There have been almost 400 recordings of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”, by performers ranging from Louis Armstrong to Christina Aguilera. The duet has been sung in German (“Baby, es regnet doch!”) and by the gloriously improbable pairing of Rod Stewart and Dolly Parton. But few have caused as much fuss as the latest version, by US singers John Legend and Kelly Clarkson.
First recorded in 1949, the song is a festive classic. It takes the form of a dialogue between an amorous man and the woman he is trying to dissuade from going home after a convivial evening. “Well, maybe just half a drink more,” she sings. “Put some records on while I pour,” he purrs back. Outside it is snowing, symbolic of frigid social censure. “There’s bound to be talk tomorrow,” she frets. Inside it is warm and glowing, as starchy postwar corsetry cries out to be loosened, or removed, and — well, you know the rest.
The scenario is played for laughs. In Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong’s particularly comic version, Satchmo goes at the seduction with all the subtlety of sandpaper (“Take your shoes off, Lucy, and let’s get juicy!”). But the lyrics, by Frank Loesser, have an unfunny side.
Seen from a certain angle, it is the story of a sexual predator. “Say, what’s in this drink?” the woman asks, and the man creepily responds, “No cabs to be had out there.”
Legend and Clarkson’s reboot erases those lines. Instead, Clarkson wonders whether to have “one more drink” while Legend reassures her, “It’s your body and your choice.” Where before the woman protests, “I ought to say no, no, sir,” prompting her sex-pest host to reply, “Mind if I move in closer,” now we find Legend agreeing: “Then you really ought to go, go, go.”
This attempt to restyle the song for the #MeToo age has prompted outrage. Fans of the original fulminate on social media about “virtue-signalling”. “You do not change the lyrics to the song,” complained Deana Martin, daughter of Rat Pack crooner Dean Martin.
The dismay is understandable. Altering Loesser’s words goes against the romantic notion of art as timeless. Where does the revisionism end? Do we really want a politically correct world in which The Merchant of Venice is rewritten to hinge not on Shylock demanding a pound of flesh from his Christian antagonist, but instead offering to press the flesh with a conciliatory handshake?
But the unromantic truth is that art is constantly being recalibrated as attitudes change. Seventeenth-century audiences saw Merchant as a rip-roaring comedy, not a problematic study in anti-Semitism. Pop songs, responsive to trends and often dealing with volatile topics of sex and race, are particularly prone to reassessment. That is why “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” has come to seem so outdated.
Musicians, highly attuned to audience reaction, recognise that songs must adapt to survive. The Rolling Stones still perform “Under My Thumb”, a relic of 1960s chauvinism about a haughty woman being humiliated. But these days Mick Jagger leaves out misogynist lyrics about “the squirming dog who’s just had her day”. When Guns N’ Roses reissued their 1987 album Appetite for Destruction last year, they removed the track “One in a Million”, which features racist and homophobic lyrics.
Rap music provides a pungent example of how the significance attached to words changes over time. African-American rappers incessantly use a notorious racist epithet in their raps as an act of linguistic appropriation. But when Kendrick Lamar invited a white fan to join him on stage last year to perform with him, she was booed for rapping lyrics containing it. “You’ve got to bleep one single word,” Lamar chided her.
Modern sensitivities to language can be mocked as millennial snowflakery. But words change meaning in different contexts. “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” has had a good run, but its cavalier treatment of sexual coercion is no longer tenable. Without reinterpretation, it will be cast into cultural cold storage, where songs, no matter how catchy, cease to circulate.
The writer is the FT’s pop music critic