To listen or not? Responding to “Baby, its Cold Outside,” Michael Jackson and R. Kelly in an age of sexual enlightenment

“Baby, It’s Cold Outside”

 When I think of the famous duet song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” (written by Frank Loesser in 1944; popularized in the 1949 film Neptune’s Daughter) I think of recordings and TV scenes, rather than the composition itself. Specifically, I think pf Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald’s famous version recorded for Decca Records in 1949 a decade before their more famous duets at Verve. The song also takes me back to a playful scene from early 1990s TV when the characters Dwayne Wayne and Whitley Gilbert, of NBC’s Different World, were courting with Ray Charles and Betty Carter singing a 1961 rendition of “Baby.” More recently, I recall a pivotal 2010 episode of FOX’s Glee when the characters Kurt and Blaine harmonized together in a holiday themed episode.

In 1961 Ray Charles and Betty Carter recorded one of the most iconic versions of “Baby, It’s cold Outside.”

In 1961 Ray Charles and Betty Carter recorded one of the most iconic versions of “Baby, It’s cold Outside.”

 Given these fond personal memories I was surprised to learn that in 2018 several U.S. and Canadian radio stations decided to stop playing “Baby” because many listeners read its lyric as a veiled form of sexual coercion through the sly use of alcohol. The pointed use of the song in satirical scenes on episodes of Saturday Night Live and South Park featuring convicted rapist Bill Cosby only amplified this tie-in.

 According to daughter Susan Loesser’s 1993 biography, A Most Remarkable Fella: Frank Loesser and the guys and dolls in his life: A portrait by his daughter, Loesser wrote “Baby” originally as a tongue-in-cheek song for a housewarming part he and his wife hosted. The song, sang by Loesser and his wife Lynn Garland, aimed to gently encourage guests to leave the party. The song caught on and he eventually sold it to MGM studios; it won the 1949 Academy Award for Best Original Song after being featured in Neptune’s Daughter.

 I am sure Loesser did not imagine their song would engender so much controversy but, of course, authors who create public works lose control of the meanings and interpretations their creations long after they are written, published and broadcast. This issue came to the fore in when singer Connie Francis attempted to sue the Universal Music Group (UMG) for using her recordings for sexual scenes in several films. She lost in each case because UMG rather than Francis owns the copyright to the music.

 So what does one do with “Baby”? I respect the objections of those who find the song triggering or problematic. These are profoundly personal emotions that defy external judgment. If I were playing the song and someone asked me to not play it, I would comply out of regard for their well-being.

 Otherwise, I will continue to enjoy the classic recordings of the song. When sung by gifted interpreters its lovely melody and intricate lyrics, can weave a spell rare in contemporary pop. I can understand how a song could evoke bad memories or associations for listeners for many reasons; this is not a unique property of “Baby.” Harmful associations could be projected onto almost any song or recording given the context.  

 Interpreting art necessarily involves some level of interpretation and ambiguity. Isolating select lyrics from a song and declaring that only one interpretation or reading is possible or acceptable is anti-intellectual and censorious. In this instance, there is no direct causation between the song itself and actual sexual abuse.

 Sexual abuse is a serious social concern rooted in a pathological thirst for dominance and power that would not be lessened by taking “Baby” out of rotation. Sexual abuse is too serious of an issue to be whittled down to a consumer choice. To do so trivializes the complex reasons why sexual abuse happens and the often problematic way our society responds judicially and socially. There are more profound social measures, including early education about healthy sexuality and relationships, and the importance of affirmative consent that will impact the behavior and values more so than eliminating one song. Avoiding “Baby” may provide some individuals with temporary relief from what may feel tasteless, offensive and antiquated to many ears, but the larger battle for sexual justice is more difficult than turning down the volume or skipping to the next track.


Michael Jackson

 The 2018 premiere of Dan Reed’s documentary Leaving Neverland has reignited accusations of Michael Jackson as a pedophile. While he was never convicted successfully during his lifetime, two adults who first met Jackson as children, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, are adamant that, despite their previous statements, they were abused by the singer. Since trying Jackson from the grave is futile, I am more compelled by the seduction of celebrity, especially one whose image was largely defined by select ideas of innocence, and how it can cloud our willingness to consider certain possibilities, however ugly.

Filmmaker Dan Reed’s 2018 documentary has reignited controversies and questions over the nature of Michael Jackson’s behavior toward young male fans.

Filmmaker Dan Reed’s 2018 documentary has reignited controversies and questions over the nature of Michael Jackson’s behavior toward young male fans.

 Jackson, as lead singer of the Jackson 5, was highly iconic for a generation of children. This was arguably even more salient for black children who had few black teen idols in popular culture of the early 1970s. Talented, energetic and precocious, Motown was primarily interested in the J5 as a crossover group and hence very protective of the J5’s image. Motown did not want Jackson or his brothers commenting on politics, culture, or the larger world. Their job was to sing, smile, and sell records.

 The toll of this isolation has always been a distorted sense of reality that expanded when Jackson’s 1979’s solo album Off the Wall became a multi-platinum success and reached its acme with 1982’s Thriller, the best-selling album in history. As Jackson sold more records and became more exposed through innovative videos and iconic visual style, his identity became increasingly vulnerable to scrutiny. Suddenly, the child-star-turned-celebrity musician was ridiculed for his gendered affect, his appearance, his intelligence, his religious upbringing and anything else that would challenge his ascent to superstardom. As James Baldwin presciently commented in the 1985 essay “Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood,” “The Michael Jackson cacophony is fascinating in that it is not about Jackson at all. I hope he has the good sense to know it and the good fortune to snatch his life out of the jaws of carnivorous success. He will swiftly not be forgiven for having turned so many tables, for he damn sure grabbed the brass ring, and the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo has nothing on Michael” (689 qtd. from The Price of the Ticket).

 Baldwin understood that a black man who broke the barriers Jackson was breaking would not be permitted an easy time in a country that has demonized black men from its outset. Jackson fulfilled his commercial goal to “crossover” and become the ultimate cross-cultural human commodity almost too well.  His did not seem fully capable of distinguishing commercial approval from authentic social acceptance. Unanchored by any reality known to most people he lost sight of the rules that typically govern the ways adults and children interact, as well as America’s persistent racial script.

 The personal attacks he endured regarding his style and persona during the 1980s and early 1990s always engendered sympathy from his loyal worldwide audience. But the 1993 accusations of child abuse permanently disrupted Jackson’s seeming imperviousness to consequences for his notoriety. While many questioned Jackson’s carefully cultivated image of Peter Pan like innocence, his most dedicated fans were emboldened against what they saw as the ultimate attempt to dislodge Jackson from his hard won cultural status (The case was settled out of court for millions in 1994). The re-emergence of these accusations in 2005 (Jackson was tried and acquitted) only intensified fans’ perceptions of Jackson as the eternal victim of a vicious manhunt aiming to dismantle Jackson’s musical and cultural legacy.

 Baldwin was prescient in predicting Jackson’s potential downfall as one mediated by deep-seated racial resentment and narrow American conceptions of masculinity. Fans’ fiercely protective attitudes about Jackson’s image and innocence was also understandable given popular media’s ongoing harassment of Jackson. Even after he settled out of court in the 1990s and was retried and acquitted in 2005, fans may have sensed that Jackson’s life would remain fodder for exploitation and ridicule.  

 Neither of these reflexes, however historically warranted, negate the possibility that Jackson may have acted inappropriately or abusively. For example, Jackson never denied sharing a bed with children in the past. Why is this acceptable from a beloved celebrity when it would be highly suspect in ordinary life? These questions are more perhaps properly directed at the parents who allowed their children to be enshrined in the glare of celebrity, but the parents were clearly seduced as well.

 The desire by multiple generations to appreciate Jackson’s music, enjoy his performing style and revel in his various personae should not preclude the idea that he could harm another being. By refusing to entertain this as a possibility Jackson’s fans replicate the reductive skepticism society has directed toward female victims of abuse toward Robson and Safechuck’s claims.  The power of celebrity is so blinding in this instance that for a large portion of the public no evidence Robson or Safechuck could ever present would warrant even cursory consideration.  Since Jackson was never formally convicted of a crime one could not legally declare his music as that of a pedophile, but this has not stopped radio networks, TV shows (e.g. The Simpsons) and other entertainers who use his music from turning down the volume and taking it out of circulation indefinitely.  Whether he was legally charged or not, to some, their reasonable doubt was compelling enough for them to take a stand.


R. Kelly

To this listener R. Kelly’s songs are either crude pillow talk or schmaltzy feel good anthems with limited variations. “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is a classic composition that has generated notable renditions from some of the finest singers of our time. And Jackson is an undeniable pioneer in contemporary music, Kelly’s music is predictable, formulaic and inessential. I was not listening to him intently before or after his conviction which amplifies further reasons to avoid him. His warbly tenor and almost campy sensibility have made his music easy to dismiss as ridiculous for decades. His recent conviction is the most persuasive evidence that beneath his moribund music lies a potentially disturbed and abusive person needing some form of intervention, whether judicial and/or therapeutic.

Kelly was tried in 2008 for multiple counts of child pornography but was acquitted. This has not stopped the tide of accusations about inappropriate and illegal sexual behavior dating back to the early 1990s. Lifetime’s January 2019 documentary Surviving R. Kelly inspired public concerns that led to him being indicted for criminal sexual abuse.

The Lifetime network’s 2019 Surviving R. Kelly documentary captured the voices of of women who accused the singer-songwriter of sexual abuse.

The Lifetime network’s 2019 Surviving R. Kelly documentary captured the voices of of women who accused the singer-songwriter of sexual abuse.

Rather than trying Kelly here, I am more interested in noting that famous musicians perceived to be as problematic in the ways Kelly has for many years can only thrive when fans and the industry allow them to do so. The artists Kelly has written and produced for, the remixes he has been featured on, the film makers that have commissioned him, the channels that have played his videos and related entities made him a “brand,” even if they were not fully aware of his alleged activities. The same holds true for his label and his loyal fans.  RCA Records recently dropped him from the label. But after multiple platinum sales successes that made him the most popular R&B musician from 1995-2010 (according to Billboard) these decisions seem more motivated by fears of bad publicity and decreased sales than a sudden moral awakening. Only now has the record label conceded to the notion that Kelly may have made some harmful choices. I wonder if they would have waited so long to respond if a less popular and profitable singer had experienced similar charges?

For his loyal fans I hope the boundary between loyalty and skepticism is wavering. As the example of Jackson proves, successful black male entertainers are often hyper visible and vulnerable to extraordinary scrutiny. As such, audiences are understandably skeptical and protective, and leery of presuming guilt.  Whereas Jackson was never convicted and there remains considerable ambiguity, the sad case of Bill Cosby’s assault victims illustrates how perpetual systematic sexual violence can be when it is overlooked. We should not need a formal conviction to ask why we give celebrities the benefit of the doubt but turn our eyes and ears away from potential survivors.