In a wonderful, fun-filled start to the holiday season, several Canadian radio stations have pulled “Baby It’s Cold Outside” from their playlists, citing that its lyrics can be read as misogynistic.
Some are glad the song has been removed, praising the stations for standing in solidarity with the #metoo movement. Others are annoyed, claiming that people are reading into the lyrics of an innocent holiday song.
While this is the first time Canadian radio stations have pulled the song from their playlists, debates around the song’s meanings have been percolating for years.
For those who see the song as problematic, the line “hey, what’s in this drink?” is oft-cited as especially problematic lyric, which sounds like an allusion to date rape. Combine this with the pushy insistence of the male singer for the female singer to stay the night, and the song can very easily be read in modern contexts as misogynistic.
Others have argued that the song actually promotes empowerment, given the historical and social context in which it emerged. In 1944, when the song was originally written, women faced much more societal stigma for staying overnight at a man’s house, something reflected in the female singer’s lyrics as she obsesses over what her various family members would think.
Historical and social context also reveals different meaning in other lines. As this 2010 piece from Persephone Magazine notes, “hey, what’s in this drink?” was a phrase that carried wildly different connotations than it does today. The phrase was meant as a joke, where people would blame alcohol for the socially questionable behaviour they were fully aware they were doing. As writer Slay Belle notes, “the drink is the shield someone gets to hold up in front of them to protect from criticism.”
Taking these two pieces of information together, the female singer can be read as not making excuses to leave the man’s house, but as wrestling with her desire to stay despite the societal backlash she’d face doing so.
So how do we reconcile these two views? Should the historical context of the song take precedence over our modern interpretations of the lyrics?
Roland Barthes, a French literary theorist, argued in his 1967 essay Death of the Author that the intentions and biographical context of a text’s author should have no bearing on the interpretation of a work. Such interpretation, he thought, restricted a text to only one “correct” meaning, preventing other meanings from emerging from it.
This isn’t to say that interpretations based on authorial intent are incorrect; rather, multiple meanings can be drawn out of a text depending on the reader’s historical and social contexts. Language, not the author, is where meaning comes from, and since language’s connotations shift and change over time, place, and culture, multiple meanings can coexist at once.
This means that “Baby It’s Cold Outside” can technically be read as both a proto-feminist anthem and a song where a creepy man is trying to pressure a woman into sex. While historical context does perhaps shed light on an “original meaning” of the song, it’s only natural that in our contemporary moment — one permeated by the #metoo movement — people without prior knowledge of the song’s origins would read it as oppressive.
I can wax academic about literary theory and its application in interpreting song lyrics, but there are bigger questions at hand. While both interpretations can be logically explained, what does the banning of the song mean beyond squabbles over meaning?
If anything, debate around this issue comes down to callout culture and its individuation of immoral actions. The primary issue with callouts isn’t the calling out of immoral actions; it’s that they place moral blame purely on individual people, actions, and pieces of media.
While the action/media produced by a person may indeed be immoral or read as immoral, such attacks ignore the systems in which these actions and pieces of media exist. If anything, actions and media that people produce are symptoms of widespread systemic issues, things that should tell us to critically examine our wider societal norms and institutions.
In saying all of this, I don’t mean to demean socially progressive movements like #metoo; they’re incredibly vital to the project of social justice and the dismantling of unjust systems. However, we should be aware of why corporations choose to embrace progressive movements, and what kind of advantages callout culture gives to them.
If anything, radio stations have banned the song in order to gain social capital from listeners, something that they hope will drive up public engagement and keep them making money.
It’s vital to remember that striking down individual pieces of media, as well as individual people for their actions, can only get us so far. If these tactics don’t change, we’ll just end up policing each other instead of getting to the roots of underlying societal issues, and this debate will continue to rear its ugly head for many years to come.