Imagine you’re at a Christmas party and you’ve entered into a flirtation with another guest. Which string of statements, when you say you’ve got to go home, would you rather hear?
a) “What’s the sense in hurting my pride?”; “Your eyes are like starlight now”; “How can you do this thing to me?”; “Think of my lifelong sorrow if you got pneumonia and died”.
b) “I can call you a ride”; “It’s your body and your choice”; “Text me when you get home”; “Your eyes are like starlight now”.
Mostly (b)s: you’re a normal person who values their autonomy, and your eyes are like starlight.
Mostly (a)s: you enjoy being emotionally manipulated, and/or you are very worried about getting pneumonia and grateful for the warning, and/or you’re sentimentally attached to a 1950s Christmas song (and you, too, have eyes like starlight).
John Legend recently released his reworking of the Christmas classic “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”. The original 1949 song, made famous by Hollywood entertainer Dean Martin, is a tug-of-war duet between a man and a woman. She insists she has to go home; he insists she stays with him because “it’s cold outside”. You hardly have to read between the lines to decipher his wishes for the rest of the evening: “I’ll hold your hands, they’re just like ice”; “Mind if I move in closer?”; “Gosh, your lips look delicious”.
Though the song is a longstanding Christmas favourite, it has been criticised more closely in the wake of the #MeToo movement. Its most troubling lyric – “Say, what’s in this drink?!” – is described in Karen Valby’s 2019 Vanity Fair profile of Legend as “date-rapey”. As I wrote last month, the cosy vintage feel of the original wraps a coercive atmosphere in Christmas cheer – and is undeniably responsible for its enduring popularity.
That the song is a certified banger is what makes it worth re-writing. The entire appeal of Christmas is nostalgia and tradition. Festive listeners are prone to sticking with what they know (a fact Legend and his collaborators are likely well aware of). And in the warm, hot-chocolatey context of the music, with its nostalgic, brandy-infused beat, Legend’s new lyrics seem sweet: romantic intentions conveyed by kindness, not control, in a song that feels well-intentioned, albeit calculated.
For some, though, the song is a performatively woke trashing of a classic. One of its critics is Deana Martin, Dean Martin’s daughter, who argued that Legend had changed a “classic and perfect song”, stating on Good Morning Britain that the singer should “write his own song if he doesn’t like this one”. In an interview last year, Martin said: “It’s a sweet, flirty, fun holiday song that’s been around for 60 years…at least for my dad.”
Sure, Dean Martin’s 1959 version was a product of its time. But should nostalgia for an old song also extend to a moment when troubling sexual dynamics were publicly acceptable? “I understand the #MeToo movement and everything,” Martin told Fox News in 2018, “…but for this? We gotta relax and have fun again.” On the US chat show The Talk, meanwhile, Sharon Osbourne last week waded into the debate, misquoting and dismissing the new lyric “It’s your body and your choice” (“‘Your mind and your body’? What the hell are you on?! That’s ridiculous!”) to rapturous studio applause.
These comments deliberately miss the point. Deeming women’s responses as hysterical or over-sensitive is a well-trodden path to undermining legitimate concerns. Complaints about social progress are rarely founded on fear of the new, but rather on the idea that the old ways were fine. The Christmassy, ostensibly romantic essence of “Baby It’s Cold Outside” remains unchanged in Legend’s remake.
Its detractors, however, seem emotionally attached to the past. In the 1950s, maybe having to insist on your desire to go home 10 times was normal. Now, for most people, it isn’t. The song is a mainstream Christmas classic that has, in every other sense, worn the test of time. As we continue to confront pernicious sexual dynamics in the 21st century, we can hold our Christmas music to the same standard.