Saturday, December 8, 2018

Why We Can't Have Nice Things...

It's the holiday season again, the most controversial time of the year. I've blathered in this space endlessly about my preference for using the greeting "Merry Christmas" rather than the insipid "Happy Holidays", but have had a change of heart. Much of that is thanks to a president who turned "Merry Christmas" into a political slogan, vowing to bring back the greeting (not that it ever went anywhere), as one of his many absurd campaign promises. But fear not, this is not a rant against the current POTUS, heck it's Christmas, er I mean holiday season after all.

The tradition of a winter holiday goes back oh, about a million years or so as people rejoiced when they noticed around the day of the year we now call December 25th, that the sun began reversing its inexorable path lower and lower in the sky that started in late June. Long before Copernicus explained exactly why this happened, there was no reason to believe that even though this cycle repeated without fail every year, one December 25th, some capricious god might just make the sun keep disappearing below the horizon earlier and earlier each day until eventaully it would not reappear again the next morning, plunging the world into complete darkness.

Naturally this yearly "rebirth" of the sun was cause for great relief, joy and merrymaking, a very ancient tradition that goes on to this day. It never occurred to early Christians to celebreate the birth of the founder of their religion, as accounts of his birth are scant in their sacred texts. We owe the observation of Christmas to a Roman Emperor, converted to that new fangled religion, who decided the meaning of that ancient celebreation would change. 1,682 years ago at this writing, Emperor Constantine decreed that the Winter Holiday instead of being devoted to the rebirth of the sun, would be devoted to the birth of the Son, and a new tradition was born.

Truth be told, only the meaning of the holiday changed, not the spirit or practice of it. You name it, almsgiving, evergreen trees, the exchanging of presents, a general feeling of good will and merriment, tidings of comfort and joy, in other words virtually everything that we associate with the celebration of Christmas, with the exception of the particulars relating to the birth of Christ and perhaps Elf on a Shelf, existed long before Mary and Joseph supposedly made that harrowing journey to Bethlehem. So in a sense, replacing the greeting  Merry Christmas with Happy Holidays is nothing more than replacing an old tradition with an even older one.

This year we have a new holiday controversy. Every year at this time, we are bombarded with holiday themed music. There are the traditional Christmas carols, those beauiful sacred songs that deal specifically with the birth of Jesus such as  Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht, (Silent Night)Joy to the World and Adeste Fideles (Oh Come All Ye Faithful). To be honest, there isn't one of these that doesn't move me to tears when played in the right context. For the record my current favorite of these is Es Ist ein Rose Entsprungen (Lo How a Rose E'er Blooming), written by the German Renaissance composer Michael Praetoris. These songs make no bones about what they are about and for the most part, out of respect for believers and non-believers alike, tend to be kept at an arm's length from popular culture where the former may see them as being profaned, while the latter may see them as innappropriate in a society that supposedly has no official religion. I think most of us are cool with that.

The songs we do hear over and over again are the purely secular traditioinal carols that center around the celebration of the holiday, rather than the sacred aspects, such as Carol of the BellsDeck the Halls and Jingle Bells. These too when played in the right context evoke in me a sense of joy and merriment as they were intended. Unfortuantely much of those intended emotions have been siphoned off for those songs having been appropriated by commercials and overplayed in shopping malls during the three months before Christmas in this country.

Then there are the pop music holiday songs.  Certainly one of the most famous of these is Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas which unlike your typical holiday fare, deals with emotions that can make this time of year particularly difficult for those of us who are suffering. The poignance of that song was magnified by the fact that it reached the height of its popularity during the Second World War where its themes of separation and loss rang true for everyone who listened to the song. Unfortauntely much of those honest sentiments have been lost through the years by the changing of the original lyrics to more upbeat ones (for example the line: "Until then we'll have to muddle through somehow" was changed at the behest of Frank Sinatra to make the song less depressing, to "Hang a shining star upon the highest bow"). The song has also suffered greatly from over-playing, I challenge you to walk into a grocery or big box store this time of year and not hear at least two different  renditions of it. This incessant playing of HYAMLC makes me think to myself: "I might have a friggin merry christmas if only you'd stop playing that goshdarn song!", not the intended response I'd imagine from its creator.

Pop music Christmas songs may or may not have anything to do with the holiday itself, sometimes merely referring to winter is enough to qualify it as a holiday song. To the best of my knowlege, Frosty the Snowman doesn't mention Christmas, Hannukah, New Years Day, Winter Solstice, or any other seasonal holiday at all.

Neither does the least Christmasy Chrsitmas song of them all, Baby It's Cold Outside. The song was written on a whim by the famed Broadway comper Frank Loesser in 1944 to be performed as a duet between the songwriter and his wife Lynn Garland for a party in New York City. The couple sang it late in the evening indicating to the visitors that it was time to leave. According to the Wikipedia article on the song:
Garland wrote that after the first performance, "We become instant parlor room stars. We got invited to all the best parties for years on the basis of 'Baby.' It was our ticket to caviar and truffles. Parties were built around our being the closing act." In 1948, after years of performing the song, Loesser sold it to MGM for the 1949 romantic comedy "Neptune's Daughter". Garland was furious, and wrote, "I felt as betrayed as if I'd caught him in bed with another woman."
BICO won the Oscar that year for best original song. Since then it has gone on to become a popular music standard, having been recorded by hundreds of diverse performers from Red Skelton to Ella Fitzgerald to Lady Gaga.

If by chance you don't know the song, it's a call and response between two people, for the sake of argument let's refer to them as the persuader and the persuadee. The couple are at the home of the persuader after a date. The role of the persuadee, usually but not always sung by a woman, begins the song indicating it's time to go home, to which the persuader, ususally but not always sung by a man. responds that the current outdoor climatic conditions seem to indicate that it would be more prudent for the persuadee to remain. What we can deduce from the lyrics is that the persuader has an alterior motive other than his partner's health or general wellbeing, for convincing the persuadee to stay. It is probably fair to assume that the persuadee is on to the persuader's real intentions. The song continues with the persuadee listing a litany of reasons why it would be beneficial to leave. Those arguments are inevitably met with the persuader's arguments to the contrary.

There is no definitive conclusion to the story other than the last line, where the couple sings in unison the words to the song's title, implying that the persuader was ultimately successful.

To the song's defenders, it is a clever, well written, integral contribution to the classic American Songbook, a cute, harmless, old fashioned novelty song that describes a very natural part of the human condition, something that virtaully all of us have experienced in one role or the other, or both, at some time in our lifetimes.

To its detrators, BICO is a song that promotes date rape.

Much to you the reader's consternation I'm sure, I'm going to equivocate here, as I so often do, and say both sides have a point.

One could easily listen to the song and be perplexed as to what all the fuss is about. After all, practically every intimate relationship begins with one partner being the persuer and the other the persued. Had every encounter like this one in the history of the world ended after the first line of the song when the persuadee says "I really can't stay", there would indeed be very few of us around today to talk about it.

On the other hand, in light of recent events in the news regarding public figures who have been outed as criminal sexual predators, and the attention that has brought to the issue, there are indeed a few cringe-worthy lines in this song.

Date rape is a complcated matter. Many would argue that as far as sex goes, there is a fine line between the fine art of persuasion, and rape. But that's not really true, there is a very definitive line, the word "no".

In BICO, the persuadee says no twice to the persuader:
I ought to say no no no sir (But baby it's cold outside)
follwed immediately by:
 At least I'm gonna say that I tried.
Here one could say the persuadee is doing everything possible to remain "respectable" by rejecting the persuader's advances, but in reality those attempts are disingenuous.

The second time, the persuadee is more definitive:
I simply must go (But, baby, it's cold outside) 
The answer is no
It doesn't get any more definitive than that, but yet there is more equivocation in very the next line:
The welcome has been (How lucky that you dropped in) 
So nice and warm (Look out the window at the storm)

To today's ears, the cringiest line comes in the third verse:
The neighbors might think (Baby, it's bad out there) 
Say what's in this drink
Clearly we have Bill Cosby and his horrrific crimes to thank for us now until kingdom come, equating that somewhat comical line with date rape drugs.

It would be easy to say lighten up on the song, it was written over seventy years ago when attitudes about sex and dating were much different than they are today.

On the other hand, culture and ideas of propriety may change but basic human nature does not. Date rape and drugs that facilitate it are nothing new, they just weren't talked about openly seventy years ago. That is not to say that back in the day, it was considered acceptable for a man to take advantage of a woman who is chemically incapacitated. Watch old time Hollwood movies and you will often find references to that theme; one that comes immedaitely to mind  is this wonderful scene from The Philadelphia Story:

So is Baby It's Cold Outside a shout out to date rape? Well if I were a juror on a trial and presented with the evidence of the lyrics to the song and its history, I'd have to rule that no, it is not.

Yet many people today are offended by the lyrics and who am I to say they don't have that right?. Some radio stations in the US and Canada have decided not to play the song out of respect for listeners who have called and written to complain about it. Again, that is their right. Does this amount to censorship or trying to whitewash history? Absolutely not. Despite not being able to hear it on certain radio stations, good or bad, BICO is not going away anytime soon, nor will it ever.

Here is my favorite verion of the song:

In the end I have to say that like the debate between Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays, let's live and let live. If you're offended by the song, don't listen  to it. If you like it, be willing to defend it logically while accepting the fact that people are going to disagree with you.

That's a pretty simple soltion isn't it? Culture wars be damned, let's simply agree to disagree.

In conclusion I have one thing more to say:

Happy Holidays!

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