This post originally appeared on my other blog, Every Page is Page One in December 2018 when Baby It’s Cold Outside was the literary cause célèbre of the moment. Few, I’m sure, remember or care now, but the things I had to say on he function and responsibility of literary criticism still seem relevant, so I am reproducing it here.
The latest target of the scolding classes is a Baby It’s Cold Outside, a pop song from the 30s that is suddenly being “banned” from radio stations on the grounds that it condones rape, and, specifically, that the line “What’s in this drink?” is a reference to a date rape drug.
The accusation is absurd. As this article explains, the song is actually about the woman trying to talk herself into staying the night in the face of a list of a social taboos against her doing so, and “What’s in this drink?” is a common trope of the pop culture of its time, used to excuse saying something that violates some social norm. You are blaming your words on the booze, in other words, and the joke is that there is usually nothing in the drink.
The value of literary criticism
This is a pop culture reference, in other words. It is common today to praise works for being full of pop culture references. The problem, of course, is that pop culture references go stale quickly. This is where literary criticism is important, and actually useful.
Most literary criticism is neither important nor useful these days. Most of it is concerned either with framing a literary work in terms of the critic’s political ideology or pretending to detect the author’s sexual preferences from clues in the text. This is all bosh. But stories are constructed of references to stories, and, as works age, some of those references are no longer current. If an older work is to be read with profit by a new generation, it needs to be glossed to make the references clear to a new generation of readers. That is the work that literary criticism can and should do. It is the work that the article cited above does for Baby It’s Cold Outside.
My father was a professor of English. He complained frequently that he had to spend more of his class time teaching history than actually dealing with the text, because without the knowledge of the history, which he believed his students should have learned in school, they were completely unable to decode the references in the texts they were reading.
What’s worth preserving?
This means, of course, that there is a cost associated with reading older works. Someone has to gloss the text and teach the relevant background, and the reader has to split their attention between learning the background and the references and attending to the text itself. Without this additional work, they are certain to misinterpret the text, fail to understand it altogether, or be just plain bored.
Not every work of literature is worth this effort, either for the critic or the reader. In fact, most works of literature are not worth this effort. Most of them die a swift death and molder unmourned in the racks of the library used book sale.
This applies just as much to song lyrics as to novels. Baby It’s Cold Outside assumes a set of social mores and uses certain pop-culture references, neither of which most modern listeners have any knowledge of. If they pay attention to the lyrics, they are almost certain to misunderstand them. The thing is, they don’t pay attention to them.
There is no great literary insight in the lyrics of Baby It’s Cold Outside. It is not some literary gem that would be worth of the attention of critics and readers four generations on from its date of composition. But songs don’t survive so much on their lyrics, but on a catchy tune, and perhaps a memorable line or two. The only line of Baby It’s Cold Outside that most people remember is “Baby it’s cold outside.” The world is full of popular songs that nobody understands and of which they can remember only the chorus. They survive for musical reasons, not literary reasons. If it is worth going to bat for Baby It’s Cold Outside, it is not for its literary merits. If it is worth defending it is to defend literary criticism from becoming the tool of ideologues.
The dishonesty of the critics
The criticism of Baby It’s Cold Outside is an example of the worst sort of ideologically driven criticism. The most basic critical question a person should ask themselves before critiquing anything is, do I understand the context in which this was written and do I recognize the references it contains? If you are looking at a lighthearted pop song with an upbeat melody from the 1930s and you think you have found a reference to a date rape drug, the first thing you should do is ask yourself, is that likely? Does it make sense in context? And then you should go do some research and figure out what the context was and what the references are. If you are an honest critic, that is what you are interested in doing.
If you are an ideological critic, on the other hand, you are simply looking for an excuse to bang the drum for your ideology, to score a point for the cause. The dishonesty of the resulting critique does not concern you because you believe that the end justifies the means. Or rather, I suspect, you believe that the end informs the interpretation: that the critique must be true because it leads to a conclusion that supports the cause. The cause is not judged against truth, but truth against the cause.
By the same token, you are not interested in a critique of your critique. Your only response will be to shout louder. There is not a lot of point in arguing with such critics, therefore. But there is a lot of point in refuting the argument for the sake of other people who may be mislead by it. In particularly, it is important to point out both the context of the work and the meaning of its references so that readers will not carry the misrepresentation of these things over to other works of the same period. If there is a battle worth fighting here, this is what it is about.
But should it survive?
There is a temptation to jump vigorously to the defense of any work that is being attacked and misrepresented for ideological reasons. For the sake of cultural integrity, it is important to refute the attack itself. But we should not mistake that for a reason to preserve it indefinitely. Lady Chatterley’s Lover is almost certainly the worst book D. H. Lawrence ever wrote, but it is by far the most likely to be read today, because of the scandal that surrounded it. (People earmarked the “good bits” because the rest of it is so bloody boring.)
Is it worth the additional cost of consuming works with dated references? It is clearly worth it for Shakespeare, Austen, and Dickens. Is it worth it for Baby It’s Cold Outside? Probably not.
The fact of the matter is, in today’s context the phrase “what’s in this drink?” does not mean what it meant in the 30s. Today it means, “did someone slip me a Mickey?” (as they would have said in the 30s). Insofar as most casual listeners pay attention to the lyrics at all, this is how they are likely to interpret this line today.
And the thing is, Top 40 radio does not come with CliffsNotes. Your average DJ is not trained to say, “Folks, before I play this next song, let me tell you a little bit about the social mores of the 1930s and gloss all the pop culture references for you.” And if they did, people would just tune into Spotify instead.
Sometimes what marks the moment when a work’s time is up in not when its references go out of date but when they acquire new and contradictory meanings. This does not in any way convict the original composer or performers of suggesting the meaning that their words now bear today. But it makes the work problematic for the contemporary listener unless they are willing to do the additional work necessary to place those words in their original context. It is grossly unjust to tar the composer with the brush of modern interpretation of the references, but the injustice of the accusation does not turn the work into one deserving of everlasting praise and celebration. Sometimes the work just isn’t worth it.
It may be entirely correct, therefore, to say that this song should lose its place in the radio rotation because its pop culture references have aged to the point that they suggest something different from the original meaning. This does not mean the song is culpable, it merely means it is antique.
This is not censorship
And let’s be very clear about this. The decision of a private radio station to not play a particular song is not censorship. Please stop calling it that. It does more harm than good. Publishers publish far fewer manuscripts than they receive. Bookstores stock far fewer titles than are published. Libraries shelve far fewer books than are sold. Radio stations play far fewer songs than are written or published or recorded. Their jobs are to select, and selection is not censorship.
Nor is deciding to no longer publish, sell, shelve, record, or play a particular work censorship, no matter what the reason for doing so. That too is selection, and that is their job. The old must be moved aside at some point to make way for the new, and only the very best of the old can or should survive this process.
Only the government can censor. A censor is a government official. Censorship is the passage or administration of laws that prevent people from writing, recording, publishing, selling, or shelving a work. Censorship is wrong. But if you are accusing anyone other than the government, or an equivalent authority, of censorship, you are simply using the wrong word. Censorship is an exercise of authority, not an exercise of discretion.
It is craven kowtowing
Now, there is definitely a case to be made that in ceasing to play Baby It’s Cold Outside, radio stations are cravenly kowtowing to activists pedaling falsehoods to serve their agenda. That does indeed seem to be what’s happening. One might wish that the stations had more backbone. One might wish that they themselves were interested in more than their own virtue signaling. But radio stations are fundamentally commercial enterprises and the reality is that they respond to the sensitivities of advertisers, and advertisers are mostly concerned with their own virtue signaling because for them it all comes down to the question of what will impact sales. They will jump either way on this issue, and on any similar issue, depending on which way they perceive the wind is blowing.
Fundamentally, radio stations have the right to make programming decisions based on their commercial interest in attracting a demographic attractive to advertisers. If we want cultural merit to enter into that equation, the way to do it is to create a demographic that is culturally literate and values works of genuine merit. And to do that, we must champion, and try to produce, work of genuine merit that is accessible to the modern audience.
Baby It’s Cold Outside is not such a work. It is a piece of sentimental fluff, clever in its way, and catchy to some, but hardly the hill we should choose to die on. Going to the wall for Baby It’s Cold Outside is not how we build appreciation for works of genuine merit in modern culture.
Critiquing the dishonest critique is certainly worth doing, not because Baby It’s Cold Outside is an immortal work worthy of infinite preservation, but because it is always worth critiquing dishonest critiques for the sake of preserving some degree of honesty in cultural criticism. It is worth critiquing the critique of Baby It’s Cold Outside because we also have to be ready to critique the dishonest critique of far more important works such as To Kill a Mockingbird. But let our howl be “dishonest criticism,” not “censorship,” or “denying my rights to hear sentimental pop songs of the 30s.”
Personally, I think it is a piece of drek and if Baby It’s Cold Outside disappears from the airwaves I will utter a small hallelujah. Mind you, I am thoroughly sick of hearing Hallelujah as well.