A new version of the Christmas tune Baby, It’s Cold Outside reveals the flaws in rewriting pop, argues Fiona Sturges
Christmas is around the corner, mince pies are on the supermarket shelves and the agonising over the Frank Loesser duet “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”, one of the most covered songs in pop, is already under way.
This wintry song from 1944, in which a man tries to cajole a woman into spending the night with him rather than braving the blizzard outside, has lately been the subject of endless hand-wringing, including an all-out ban last year by assorted US and Canadian radio stations, which deemed the song’s heavy-handed seduction technique as beyond the pale in the age of #MeToo. (An amusing retaliation to the ban came via a subsequent boost in sales, with the Dean Martin version proving most popular.)
Now comes news that, for his upcoming Christmas album, the R&B singer John Legend will be giving us a new version of the song that has removed the apparently coercive elements that some say are suggestive of date rape (the evidence, they say, is in the lyric: “Say, what’s in this drink?”) and replaced it with a more respectful and reciprocal flirtation.
An interview with Legend in Vanity Fair has revealed that the new version includes the words: “What will my friends think (I think they should rejoice), If I have one more drink (It’s your body and your choice).”
The sentiment is good, but the words? Not so much
I mean, the sentiment can’t be faulted but, as passion killers go, the words “your body, your choice” are surely up there with: “Can you just take a look at this rash?”
That conversations about consent are becoming mainstream is, of course, a good thing. And perhaps we should commend Legend and his co-writer, Natasha Rothwell, for their willingness to address such a thorny topic through the reductive medium of pop music. But there are, surely, better ways to do this than by tinkering with a 75-year-old jazz standard that only ever gets wheeled out at Christmas parties.
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We live in a time in which culture that is deemed divergent from popular liberal thinking is instantly labelled “problematic”. Cancellation, rather than a more nuanced conversation about context, is often the response. That’s not to say that reassessment isn’t necessary – on the contrary, holding our most cherished songs up to the light can bring greater understanding and encourages us to question entrenched viewpoints. But that doesn’t mean they should be airbrushed or erased altogether.
Bad lyrics don’t ruin a good song
I have long grown accustomed to feeling queasy about the lyrics in the pop music I love; it is entirely possible to recognise a song’s iffy content while basking a killer hook. I am a proud feminist but I still get a surge of adrenaline listening to AC/DC despite the casual sexism and oafish double-entendres that populate their songs.
Kanye West’s “Gold Digger” is lyrically atrocious but it’s still a banger. And I’ve lost count of the weddings where I’ve danced like an idiot to The Knack’s “My Sharona” in which a man sings about having the hots for young girls.
To mess with the songs which denigrate women is to erase a swathe of the rock and pop canon that includes The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and Phil Spector. Putting aside what does and doesn’t take place in “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” – where some hear coercion, others hear a woman thrilling at the prospect of stepping out of her enforced “good girl” role – pop music is littered with works that, in lyrical terms, sound pretty dreadful today.
It’s one thing for us to choose not to listen. But to rewrite songs in order to make them palatable is to rewrite cultural history, and where’s the value in that?