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Can Christmas Classics Survive Contemporary Culture?

One of the best parts of the holiday season is the sheer timelessness of everything. You can count on string lights lining busy streets each year. You can expect the revival of certain movies and shows, and anticipate the return of your favorite seasonal foods and drinks—from Starbucks Peppermint Mochas to personal, tried-and-true family recipes. I would argue that for many, though, nothing kicks off the season like the first time they hear the opening bells to Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You,” or perhaps the jazzy intro to Michael Buble’s rendition of “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).” Maybe you’re more of an old soul and Bing Crosby’s “Winter Wonderland” gets you the most excited. Regardless of whether you despise the songs or queue them up in October, music is an enormously important aspect of the holiday season.

Despite the modern, original singles that have creeped their way onto the playlists of radio DJs, a large percentage of the holiday songs played today were written in the mid-twentieth century, between the 1940s and 1960s. In most cases, this fifty-year gap hardly makes a difference in our contemporary listening. We can all relate to the magic of a walk outside just after it has stopped snowing, or to the excitement that comes with returning home for some well-deserved family bonding. These experiences truly transcend time.

Today’s culture, however, is certainly different in many ways from that of the 1950s. For that reason, the terminology and underlying themes of several holiday titles are perceived by some to be at extreme odds with our twenty-first century values. Understandably, then, they have been the subject of much scrutiny and criticism, particularly this year. When one considers the prominence of the #MeToo movement and the conversation it has sparked on gender roles and the way we approach sexual abuse in our society, the “timeless” quality of certain songs becomes a matter of debate. The analysis of certain lyrics allows us to address the question, “Can we outgrow music?” The answer, from where I stand, is no.

“Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is one song that has recently been under the microscope, recently being pulled off the air by a Cleveland radio station. The playful exchange between the couple in the song involves a man’s valiant pursuit to persuade a woman to stay just a little bit longer. Those who take issue with the song likely dissent with this patriarchal image of a woman being wooed by a man, and under somewhat suspicious circumstances. The line, ‘Say what’s in this drink,for example, lends itself to the possibility of a date rape drug being dropped into her glass—a seriously disturbing scenario. Yet, do we really believe that this was the desired intent behind writer Frank Loesser’s famous tune? And if so, why have so many incredibly talented artists chosen to cover it year after year? Every generation, it seems, has its own version: Louis Armstrong and Velma Middleton in 1951, Henry Mancini in 1966, Barry Manilow and K. T. Oslin in 1990. Today, we’ve seen everyone from Colbie Caillat to Cee Lo Green release their own adaptations of the song. Surely, they would not have stood behind the title if it was recognized for promoting such despicable content.

As for the drink comment, Susan Loesser, Frank’s daughter, reminds audiences of the context in which her father wrote the song. “It was written in 1944…People used to say ‘what’s in this drink’ as a joke. You know, this drink is going straight to my head, so what’s in [it]? Back then it didn’t mean you were drugged.”

Before jumping to conclusions, there is definite merit in placing ourselves in the shoes of those who initially produced these songs. The fact that the possibility of problematic lyrics hasn’t been raised until just recently is evidence that there is a historical basis for our misinterpretations. The disconnect between two vastly different societies is merely starting to reveal itself. Is the mature, rational decision really to ban the Academy Award-winning song from being heard at all? Take, for example, the Colorado radio station KOSI 101.1, who attempted to follow suit with Cleveland. In a survey they conducted earlier this month, 95% of listeners didn’t appreciate the decision; they reported that they’d prefer “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” remain on-air.

“Santa Baby” is another sultry Christmas song, dating back to 1953, during the course of which a woman rattles off a list of presents that she’d like Santa to leave for her, all while flirtatiously insisting that she has been ‘an awful good girl.’ This could be interpreted as a flawed representation of women and their overall attitudes towards the holidays. The singer personifies a highly-sexualized character, and her gift registry is far from short. Critics might be rolling their eyes at the stereotypical boxes this song seems to check off; all women equate fun with ‘kissing fellas’ and would love nothing more than a shiny new car or ‘duplex and checks,' right? While I won’t try to propose that this is a fair portrayal of women, I would instead argue that it is a lighthearted and unique approach to the persona of Santa Claus. Did writer Joan Javits really want to offend her gender and contribute to their constricted roles in society when she wrote this song? Highly, highly doubtful.

Miley Cyrus appeared on Jimmy Fallon’s talk show and sang her own version of “Santa Baby” just this past week. Her approach suggested a dissatisfaction with the song’s depiction of women. The altered lines which she sang, including, ‘A girl’s best friend is equal pay,’ andI've got a baller car of my own, no loans/I bought it all by myself’ are both empowering and creative. However, there are so many other avenues and arenas through which to send similar messages. Of course, the wage disparities between gender and race are a quintessential issue right now. We all know that a woman could (and should) purchase herself these items whenever she wants to and without a man’s help. But does that mean it’s sexist for a woman to request gifts from Santa?

What’s crucial to understand here is the social climate that was festering when these songs were first created. The role of women as attractive housewives with few concerns other than furs (‘slip a sable under the tree’), jewelry, and cleaning was much more widely accepted. Javits was merely catering to what she knew to be the image of women at the time, and what lyrics would be fun and relatable to her audience. Today, playing “Santa Baby” doesn’t translate to support for such a concept, the same way that watching The Office doesn’t mean viewers stand behind Michael Scott’s racist and sexist perspectives. Context is everything.

If we want to continue the tradition of awakening annual holiday spirit by paying homage to the same songs which our parents and grandparents listened to, then a certain level of maturity is required. While not always applicable to daily society, titles like “Baby, It's Cold Outside” and “Santa Baby” can still be enjoyed and re-created in our modern age. These selections can, indeed, be timeless classics if we only allow them such a space. By setting aside, momentarily, all of the places in which our world needs improvement, we can derive appreciation for the true themes which these songs seek to emulate: romance, humor, and entertainment, in an otherwise chaotic and sometimes troubling era.

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Next to writing, some of my favorite ways to spend time include designing Spotify playlists for friends and making grocery runs to Trader Joe's. I'm drinking coffee or tea almost constantly, and my mantra is the classic yet undeniably basic, "If it's meant to be, it will be!"