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A lot of people on social media are debating about the song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” — whether it celebrates date rape or represents a coy, playful, mutual flirtation that would have been sorta feminist for the 1940s. I’m inclined to think the latter, but I don’t know if my decades-long love for the song is making me biased. Where do you fall on this issue? Should I take it off my holiday playlist next year?
Baby, It’s Heating Up
Dear Heating Up,
Let me start with this: We all love things that are complicated. I won’t even bother to start walking you through the list of ’80s movies that I almost definitely, as a citizen of the 21st century, shouldn’t harbor affection for. And you can pry my ’60s pop songs where men in their late 20s wax romantic about teenage girls from my cold, dead, hypocritical hands. Art is always a product of its time, and I believe firmly that as we deepen our understanding of the morality of each generation’s art, it should inform, not destroy, our love for it.
I’ll even go so far as to say that we should never not challenge and be challenged by the things (and the people) we love. No matter how woke we believe ourselves to be, I can guarantee that someone 75 years from now, dissecting even the wisest and keenest aspects of our pop culture, will take issue with aspects of it that we embrace unthinkingly. Maybe they’ll be right, or maybe we’ll feel that they don’t have all the facts or that they don’t understand how hard it was for us to stretch our minds even that far. Maybe both will be true.
Heating Up, I can’t help you come back around to a song that’s been tainted for you, if that’s the case here. Maybe all you hear when you listen to it now are the questionable aspects of it, and if that’s so, you probably should remove it from your holiday playlist, if your playlist is one that’s intended to get you into a festive mood. But I’d encourage you to sit with your confusion—to find ways to enjoy the song that include all of its complications. All art has three meanings, after all: the artist’s intention, the cultural impact and the personal reaction. Don’t discount the last because of the outrage of others. It matters, because you matter.
(Note: I will add that if the audience for your holiday playlist is wider than yourself, you should take into account (a) whether there are young children listening who you are actively responsible for teaching about consent, and whether they’re old enough for a lecture on 1940s sexual politics, and (b) whether you’re prepared to referee a rehash of the social media debate at your social gathering.)