Arts & Culture

“Baby It’s Cold Outside”: A Misunderstood Love Song

This holiday season, we should feel no guilt as we sing along with “Baby It’s Cold Outside.” Family, friends, and even feminist scholars are coming forward to explain the message of this innocent and playful classic from the 1940s.

It caused quite a stir around our dinner tables when we heard the news that a Cleveland radio station banned “Baby It’s Cold Outside” and started a national conversation about the song’s intent. And like a holiday movie, the families of Frank Loesser (the songwriter) and his Broadway producers (Feuer and Martin) have reunited as reports of the controversy have spurred cross country phone and email conversations discussing the news and sharing the consequential stories about the song’s creation, its true meaning, its place in history, and in our hearts.

As backers of #MeToo and #TimesUp, we heard and supported the outcry against abusive messages and empathized with the plea for a ban — even one of our daughters conceded that the song sounded “rapey” at first listen. But as people who knew Frank Loesser, we know the song’s history and before you feel guilty for enjoying the song, you should, too.

The era when this song was written was subject to very different social norms and standards of courtship. In the 1940s, dates were chaperoned and women were expected to be reluctant and demure, as men were expected to be persuasive and seductive. Indeed, “Baby It’s Cold Outside” was an early sign of a changing society as American men fought the final year of World War II and women joined the workforce and led households.

Viewed in the context of the time, the song serves as a milestone of female empowerment in pop culture. “Baby It’s Cold Outside” supports women’s rights to pursue love and attraction in a time when that very human urge was forbidden. Even the now improper lyrics about drinking and smoking supported the feminist agenda, as “proper” women were not permitted to smoke and drink at that time.

Social norms demanded women “play hard to get” or else suffer the consequence of scrutiny, gossip, and labels. It was a ritual that few questioned. “Baby It’s Cold Outside” is a song about a couple wanting to stay together and conspiring to fend off the inevitable chauvinistic attacks on the woman’s reputation by blaming the weather.

As the couple express their mutual interest and develop their alibis centered on the storm, the concern about gossip is undeniable throughout the song:

There’s bound to be talk tomorrow
At least there will be plenty implied
The neighbors might think
Say what’s in this drink
My sister will be suspicious
My brother will be there at the door
My maiden aunt’s mind is vicious

And the endearing banter of the song’s “call” and the “response,” with each character interrupting the other, sheds light on the attraction and playfulness of the characters in the duet.

We should also remember that “Baby” was a private song, never meant for the public. It was written in 1944 by Frank Loesser for his wife Lynn in a day when “entertainment” often meant attending dinner parties, playing cards, or entertaining each other with songs and humor. The Loessers sang this ‘scandalous’ song as a way of serenading party guests and as their announcement that they were leaving the party.

Indeed, from 1944 until 1949, it was a private routine, only performed by the Loessers at private parties. They and their friends, producers Feuer and Martin (who teamed up to create such Broadway classics as “Guys and Dolls and “How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying”) either hosted or attended numerous parties and we grew up hearing the family lore of these parties. Among the Hollywood and Broadway set, this musical routine was so anticipated that guests would refuse to leave parties before the Loessers performed their number. It became the announcement that the party was over and it was time to go home.

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  • mickey December 20, 2018 at 11:57 am

    Thank you so much for this clarification of an endearing song. My mother and father must have known the song. They were 19 when they met in 1944. Both are gone to dance to Glen Miller as they did at the USO. Happy Holidays

    Reply