Some years ago, my late BBC comrade Alistair Cooke took a young friend to New York’s famous Plaza Hotel, where a pianist was gaily tinkling. As Alistair enthused about each song, it gradually dawned on him that these familiar standards by Gershwin and Kern were entirely unfamiliar to his callow companion.
I’ve experienced a slightly more unsettling form of cultural dislocation this Christmas season: People still know the songs, but have no idea what they mean.
Take “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” Sixty years ago this song was popular, but now it’s everywhere. My theory is that it’s because the only thing holding up the music industry now is celebrity duets, and there aren’t that many songs written expressly for two persons to sing. Hence, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” as sung by Rod Stewart & Dolly Parton, Norah Jones & Willie Nelson, Cee Lo Green & Christina Aguilera, Natalie Cole & James Taylor, Ron Paul & Sandra Fluke, etc. It’s a fun song, but one line in particular caught the eye of our pals at Rob Long’s Ricochet website:
“The neighbors might think . . .”
“But baby, it’s bad out there.”
“Say, what’s in this drink?”
“No cabs to be had out there . . .”
As Mollie Hemingway remarked, “My feminist friends assure me that this is really a song about date rape and roofies.” I’d like to think her feminist friends are maybe half-joking, or at any rate half her feminist friends are quarter-joking, and it’s merely their way of deriding the obsolete gender roles of man as the seducer and the gal as the receiving end. I mean, they’re not seriously arguing it’s about drugging a woman into sex, are they?
Frank Loesser wrote the song in 1944 for a housewarming party, and that night in their new flat in the Navarro Hotel in New York he and his wife Lynn wowed a showbiz crowd with the first performance. Richard Rodgers, never the most generous man, pronounced it “brilliant.” Back then, everyone got it. You want the girl to stay, just another hour . . . okay, half . . . okay, 20 minutes: “Give me five minutes more, only five minutes more,” as Frank Sinatra pleaded around the same time. And if Sinatra needs to plead, who doesn’t? But nice girls go — or at least insist on being talked into staying:
“I ought to say, ‘No no no, sir!’”
“Mind if I move in closer?”
But seduction is superfluous in the hook-up era. I chanced to be in a Vermont bookstore the other day when two teenagers’ plans for the evening gang agley because (if I understood correctly) she had texted him an insufficiently gynecological pic for him to warrant investing an hour or two in a first “date.” I’m sure it’s all much better to get this stuff up front without a lot of coy byplay, but it’s harder to get a song out of it.
A day or two later, Rick Sunderland wrote to ask if I’d noticed “the profusion of irony-free ‘Santa Baby’s” clogging the airwaves of late. Joan Javits (niece of Senator Jacob of that ilk) and Phil Springer wrote “Santa Baby” in 1954 and gave Eartha Kitt a big hit:
Slip a sable under the tree
For me . . .
It’s Santa as the ultimate sugar daddy, a sugarplum daddy who if he makes good, Miss Kitt implies, will be rewarded with more than milk and cookies at the foot of the chimney. By “irony-free” versions, I think Mr. Sunderland means that today’s vocalists disdain the whole gal-on-the-make-using-her-feminine-wiles dynamic as deplorably sexist. Which it is. But take that out, as Taylor Swift and LeAnn Rimes and other contemporary chanteuses do, and there’s not a lot left to the song — except a laundry list of expensive presents which the singer expects to get because hey, who deserves it more than totally awesome you, right? “Santa Baby” was never my favorite Christmas hit, but turning a song of seduction into a song of entitlement doesn’t strike me as progress, not in the Brokest Nation in History. On the other hand, reborn as a checklist for Black Friday, at least it’s no longer sexist: Michael Bublé recorded it as “Santa Buddy.” Really.
Well, so what? We don’t take sleigh rides or eat figgy pudding, but that’s no reason not to sing about them. In the meadow we can build a snowman, and pretend that he is Parson Brown, he’ll say “Are you married?” we’ll say “No, man, but, in the years since this song was written, out-of-wedlock births have gone from under 3 percent to pushing 55 percent for women under 30, so I hope you’re not being judgmental or anything.”
“Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is the song that, at a church social in Greeley, Colo., in 1949, so inflamed a visiting Egyptian called Sayyid Qutb with its “feverish music” (“Dancing naked legs filled the hall, arms draped around the waists, chests met chests . . .”) that he returned to Egypt and became the leading intellectual of the Muslim Brotherhood, setting off a chain that led from Qutb to Mohamed Morsi’s new sharia constitution. Indeed, Qutb’s view of the West is the merest extension of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” — America as the ultimate seducer, the Great Satan.
But the world moves on, and the courtship rituals of the day before yesterday are now as alien to us as they were to Sayyid Qutb. Great.
– Mr. Steyn blogs at SteynOnline (www.steynonline.com).