The controversy over the song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” hasn’t stopped Albany’s Patricia Dalton Fennell from defending it—or recording it
By Stephen Leon
December 28, 2017
The phone call was from a producer for the HLN news network (a spinoff of CNN). She had tracked down Albany producer-vocalist, health consultant and chronic-illness expert Patricia Dalton Fennell, and wanted to know if she would do an interview on the subject of “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” the popular 1944 song Fennell recently recorded with jazz trumpeter Chris Pasin on a CD of the same name.
At first, Fennell was at ease with the idea, and with the producer, Virginia Moubray, who pitched it. “The setup was simple,” she says, “and the directions were good, and the producer was really easy to work with. Her questions were intelligent, and neutral.”
To do the “live” interview with HLN’s Across America host Carol Costello, Fennell met with a crew in a studio on the 14th floor of a building on Albany’s Pearl Street. There, with the lights trained on her face, cameras rolling, microphones on, and Costello’s questions coming in from L.A. through Fennell’s earpiece, suddenly Fennell felt a little less comfortable.
“I felt like I was in Germany,” she laughs, “and I had been very, very bad.”
And in fact, Fennell had been bad—that is, of you agree with many critics of the classic Christmas song, whose lyrics, they argue, describe and/or promote date rape. The annual chorus of voices condemning the song and calling for its removal from playlists grew louder this year after a cascade of sexual-harassment and assault allegations against powerful men in culture and politics. To such critics, making a new recording of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” in the year of the “silence breakers” was a very bad idea indeed—so much so that at one point in the interview, Costello asked pointedly, “Why did you do it?”
Fennell is no stranger to the issue of sexual misconduct, having provided assessment and treatment for sex offenders, victims, and families in situations involving incest, assault, and school-based sex crimes.
And she is intimately familiar with the lyrics of the song, which she does not see as offensive. But the theme of the interview, as stated in its promotional tagline, was, “‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’: Christmas classic, or sexual-assault anthem?”
Fennell immediately set the record straight on the first half of the question. “I said, it is a classic whether we want it to be or not. It’s one of the most recorded Christmas songs of all-time.”
“That said,” she continues, look at “the original intent of the tune, the context in which it was written. … In its time, the song bordered on a liberation theme. Look at the majority at the lyrics. Remember, this is 1944. The country is at war. The men are away. … This is the time of Katharine Hepburn and Bette Davis, and strong women. If you look at the lyric, she’s concerned—not about having sex with him—she’s concerned with what the neighbors will think. And she’s the one who dropped by.”
Written by Frank Loesser—who performed it for years at parties with his wife, Lynn Garland—the song is a call-and-response duet in which the “mouse” (usually sung by a woman) decides it’s time to end a date at the apartment of the “wolf” (usually a man) and go home. As she continues to protest, he piles on the excuses why she should stay: it’s cold, it’s snowing, no cabs are running, she might catch pneumonia. For her part, she never says she wouldn’t like to stay, or that the man’s advances are unwanted; her lines are mostly about society’s, and her family’s, expectations (“My father will be pacing the floor”; “My maiden aunt’s mind is vicious”; and so on).
Fennell makes it clear that she thinks rape and sexual assault are crimes and serious problems in our culture, but she disagrees with those who insist that “Baby” is, to quote a description often seen on social media, “rapey.”
“She [the mouse] dropped by. She wanted to see this person. This person now is making advances. And she is telling him she doesn’t want to stay, because, ‘What will people think of me?’ By and large, the norms of the time, informed by our ethnic and religious backgrounds, were that women were not supposed to have sex outside of marriage, women were not supposed to want sex, and they weren’t supposed to enjoy sex.”
“The mouse … may or may have come to this man’s home because she was looking for sex, but he was making his intentions known. Her responses are not that she does not want to have sexual congress; her responses are, what will the neighbors think if she does?”
“I’m not hearing her say, ‘You’re a jackass, I’m gone.’ “
One thing the mouse does say halfway through the song is the line, “Say, what’s in this drink?” For many critics, this is the point of no return; the wolf has slipped her a roofie so he can have his way with her, and how can we have that on the radio in 2017?
Fennell’s initial reaction: “I’m making the assumption that what was slipped into people’s drinks in the 1940s is not what I had to be concerned about in the ’70s and ’80s.”
For what it’s worth, the powerful sedative Rohypnol (one of the most notorious date-rape drugs) was introduced by the pharmaceutical company Roche in the early 1970s. According to Merriam Webster, the first known use of the slang term “roofie” was in 1994.
That doesn’t mean drugging someone’s drink couldn’t have happened in the ’40s, but as defenders of “Baby” periodically remind us, our language and idiomatic expressions also have evolved since then. This usage may be rare today, but in the ’40s, it was common to say something like “Say, what’s in my drink”—to feign blaming the alcohol—when the speaker was offering too much information (like a suspect blurting out evidence to a cop) or falling (like the mouse?) for a romantic seduction.
Finally, there’s the repetition—the mouse repeatedly says she has to leave, the wolf repeatedly begs her to stay (“She’s says ‘no’ like a hundred times,” says one Twitter critic), undermining the idea that “no means no.”
“It’s a conceit of the structure of the tune,” Fennell answers. “Repetition is structure. This is a story.”
During the HLN interview, host Costello played two different versions of the song. “One of them was one of the original recordings, and it was a standard, pleasant, simple read, back-and-forth. No big drama,” says Fennell. “The second one she played, it sounded like the people, the male especially, were very aggressive. It definitely was not people being nice.”
But if Costello thought she was driving home her point, Fennell was about to throw her a curveball. Costello had not listened to the Pasin-Fennell recording before the interview—and so did not know that the pair had reversed the traditional male and female roles.
Whichever gender assumes the roles of “wolf” and “mouse” (and the song has been performed every which way), Fennell maintains that the historical context of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”—with its themes of patriarchal society’s expectations, women’s reputations, and women’s sexual freedom—should not be overlooked.
“That said,” she concludes, “times have changed. Some would argue we have lost ground. I believe it’s important to take what’s available from 1944 and build on it. Make people look at the power imbalance. And not just women’s roles, but men’s roles too.”
Copyright 2017 Stephen Leon
The album Baby, It’s Cold Outside, recorded by Chris Pasin and Friends, is at No. 45 and is this week’s “biggest gainer” on the JazzWeek jazz chart.
This post also appears on the website of Albany Health Management Associates, Inc.