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"Baby it’s Cold Outside" Is the Not-So-New Trendy Holiday Controversy

Esther Williams and Ricardo Montalbán sing the song in 1949's Neptune's Daughter.

In 2010, now-married singer-songwriters Karyna Micaela and Zach Balch stepped on stage together at the now-closed Art Six Coffee House in Denton. Although they were dating other people at the time, the duo decided to collaborate on a cover of “Baby it’s Cold Outside” by Frank Loesser. 

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“I think [the song] came off really charming,” Micaela says.

This holiday season, the duo was back on stage to perform during a corporate luncheon. One or two songs into their set, a man requested they play “Baby it’s Cold Outside.”

Controversy over the lyrics of the song have gotten it pulled out of rotation at several radio stations such as Cleveland’s WDOK, San Francisco’s 96.5 KOIT and Colorado’s KOSI 101.1.

In light of that and subsequent outrage on social media, Balch and Micaela opted to play an original jazzy duet,  “My First Christmas with You,” a song Micaela says is similar to the requested holiday tune.

In “Baby it’s Cold Outside” a man tries to persuade a woman to not leave a party, despite her declarations that she must go. The recent dispute regarding the song arose from the same sentiment that led the Urban Dictionary to define it as a “Christmas Date Rape Song.”

“I think the song wasn’t written to be, for lack of a better word, rape-y,” Micaela says. “I think that courtship was a lot different back then. It was obviously a different time.”

In the song, Micaela says, the man is making an advance on the woman, who is expected by society to say no and play hard to get. Because of this, she makes up excuses to leave, though she seems to want to stay and make her own decisions, regardless of societal standards, Micaela says.

“I think that the meaning has changed because that level of persistence on the man’s part would not be acceptable today by any means,” Micaela says. “I don't necessarily have a problem with the song, but I do think it could potentially serve as a trigger to some people who have experienced sexual aggression, who have been traumatized by that.”

Today, with the #MeToo movement, it is prudent to be delicate with a song like “Baby it’s Cold Outside,” she says.

A year after the duo’s first performance of the song at Art Six, Paul Slavens aired Ray Charles’ and Betty Carter’s rendition of it during The Paul Slavens Show on KXT-FM.

“I think there are two arguments going on here,” Slavens says. “The first is the argument about whether this song is an offensive story of date rape or a harmless romantic novelty song filled with playful double entendre.”

Context is the delineating factor, which is often determined by the performers, he says. The more aggression conveyed by the man and ambivalence by the woman, the more likely the listener is to think the lyrics are offensive, Slavens says. He can see both sides of the argument.

However, Slavens says the song has been weaponized, and that is hurting people on both sides.

“There seems to be a power intent on driving us apart and then setting us at each other, and this controversy is a tool for that end,” he says.

Despite social media outcry, radio stations like 96.5 KOIT and KOSI 101.1 have since put the song back on air amid backlash from listeners.

Others have had a completely different approach to the controversy. Kentucky station WAKY-FM decided to play the song on a two-hour loop Dec. 16.

In 2018, Micaela says as a jazz singer, she walks the line between historical interpretation and modern translation.

The song hasn’t aged well, Micaela says. She feels like a historian. The old songs she sings act as a time capsule. Often, their meanings translate well to the present time. Micaela says she treats the ones that don’t translate well as historical relics.

“There are other songs that have questionable lyrics,” she says. “Like in ‘Embraceable You’ there’s a lyric that says ‘Don’t be a naughty, baby. Come to papa.’”

The contention over the song dates back as far as the mid-2000s but has proved to be more prevalent in the #MeToo era.

Despite its role as a classic, playing out its charm over the airwaves and in movies like Elf, “Baby it’s Cold Outside” sits on a list of recurring holiday controversies, right next to Starbucks’ seasonal red cups.

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