Radio loves a good controversy, and since Howard Stern took his team and his headphones to satellite radio, broadcasters haven't had a whole lot of drama. Sure there was that Denver DJ and Taylor Swift. And Craig Carton's extracurricular activities. But for the most part, smooth sailing.
It's been a while since a real radio brouhaha broke out that involved programmers, DJs, and listeners. But in an otherwise quiet years – aside from political advertising – it's looked a lot like another sedate season of holiday music.
At least that was the case until last week when the radio industry – and pretty much everyone else in media – freaked out over the lyrics of a song first recorded nearly 70 years ago.
Out intrepid researcher and musical historian, Seth Resler, couldn't let this one go by without some analysis and introspection. And in today's blog post, he presents more sides than you knew existed of the “Baby, It's Cold Outside” controversy.
It's more fun than talking about translators, the spectrum repack, bankruptcy proceedings, and whether or not there will be another round of deregulation. So, pull up an egg nog and enjoy Seth's foray into this year's lyrical kerfuffle. – FJ
Last week, news broke that Star 102, WDOK-FM in Cleveland, pulled the Frank Loesser duet “Baby, It's Cold Outside,” from its 24/7 Christmas music format in response to listener complaints about the lyrics. The song, in which a man discourages a woman from leaving his house by offering her more liquor, includes lines like, “Say, what's in this drink?” and “I ought to say no, no, no.”
By the way, it's not even a Christmas song. The film in which it first appeared – “Neptune's Daughter” – was a RomCom of its day. The movie was released in 1949, and the song in question – “Baby, It's Cold Outside” – won the Academy Award that year for “Best Song.” Frank Loesser couldn't have possibly known his standard would become the center of a controversy in 2018.
The video below features “Neptune's Daughter” stars Esther Williams (she of Olympic swimming fame) and Ricardo Montalbán (he of soft Corinthian leather fame).
But if you think the song was merely a mistake, an exercise in bad taste, or an indiscretion from a very different time and culture, “Baby, It's Cold Outside” has been recorded and/or performed by the following prominent duos. In fact, the song has actually become more popular in recent years, often by singers who are very aware of the sensitivities involved:
- Sammy Davis, Jr. and Carmen McRae – 1957
- Ray Charles and Betty Carter – 1961
- Barry Manilow and K.T. Oslin – 1990
- Bette Midler and James Caan – 1991
- Robert Palmer and Carnie Wilson – 1992
- Lou Rawls and Dianne Reeves – 1995
- Vanessa Williams and Bobby Caldwell – 1996
- Brian Setzer and Ann-Margret – 2002
- Lee Ann Womack and Harry Connick, Jr. – 2002
- Zooey Deschanel and Leon Redbone – 2003
- Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey – 2004
- Rod Stewart and Dolly Parton – 2004
- James Taylor and Natalie Cole – 2004
- Willie Nelson and Norah Jones – 2009
- Colbie Caillat and Gavin DeGraw – 2012
- Lyle Lovett and Kat Edmonson – 2012
- Cee Lo Green and Christina Aguilera – 2012
- Lady Gaga and Joseph Gordon-Levitt – 2013
- Kelly Clarkson and Ronnie Dunn – 2013
- Darius Rucker and Sheryl Crow – 2014
- Idina Menzel and Michael Bublé – 2014
- Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood – 2016
- Brett Eldredge and Meghan Trainor – 2016
- Amy Grant and Vince Gill – 2016
And for all we know, there was a prominent recording duo in the studio recording a new version for this Christmas when the WDOK flap went viral.
WDOK's afternoon drive DJ, Glenn Anderson, wrote a blogpost explaining the station's decision:
“I do realize that when the song was written in 1944, it was a different time, but now while reading it, it seems very manipulative and wrong. The world we live in is extra sensitive now, and people get easily offended, but in a world where #MeToo has finally given women the voice they deserve, the song has no place.”
After a local TV station reported on the dropped song, word of WDOK's decision spread quickly. Everybody from Entertainment Weekly to the BBC picked up the story. The question at the center of the debate: Is this station responding appropriately to legitimate concerns about lyrics that encourage date rape, or is the station overreacting in a fit of political correctness?
Of course, the other question that comes to mind is whether dropping “Baby, It's Cold Outside” is a stance — or a stunt. Whatever the case, it's a fascinating decision that got people talking about controversies other than collusion with Russia. I watched as dozens of broadcasters debated the question in the radio-centric Facebook groups in which I lurk. Some offered an alternate theory: that the station hadn't pulled the song in response to listener concerns, but as part of a brilliant publicity scheme.
Of course, this isn't the first time radio stations have pulled songs from rotation in response to current events or cultural climates. When planes crashed into the Twin Towers on 9/11, the band Drowning Pool had a song called “Bodies” that was swiftly climbing the charts. But as news coverage showed people leaping to their deaths from the burning buildings, some stations felt that a song with the chorus, “Let the bodies hit the floor!” was much too close to home and pulled it from rotation.
It wasn't the only song that was impacted by 9/11. Notorious B.I.G.'s 1994 single, “Juicy,” includes the line, “Time to get paid, blow up like the World Trade.” Here, the phrase “blow up” means “to get big” (like a balloon), not “to detonate,” but after the 2001 terrorist attack, some radio stations removed this lyric from the song. A line that had previously been seen as unremarkable was now deemed insensitive – or worse. Is there a difference between removing this reference and dropping “Baby, It's Cold Outside”?
Sometimes, whether a song is offensive or not depends upon the context of the community that is hearing it. In early 2003, I was the Music Director at 107.7 The End in Seattle, where I championed a band named Finch. Finch released a single called “What It Is to Burn.” That spring, I was hired as the Program Director at WBRU in Providence, where I intended to continue my support for the band.
But as the record label was working the single, a horrific fire at a Great White concert at the Station Nightclub in West Warwick killed 100 people. Among the victims was Mike “Dr. Metal” Gonsalves, the nighttime DJ on the crosstown rock station, WHJY. As a result, my predecessor at WBRU decided it would be inappropriate to play the Finch single. I agreed, and when I took the job, we wound up playing a different song by the band. This was a clear example of how a song could be offensive for an audience in one market but not in another.
Sometimes, radio stations drop songs not in response to the lyrics, but because of actions or stances taken by the artist. In 2003, the Dixie Chicks famously criticized President George W. Bush onstage at a London concert. Singer Natalie Maines declared that she was “ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas.” Some country stations responded by pulling the band's songs off the airwaves.
And after Chris Brown was arrested for assaulting his then-girlfriend Rihanna in 2009, some radio stations responded by pulling his songs off the air.
Of course, radio programmers don't just drop songs in reaction to current events; sometimes they add them. When a major artist, like David Bowie, Prince, or Aretha Franklin passes away, it's not uncommon for their songs to reappear on radio station playlists.
When “Wayne's World” was a box office smash, a key scene led to a resurgence in airplay for Queen's “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
And in the wake of the new movie of the same name, Queen songs are today re-appearing on the radio airwaves in droves.
Likewise, the TV shows “The Sopranos” and “Glee” breathed new life and generated millions of new fans for Journey's “Don't Stop Believing”:
And of course, director Cameron Crowe has made a career out of musical movie moments, including his use of Tom Petty's “Free Falling” in “Jerry McGuire,” Elton John's “Tiny Dancer” in “Almost Famous,” and Peter Gabriel's “In Your Eyes” in “Say Anything.” We often associate these songs with those films.
So if radio can adjust its playlists by adding songs in response to the cultural zeitgeist, why shouldn't it also drop songs accordingly?
As wise old radio programmers will tell you, “They won't miss what you don't play.” And there's a lot of truth in that.
No matter which side of the “Baby, It's Cold Outside,” debate you fall on, one thing is clear: The playlists at radio stations are curated by people, not algorithms, and one of the biggest advantages of this fact is that humans can read the current cultural climate – and the room – and react accordingly.
Please pass the egg nog. It's cold outside.