation spread? Oh wait…