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Song’s swirling debate misses the point

Credit: AFP/Getty Images / ANGELA WEISS

According to his daughter’s account, Frank Loesser wrote “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” in 1944 to sing as a back-and-forth duet with his wife to let party guests know it was time for them to leave.

The partygoers loved it, though it’s not known whether they skedaddled or hung around mumbling, “But thish thing juss gettin’ started.” And the couple made the tune their meal ticket for years, singing it for their suppers and delighting their friends at social engagements. Then the song was used in the romantic comedy “Neptune’s Daughter” and netted him an Academy Award.

Now the question seems to be whether radio stations ought to play it, and whether people ought to curl up in a ball of feminist rage when they hear it or explode in a burst of anti-feminist rage when stations won’t play it.

The song itself is as fascinating a piece of pop culture archaeology as modern iPhone/Tinder hepcats could ask for. The premise is that a young lady thinks she needs to leave her date’s apartment to avoid sex. Or she thinks she needs to act like she needs to leave, even though she plans to stay and make love, because she doesn’t want to look easy.

She’s persuaded to stay for “just a half a drink more,” and, we assume, some shared carnal fun that she’s earned through protestation and he’s garnered through tenacity. Before that, the debate takes some odd and perhaps creepy turns.

Her reasons for leaving mostly involve not wanting to disappoint a litany of prudish relatives. And, she worries, “There’s bound to be talk tomorrow” if she stays. But when she sings, “Say, what’s in this drink!” and he keeps pushing the liquor, it does feel “rapey.” And some of his counterarguments to get her to stay are creepy: “What’s the sense in hurtin’ my pride?” and “How can you do this thing to me?” are so male-centered, they’re like a satire of gender roles.

So it’s not that surprising that when it came time to crank the Christmas music up on radio stations this year, a couple of them, having had complaints, decided to take “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” out of the rotation. Then, those radio stations got tsunami backlashes.

This is a controversy where what makes you seriously wrong is taking it too seriously.

The song is a fascinating look at how people lived in the early 1940s, or pretended to live. The Comstock Act that largely outlawed contraception was abandoned only in 1938. Men and women both began to explore a world where sex need not end in pregnancy, and the real root of much of the prohibition against premarital sex was fading. Regardless of what we think of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” exchanges, they happened. They sometimes still happen. And art can be beautiful and important even if it portrays behavior we dislike. You can make great art about slavery, murder, rape and war and, yes, overly assertive men and coy women.

It’s fine to not want to hear “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” to turn it off when it comes on, and avoid stations that play it. But asking stations to ban it goes too far, because the song is worthy of consumption and discussion. And getting frothingly furious at radio stations for pulling the song, as many people did on social media, seems just as nutty. It is readily available for free on YouTube and elsewhere. A station’s choice not to play it has no effect on a fan’s ability to listen to it.

The argument is over which culture to reject, between triggered feminists and equally triggered traditionalists. The answer, in this case, is to reject the culture of rage and censorship that is often a part of both.

Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.