Three years ago, I went on a tear over something everyone’s ears will put up with at least once or twice, if not a heck of a lot more than that, this time every year: The Christmas carol. Shop at any mall or turn on any radio and it’s for sure you’ll wind up listening to some old chestnut of a carol. It’s a natural occurrence during the holiday season. It gets people in a holiday (and holiday shopping) spirit. It can brighten one’s spirits.
And it can also get on one’s nerves, for various reasons. One is that they’ve heard those songs over and over and over again. Another may be that someone may not want music to get them into the holiday spirit, or at least certain versions of these carols. And a third reason may be that some of these carols don’t have anything to do with Christmas directly.
Knowing I’m walking down a path I had already trod three years ago, I’ll highlight couple of Christmas songs that still turn me into Ebbie Scrooge just just hearing about them. To be more precise, it’s one song and a particular version of another. The former of the two has made some serious news of late: “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” At least three years ago… strike that, at least six years ago, if not further back than that, there was already the realization that the song’s lyrics are not directly about Christmas, they also suggest lack of sexual consent between two adults. In one corner is the female the song’s notes label as “mouse”; in the other, the male antagonist labeled as “wolf.” She must depart his place, but he tries to convince her that it’s, well, cold outside. But that’s not enough for him, for he says things like “your lips look delicious” and she asks “what’s in this drink?”
Yeah, you can see where this may be going. For context’s sake, when “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” was written in the 1940s, society frowned upon two unmarried people shacking up together for the night. That meant that back then, the lyrics could be interpreted as a woman wanting to preserve her modest reputation… which in any era is a good thing, as it also means the woman is aiming to stand up for herself.
But that doesn’t let “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” off the hook, for the guy is still saying things like “Beautiful, what’s your hurry?” That’s being less of a gentleman and more of a lecherous male with one thing on his mind (you know what). Those advances are not appreciated in the #MeToo era we now live in. And it’s led several radio stations who’ve gone all-Christmas this year to see the light and pull the song from their playlists. Well, at least for a little while, for thanks to “listener feedback,” a few of those stations have brought recordings of the song back into the rotation. Notice how I set “listener feedback” in quotes, for it can’t be ruled out that these stations aren’t above milking a real controversy for the sake of ratings points, or at least some media attention.
Of course, there’s a backlash against the backlash against “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” with the contention that it’s still a harmless little romantic romp. But that’s clearly old, anachronistic thinking from those who want to preserve the song in an amber-like state where every man was a charmer, never mind the lust on his mind and the skeletons in his closet. Times change, and so should men. So listen to the lady and don’t hold her back from the cold when she says, “The answer is no.”
No matter which side of the argument of the argument you fall on over “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” you must certainly agree on one thing about the song: It has absolutely nothing to do with Christmas. There’s nothing about gift giving, ornaments on trees, or wise men visiting a certain baby in a manger. Ditto for “Jingle Bells,” which was written way back in the 1850s and intended for another seasonal holiday — Thanksgiving. But there’s not a lot of snow in mid-autumn here in the United States. And depending on where you live in the Northern Hemisphere, big snow doesn’t really hit you until Christmas time, if not later.
That being said, however, the allusions to “dashing through the snow” in “Jingle Bells” and the chilly blizzard in “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” have linked the songs to the holiday season and the snow that’s supposed to fall and stick around for Christmas, creating that link between snow on the ground and this holiday’s anticipation. Those responsible for romanticizing song with season seem to forget or not care that here in the Northern Tier, our winters don’t end when Santa heads back to the North Pole. Yeah, our winters tend to last until March, if not late April, so try driving a car through 3 feet of snow and sub-zero conditions in February the next time you think frolicking on a sleigh is fun.
I admit that for the most part, I don’t mind listening to “Jingle Bells” since it has a rather playful melody. Yes, it’s still not a Christmas-specific song, not by a long shot. But imagine a room full of first graders signing the song and you’ll probably agree how sweet the song can be. Take too many liberties with it, though, and listening to the song can be an unpleasing chore…
Which brings me to a specific version of “Jingle Bells” I had in my sights three years ago, the “I thought it was a novelty version but I guess it’s not” version performed way back when by Barbra Streisand. Upon first hearing that version very many moons ago, I wasn’t sure if it was from Streisand or Liza Minnelli or someone else. But when I later came across it on YouTube, there was no doubt it was Babs, and that she was the Sinatra route with “Jingle Bells.” What I mean there is that Babs was doing it her way: Arrangement that was heavy on the theatrics. Vocals that were loud and brassy. And tempo that was slower than enjoyable in a few spots, yet in others went far too fast. It’s that tempo that makes you want to tell her, “Slow down, Barbra! You’re not in the Kentucky Derby!”
Barbra Streisand can get away with taking liberties on something like “Jingle Bells” because she’s Barbra Freakin’ Streisand. But turning it into something akin to a drag race down Broadway and less of a leisurely sleigh ride is sinful in my book. Which is why I… oh, wait a minute…
As Saturday Night Live was venturing into its holiday break last weekend, it featured among other skits a performance from the “Carnegie Lounge” by a certain Broadway performer named Dianne Gellerman. (Okay, she’s really Cecily Strong, but you get the idea.) Dianne was accompanied by her pianist and ex-husband Sonny. (Okay, he’s really Matt Damon, but you get the idea.) Together, they gave their audience a lot of brassy banter perfectly made for the New York crowd, from thoughts about why Santa didn’t bring Dianne any presents (she’s Jewish) to why their marriage went kaput.
Oh, and Dianne sings “Jingle Bells” right out of the Streisand/Broadway playbook, right down to the Indy 500 tempo. Just as with Babs’ rendition, it’s hard for the audience to keep up, nor does it come close to reminding them of a leisurely trip down the countryside. But since this is Saturday Night Live, it’s not supposed to. The joy is in the performance, and Dianne’s is a tour de force that’s both exhausting and exhilarating to watch.
There have been not one but two comparisons of Dianne Gellerman’s performance to a certain recurring musical skit from SNL‘s past where brassy vocals, brassy banter, and perky personality were the norm. I definitely agree that Dianne is a likely “distant cousin” to Liz and Candy Sweeney, and that this is an incredible act of singing while in character. But there’s something about this performance that, to me, seems to hold up a mirror toward the Streisand “Jingle Bells” and shows how putting too much “look at me!” gloss on a sweet holiday song just doesn’t fit with the season, while still letting the audience enjoy the moment.
So just this once, I like “Jingle Bells,” or at least a version of “Jingle Bells” that goes well past the speed limit. But if it could only have been, you know, actually about Christmas.