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'Tis Already The Season To Argue About 'Baby, It's Cold Outside'

John Legend and Kelly Clarkson, onstage during the 2018 Billboard Music Awards at MGM Grand Garden Arena on May 20, 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
John Legend and Kelly Clarkson, onstage during the 2018 Billboard Music Awards at MGM Grand Garden Arena on May 20, 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

We're barely done scraping the frost off the disintegrating jack o' lanterns we neglected to remove from our front porches, and it's already time to argue about "Baby, It's Cold Outside."

As you might have heard, "Baby, It's Cold Outside," an Oscar-winning 1949 holiday standard by writer-of-many-standards Frank Loesser, hasn't aged terribly well over the last 70 years. Intended as a playful duet between a man and a woman who banter about whether to part for the evening, the song has come in for criticism of the way the man... well, appears to be pressuring a reluctant woman to stay at his place against her will. (Let's not even get started on her line, "Say, what's in this drink?" It was the 1940s, and they were singing about alcohol, but still.)

Now, there's room for nuance and disagreement here: Depending on the context, and on the skill of the performers, it's possible to infer many possible intentions — playfulness, coyness, et al. — from both parties involved. No two performances of "Baby, It's Cold Outside" are really equal, and there've been a lot of them; Linda Holmes conducted an exhaustive and still not-at-all-comprehensive survey for NPR back in 2009.

As a society, we've come to squabble about this quite a bit in recent years, the way some folks squabble about whether Walmart clerks are properly endorsing your particular religion in the way they greet you. You know the drill: Such-and-such a radio station pulls "Baby, It's Cold Outside" from its holiday rotation; so-and-so pundit declares that expressing empathetic concern for the wishes and feelings of others is hastening the downfall of civilization; everyone gets mad; it's the circle of life, and an excellent replacement for seasonal joy and communion.

Now, in the spirit of department stores putting up Christmas decorations before the discounted Halloween candy has even been snapped up, the "Baby, It's Cold Outside" debate has begun earlier than ever, thanks to John Legend and Kelly Clarkson. The duo recently reworked "Baby, It's Cold Outside" as a polite request for consent, as written by Legend and Natasha Rothwell; for example, when Clarkson suggests that she might want another drink, the retort is, "It's your body and your choice." (It should be noted that the song has received a similar treatment before; here's a 2016 piece on Morning Edition about an updated version by musicians Lydia Liza and Josiah Lemanski.)

This would all seem reasonably non-controversial; there are, after all, countless versions of "Baby, It's Cold Outside" to choose from, and singers update, parody and otherwise futz with standards all the time. But this is 2019, which means that even freaking Good Morning America headlined its web story, "John Legend's controversial rewrite of 'Baby, It's Cold Outside' is here," and referenced the new track as a "politically correct duet."

And then there's Piers Morgan, who... wait, you know what? In the spirit of national unity, I still believe that all of us — all of us, from all walks of life, all religions, all political stripes and socioeconomic circumstances — can come together in the spirit of harmony and togetherness and decide as one to ignore everything Piers Morgan has to say about both "Baby, It's Cold Outside" and everything else on this day and every day moving forward until long past the day Earth has been reduced to irradiated ash.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I simply must go.

John Legend's A Legendary Christmas: Deluxe Edition is out today via Columbia.
Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.