Why this “Baby, it’s cold outside” update works, where others have failed
I’m not here to debate “Baby, it’s cold outside”.
Much like the arrival of the pumpkin spice in everything, questioning whether the classic tune should really be considered “an anthem to rape” has become an annual holiday tradition. But I don’t have any of that.
Instead, I fully recognize that this delicious song, a favorite of mine since childhood, can be disturbing in the right context as well. Yes, I’ve heard of its origins as a cheeky husband and wife duo sung at parties and its nuanced feminist intention for the 1940s. But that’s about 70 years later, and the way we talk about it. the dynamics of power, manipulation and sexual coercion really matter. Both interpretations can be true.
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The conversation – and the song’s millions of covers – is far too nuanced to be summed up in a single verdict. Instead, I want to take a look at what allows some remakes to capture the intended spirit of the original and what causes others to fall into scary territory.
And in doing so, I’ll prove that the latest song update in Netflix’s new vacation romantic comedy “Love Hard” is the best re-imagining yet.
Expression and interpretation, not just intention
Esther Williams and Ricardo Montalbán in “Neptune’s Daughter” (1949) (FilmPublicityArchive / United Archives via Getty Images)
I tried to analyze my mixed feelings about this song for a while, but it wasn’t until I remembered the original way I saw the song performed that I understood why some versions are more successful than others. And it was all there from the start.
Composer Frank Loesser’s song made its screen debut in MGM’s 1949 premiere “Neptune’s Daughter,” which I took on cable as a child. I was mesmerized in part because of the pairing of Esther Williams – a swimmer who sort of became a renowned movie star – and a young Ricardo Montalbán, whom I previously only knew as Mr. Roarke from “Fantasy Island”.
But watching the two play “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” was also fascinating. Melodically, the back and forth is dynamic and playful, and the intricately timed choreography reinforces this as an exciting courtship dance. The lyrics “I really can’t stay” didn’t impress me much because the performances – Williams calm and intelligent; Elegant and cheerful Montalbán – feeling balanced and, yes, consensual. At no time did I feel that the characters were going against the grain. They absolutely flirt.
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This is for me the key to the best covers of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”, where both parties feel on an equal footing when entering the duo. And a lot of that is the context, which is why for me more multidimensional theatrical performances trump simple musical performances. (Although a master like Ella Fitzgerald can convey volumes vocally, which is why her duet with Louis Jordan is the gold standard.)
You see it in a performance of the song in 1986 on “Saturday Night Live” between Sigourney Weaver and Buster Poindexter, in which she is draped over him for most of the song – her actions revealing her interest in him and her reluctance to leave. Chris Colfer and Darren Criss’ cover for an episode of Christmas’ Glee ‘is also a sweet tribute, with the two parties unable to take their eyes off each other as their budding romance begins.
“Neptune’s daughter”, however, also offers a second interpretation of the song, the one that horrified me. Red Skelton and Betty Garrett get into a reverse-genre version of the song she plays the abuser in. Due to the duo’s fantastic burlesque skills (and perhaps due to the subversive nature for the reverse-narrative era), their character is insistent to the point that it made me anxious watching him.
It reminded me of my intense and long-standing loathing for Pepe Le Pew, that loving, brutal Looney Tunes skunk who has no respect for the cat he was chasing. Skelton is literally trying to get out of Garrett’s grip. He even escapes his clutches, breaking out of his quarters at one point until he realizes he’s wearing his coat and not his. It was clear to me looking at this that he wanted to leave. When she turns off the lamp at the end of the song, presumably doing whatever she wants with him, it sounds disturbing.
Yes, the two later continue dating and even getting engaged, but that makes their initial relationship even more unsettling, as if to perpetuate the idea that dating is about “yes in disguise as no.” And that unease doesn’t even take into account how Skelton’s character is there under false pretenses, sporting an excruciating Spanish accent after mistaken identity. So yeah, I hated it.
You get to take your pick when it comes to spooky covers of “Baby It’s Cold Outside” that reveal lopsided power dynamics. There is the Willie Nelson version where he sings to Norah Jones, who is 46 years his junior. Or a mother-son duo (horrors!). Or that of Selma Blair-Rainn Wilson who allows her to be the aggressor, but ends with the breaking of the fourth wall and the staring of the cameras (and our souls) for a GAP commercial.
And at the risk of irritating “Elf” fans, the duo between Zooey Deschanel and Will Ferrell is the height of non-consensuality. She is naked and sings to herself in the shower, while he hides outside before surprising her by ending the duet. I don’t care if he knows Santa Claus. That should put him on the villain list.
Consensual talk is not enough
Nina Dobrev, Harry Shum, Jr. and Jimmy O. Yang in “Love Hard” (Bettina Strauss / Netflix)
Due to the rise of Me Too, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” has proven its worth lately, with a few artists releasing new versions with “consensual” lyrics. While these don’t seem creepy on their own, they didn’t have much of an impact either as they lack the hallmark of the original.
In 2016, musicians Lydia Liza and Josiah Lemanski offered their version which emphasizes consent. Their acoustic song is beautifully rendered, but lacks an engaging story. She really can’t stay. . . and he’s cool with it. Repeat. Likewise, higher potency didn’t help when John Legend and Kelly Clarkson released Consent Version 2.0 three years later. More jazzy and with more output, it feels smooth and just as uninspired.
But those words “solved” the consent issue, so what more do libs want?
How about a narrative tension? Why the hell are we listening to two people get along for one person to leave the place? Even though she is reluctant because of her romantic feelings, neither version seems to indicate it in a lyrical way. Plus, incredibly stilted lines like “You reserve the right to say no” or “It’s your body and your choice” don’t help the mood either. Nobody talks like that in real life, and it’s counterintuitive to the chemistry built by the original song’s jokes.
Legend’s version also includes that he’s calling a carpool for Clarkson, and the driver’s name is Murray. We know this because his name is repeated twice, which makes Legend feel a lot more excited to see Murray than to stick with Clarkson.
This all brings us to the last consensus version of the song heard on “Love Hard”.
“It’s like the theme song about sexual assault!” Nina Dobrev’s character Natalie says, as Jimmy O. Yang’s Josh convinces her to sing “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” with him on his family’s singing outing.
“That’s what we’re going to do, okay?” ” he says. “You’re just doing your part. I’m going to change my lyrics so the song doesn’t sound so, uh, rape it.”
This configuration alone already provides the necessary voltage which was lacking in the previous two attempts. While the start seems familiar, with Josh accepting her departure and offering to call it a car, the underlying subtext we see on screen is that it makes the song safe and fun for her. She’s charmed and surprised by her ingenuity and kindness, and what happens is a duo that also serves as a courtship display.
Since this is a romantic comedy based on a ridiculous premise – Josh fishes Natalie on a dating app and therefore has to win her back as a friend before wooing her – the song itself leans towards lightness and humor. A sample of the updated lyrics:
Nathalie: Neighbors might think –
Josh: It’s just my old friend Troy
Nathalie: Say, what’s in this drink?
Josh: It’s just lemon La Croix
Josh also performs the song with warmth and humor, finally highlighting in the lyrics Natalie’s apparent reluctance to leave. At one point he even sings insolently: “I have the impression that you are not trying [to leave] at all.”
The reimagined song, titled “Maybe Just Go Outside,” also works to fill in a core part of the “fake dating” rom-com trope – during two people pretending to be a couple (in this case, to impress Josh’s family), the two fall in love with each other through displays of empathy and excellence. In fact, it provides one of the best examples of the couple’s chemistry in the movie and allows Josh to prove himself through the song.
In this way, this updated song in “Love Hard” continues the tradition started in “Neptune’s Daughter”, playing a relationship with all the contextual clues, between two friends who get along over the song together.
While “Maybe Just Go Outside” is by no means in love – and doesn’t lead to immediate romantic overtures – it does what these other consensus versions couldn’t. It actually focuses on the uncertain singer in a way that goes beyond the lyrics. This prioritizes her comfort and safety, while making her laugh. And isn’t that what we all want in a partner these days?
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