Occasionally there are moments in popular culture when it is not just tempting to identify the idiotic trends that threaten our collective sanity but almost irresistible to do so.
The insipid criticism of that Tin Pan Alley Christmas classic Baby It’s Cold Outside not only invites investigation it positively demands repudiation.
The suggestion that the song is somehow inspiring or condoning rape – marital or otherwise – is rather like suggesting Somewhere Over the Rainbow is really about gay rights. I use that example perhaps to illustrate the absurdity of the growing disapproval over Cold Outside, but I would not be terribly surprised to discover that someone is already pointing – approvingly or disapprovingly – at the Judy Garland anthem and reaching that outrageously stupid conclusion.
Baby It’s Cold Outside was written by Frank Loesser, a Broadway composer perhaps best known for his hit play Guys and Dolls, which achieved success in both theatrical and film versions. The musical centerpiece of the production is the extremely clever and literate Luck Be a Lady, which remained a staple of any Frank Sinatra concert until the twilight of Ol’ Blue Eyes’s magnificent career. Loesser invested his talents in Cold Outside in 1944 but nobody paid much notice to the song until it was used in the 1944 MGM film Neptune’s Daughter, a vehicle for its resident aquatic actress Esther Williams.
The film, like most of Williams’s efforts during this period, was a success but the song didn’t really take off until it was interpreted in a series of duets featuring pop/jazz vocalists like Johnny Mercer, Margaret Whiting, Dean Martin and Doris Day.
Over the decades, the song has become a holiday in the same manner as It’s a Wonderful Life has become as much a part of Christmas as eggnog and caroling.
But enough of the past. It’s the present that bothers me.
There is a persistent inclination by some modern-day critics not only to savage the Great American songbook as quaintly irrelevant but to suggest that the lyrics to these compositions are somehow tainted by a historical consciousness that is insufficiently progressive or liberal in its scope; that they insidiously promote sexist or racist sentiments that are woefully inappropriate for a contemporary audience.
As someone who has sang and performed the works of Cole Porter, George Gershwin – and Frank Loesser – for decades, I must say that you have to search long and hard to find anything that can truly be constituted as offensive in the words of this timeless and enduring musical period – unless you are offended by innocence, beauty and comprehensible prose that actually rhymes.
What is so painfully absurd about the criticism of the these historical compositions is that so much of today’s music aims not to entertain but to repulse, with lyrics that are replete with profanity, obscenity, violence, extreme sexism and, yes, casual racism.
And if you examine the results produced by say, Katy Perry – who is somehow credited with being a “songwriter” – you will find the ad hoc ramblings of someone scribbling on a paper napkin the sort of trash that should never be repeated let alone published.
And never mind a thoughtful song that possibly, just maybe, perhaps implies sexual coercion – there are scores of songs before the public today that describe violent, demeaning, degrading or sick acts – but these don’t seem to offend the liberal mainstream media like Baby, It’s Cold Outside is bothering it right now.
You know what? It’s pretty cold inside – inside a lot of the contemporary music world and inside the heads of critics who have developed a raging fury over the past’s refusal to ideally mirror the assumptions and politics of the present.
Follow David on Twitter @DavidKrayden