Monday, December 10, 2007

My Maiden Aunt’s Mind Is Vicious

Took a quick trip to Massachusetts and back this weekend for my Mom’s 80th (!) birthday, a real blitz run—meaning we spent nearly as much time in the car as we did at our destination—and as always with long car rides, much of the fun came via the radio; specifically, by playing compare-and-contrast with the local stations in each locale.

The Flower City has its own 24/7 Christmas-music station; I was unaware of this phenomenon until I moved here, but now I listen every year with a sort of horrified loyalty. The station seems to have a library of about 75 records, tops—most of them (and I say this, obviously, as somebody who loves Christmas music) pretty appalling—which it plays in an endless rotation. On our drive we ran into the broadcast area of another weihnachtenliederadiosendung, and found that it, too, only has a few dozen records in its crates—but they’re not the same records as here (although they are, for the most part, just as terrible). For some reason, this fascinated me. I felt for a moment like Homer Simpson, who once proclaimed that the great draw of travel was the opportunity to watch TV in different time zones.

Now, along with all the holiday-specific songs that surface at this time of year, there are a number of more generic seasonal songs that have sort of become Christmas songs by default. You know the type: “Jingle Bells,” “Let It Snow,” “Sleigh Ride” and the like.

Which brings us to some observations on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” It’s one of the classic male-female duet songs, a seduction set to music, where (in perfectly constructed parallel lines) the woman protests that she’s got to leave, and the man, using various tactics, tries to convince her to spend the night. Having listened to several versions recently, a few thoughts spring to mind:

  1. Now matter how sturdily written, all songs depend, to an extent, on the interpretation and personality that the artist brings to them; no song is artist-proof. This is especially true of “Baby, It’s Cold,” which can be either the sexiest thing evah, or genuinely creepy. When the duet partners seem on equal footing—when the whole routine seems like an elaborate game, the rules and outcome of which are understood by both players in advance, as with the Ray Charles / Betty Carter version—it’s the former. When the duet is mismatched, though, as with Zooey Deschanel’s little-girl ingenue peeps over Leon Redbone’s mumbling, grizzled old lecher, the results are flesh-crawling; he’s clearly a predator, and she the victim. (The effect is different still in the pairing of Barry Manilow and K.T. Oslin, who are of such equal loathsomeness that by the end you hope they both get pneumonia and die, and their frozen carcasses are savaged by ravening wolves.)

  2. I wonder if anyone’s ever recorded a gender-flipped version of this, with the girl as sexual aggressor and the boy defending his virtue; indeed, I wonder if such a thing would even be possible to pull of, even with some judicious re-writing.

  3. Indeed, the whole notion of “defending one’s virtue” seems weirdly dated, given the advances in sexual frankness since the song was originally written. By that I mean not the commercially-driven hypersexualization of the culture, about which I have mixed feelings, but rather the shift in the discourse that allows partners to talk to one another openly and honestly about their desires, which seems to me a clear win for both genders. In the 21st Century, the entire conversation seems vaguely superfluous, leading me to wonder if the art of seduction is dead, a casualty of the sexual revolution, and whether the gain outweighs the loss ion the passing of this ritual dance.

  4. Related: Still hung up on “virtue” are the abstinence-only crowd, which makes me think that a re-write of the lyrics from that POV might be amusing and instructive: “I simply must go ... The answer is no ... See this silver ring? ... I took the vow... My pastor will be suspicious ...” and so on.

  5. Questionable relic of a “more innocent” time: the line “Say, what’s in this drink?” DOES NOT BELONG IN A QUOTE-UNQUOTE ROMANTIC SONG EVER KTHXBYE

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