Friday, December 28, 2018

All Hail Queen Part II

My top favorite Queen songs, #5 to 1. 

5.  Innuendo

Innuendo is another example of the musical glory that is Queen. It’s a song I can listen to over and over (and have). It's a dark song with grand themes at a personal level. The song, the title track from the band's 1991 album, was written by Taylor and Mercury, inspired by Led Zepplin's Kashmir which shows through in the majority of the song. The rhythm is relentless, the song starting with a drum roll that leads into a suspenseful sting making you wonder where it's headed. The opening lyrics speak of the sun, desert sand, crashing waves, and mountains crumbling into the plain. Through it all, "We'll keep on trying/tread the fine line." Later the song speaks of "Our lives dictated by tradition, superstition, false religion/through the eons, and on and on." 

The middle part is pure Mercury, shifting gears and tempo to a more positive song. There's a flamenco guitar solo repeated later using electric guitars, the solos book ending a bridge filled with elaborate orchestration. In it, Mercury insists that, "You can be anything you want to be, just turn yourself into anything you think you could ever be." All it takes is for you to "Surrender your ego."

History sometimes leads us to read meaning into lyrics that perhaps weren't there when the song was written. The album was recorded from March 1989 to November 1990. Toward the end of that run, Mercury was most definitely dealing with his mortality. A man who had so often been able to be anything he wanted to be, was slowly losing that magic. The lyrics are almost taunting in that regard. This could be why the bridge ends with the urging, "Surrender your ego. Be free, be free, to yourself." Accept what can't be changed.

Then the song dives right back into the relentless bolero, slapping us back to reality as Mercury demands,

"If there’s a god or any kind of justice under the sky/If there’s a point, if there’s a reason to live or die/ If there’s an answer to the questions we feel bound to ask/Show yourself, destroy our fears, release your mask." The very thing a dying man might demand. Whether or not this played a part in the creation of the song, as with The Show Must Go On, it lends to the lyrics and Mercury's performance a whole other dimension. Hope then acceptance. There are things we cannot change, but we also can't help but try. Just as the sun hangs in the sky, this is in our nature.

4. Spread Your Wings

The first Queen album I bought was "News of the World" which features two of their most iconic songs We  Will Rock You and We Are the Champions. Both brilliant anthems. But it also features one of the most beautiful songs I've ever heard in Spread Your Wings. Written by bassist John Deacon, it's a story song about a young man named Sammy being encouraged to leave his job mopping up the Emerald Bar to pursue his dreams. Fear, complacency, whatever makes it difficult for him to spread his wings and fly away. It starts out gently with Mercury's piano, as we're pulled into the song and Sammy's dilemma. Eventually it builds to a rocking crescendo as the narrator pleads with the young to take the risk while his boss insists he should be happy sweeping up the Emerald Bar. It was a song I listened to over and over (along with All Dead, All Dead and My Melancholy Blues). Maybe it resonated with me because even at 13 years old I related to Sammy's plight. I knew I should spread my wings but was too afraid to try.

3. Bohemian Rhapsody

Considered by many to be Queen’s magnum opus, even today it remains an audacious song: A song longer than three minutes at the time was not a favorite among radio execs. Were it not for their success, it’s unlikely that the Beatles could have persuaded radio to play Hey Jude at 7:11 in length (some stations did actually edit it for length). On top of its length of 5:55, Bohemian Rhapsody boasted a mix of ballad, and straight up hard rock along with…an operatic section of all things. And the song is about some guy named Scaramouch who everyone wants to do the Fandango, not to mention the whole cry out for Galileo. What’s that all about?

And yet they pulled it off. In a big way. Recorded in 1975, the production challenged studio equipment of the day and took three weeks to record. The lyrics can be taken either metaphorically (alluding to situations going on in Mercury’s life) or literally, a story song in three parts, as a libertine anti-hero regrets the choices he made and begs for his life and his soul.

Perhaps the true genius of Bohemian Rhapsody is that despite its musical intricacy, despite its obscure references and unclear narrative, everyone feels comfortable enough with the song to have a go at it. Perhaps the most famous example of this is the scene in the 1992 movie "Wayne’s World" where Wayne, Garth and their two friends are driving around in a car and the song comes on. According to Mike Myers who played Wayne, this was based on experiences with his brothers and friends. When the song came on, everyone had a “Galileo” to sing and there was trouble if someone stepped on another’s “Galileo.” Apparently producer Lorne Michaels originally wanted a Guns N' Roses song, but Meyers, for whom the song was a masterpiece, stuck to his guns and the song stayed. To much better effect. The joy of that scene in the movie is that everyone has done the same thing. We all had a whack at it while driving around alone or with friends. In fact the movie helped the song become popular again nearly twenty years after its release.

Released in October, 1975 it was a daring work on many fronts that paid off. Decades later the song is still being praised for its legacy. It was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2004 and was appears in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll. It even made history recently when it hit Billboard's Hot 100 a third time after the release of the 2018 movie of the same name (the first time of course was when it was released and the second was after the release "Wayne's World" which helped it reach #2 on the chart). Reaching #9, it seems the movie Bohemian Rhapsody has given the song another opportunity to be heard by a new generation.

2. Killer Queen

I was ten years old when Killer Queen sauntered onto American radio, encouraged on by a few crisp finger snaps and driven forward by the bass. This song was my introduction to Queen. I had no idea what a “Moet et Chandon” was or a “Geisha Minah” or for that matter a good portion of the lyrics Freddie Mercury was singing. I didn’t care. The song was so crisp and clean and perfectly produced that I had to hang on for the ride and was grateful I did. Starting out with a piano, other instruments entered the song like special guests at a cocktail party which is kind of how this whole song felt: Like you were listening to a conversation at a high class cocktail party about one of those women who are too cool to settle down. Holly Golightly still going strong in the '70s. It was sophisticated and scandalous but by the middle of the song was able to get a bit raunchy too. Okay, at ten years old I had no clue who Holly Golightly was and perhaps the subtext wasn’t that clear, but I knew there was something going on in that song (Mercury would later say that the song was about "a high class call girl" but also that "...classy people can be whores as well"). And it had a guitar lick that hooked you and would not let go. Musically you wanted to hear what they’d throw in next.

The single was released in October, 1974 it was featured on their album “Sheer Heart Attack” and became their first international hit.

While in some respects it's a lower-key song than others that would follow, it established Queen as a musical force to be reckoned with thanks in part to the quality of the craftsmanship. It was a perfect example of the elegance that the group brought to rock music and helped pave the way for a song like Bohemian Rhapsody to be accepted by the audience. Over forty years later, it still sounds fresh, sophisticated and slightly scandalous.

1. The Show Must Go On

While some would put Bohemian Rhapsody or even Killer Queen in the top spot, for me The Show Must Go On tops them both. Not only for the music and production values but for the poignancy of the song. A man, a showman, very near death, insisting none the less that the show must go on. What must it have been like for Mercury, the reality of his own mortality looming over him, to sing those words (or for  that matter the band to watch him sing them)? And yet he does so, giving every piece of himself to the performance. There’s an audacity there that only Freddie Mercury could pull off. The song, released as a single on Oct. 14, 1991, is very much about the state of Freddie Mercury's health at the time of recording. Written primarily by May with some input from Mercury, the lyrics are those of a man refusing to give up the ghost but realizing it’s a losing battle. Mercury did not want pity, which was one reason he kept his diagnosis of HIV/AIDS a secret and tried his best to carry on with the show, wearing more and more makeup to cover the ravages of the illness he would succumb to only a month after the song’s release. The lyric, “Inside my heart is breaking/my makeup may be flaking/but my smile still stays on” becomes even more striking for that fact.

Brian May was uncertain whether or not Mercury had the strength to sing what is a vocally strenuous song to perform even for Mercury in perfect health. According to May in a later interview, however, “He said, ‘I’ll fucking do it darling’—vodka down—and went in and killed, completely lacerated that vocal.” The consummate showman, Mercury knew the importance of that song to his legacy and was not about to miss out on that last bravura performance.

I can’t imagine how difficult it was for May to broach that topic of failing voice with Mercury as well as for the whole band to hear the final playback of that song, his voice so strong and determined, knowing the struggle Mercury was facing would soon be over. In many ways the song must have been cathartic as they said in music what they couldn’t say with words.

The video released for The Show Must Go On features only a few glimpses of Mercury in his declining year, concentrating instead on clips from his career up to that point. The editing is brilliant, the clips a perfect accompaniment to the song. In many respects this makes it even more heartbreaking to see the scenes of past glory accompanied by that song. I seem to remember seeing this video after hearing news of Mercury’s death on Nov. 24, 1991, and it brought me to tears to watch. Still chokes me up a bit.

When well done, music can cause a gut reaction. The beauty of Queen is that all their songs have that epic quality to them. Listening to the Show Must Go On brings on a euphoria over the entire band’s performance, and a sadness that, despite the insistence that the show must go on, it simply can’t.

Honorable Mention: All Dead, All Dead

This is an honorable mention. A song I was recently reminded of when I came across the video Queen put up for it on YouTube several months ago.

This is the another song on News of the World that I couldn't get enough of. It's a hauntingly beautiful song about a childhood friend that had passed away. I only recently discovered that Brian May wrote the song about the death of his childhood cat. As a cat lover myself who had her own childhood friend (a sweet orange tabby named Starsky), this made the song even more poignant for me. The lyrics are sheer poetry and May's voice, combined with Mercury's delicate piano playing reveals the sense of loss and grief that even the loss of a pet can produce. There is a version of the song with Freddie Mercury singing, but I think May's voice is better suited to the gentle tone of the song. Someone described it as a warmer sound.

So there you have my top ten Queen songs. Feel free to let me know what yours are. 

Dedicated to Starsky, my childhood friend.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

All Hail Queen!

The movie "Bohemian Rhapsody" has been out for some time and sparking an interest in the music of Queen decades after the death of its lead singer, Freddie Mercury. Rightfully so. It’s some of the best music by far of any decade and deserves to be celebrated. I’ve enjoyed their music since I was a kid and my admiration for them has only grown as I have.

So I thought, considering the success of the movie, I’d offer 10 of my favorite Queen songs that I wouldn’t mind being lost with on a desert island. The list might change over time (I’m terrible about lists. I never want to pin myself down), the songs may not be on the list of others, but the beauty of Queen is that all of their songs have some element that makes them notable. I’ll post a Part I and Part II with five songs each.

Let me know what some of your favorite Queen songs are.

In this post, we'll go from number 10 to 6 starting with:

10.  Seven Seas of Rhye

This was the first hit single for Queen hitting #10 on the UK charts when it was released in 1974. It's a rollicking song about a mythical place made up by Mercury and his sister, Kashmira when they were children. It closed out their first album "Queen" as a musical sketch but was elaborated on for their second album, "Queen II." Most noticeably, this is the song they performed when they were booked as a last minute replacement on the TV show Top of the Pops and helped give credence to their being named in January, 1974 as "third most promising act" by Sounds, a weekly music publication. Driven heavily by Mercury's piano and May's guitar, the lyrics are something out of Jabberwocky (or perhaps Game of Thrones). A fitting glimpse of things to come from this band and just really fun to listen to.

9.  Play the Game

I have a particular fondness for this song possibly because I used it in a montage on a video that friends and I filmed far too many years ago. From the opening airplane landing whistle you're drawn into the wisdom of love via Freddie Mercury who counsels taking a relaxed stance  when it comes to matters of the heart. "It's so easy...all you have to is play the game."

The message is casual. Love can be a minefield or it can be a game and it's so much easier when one views it as the latter. "This is your life/don't play hard to get/it's a free world/all you have to is fall in love." You're not a prisoner of love, you're a participant in the game. Remembering that might just help you win the game.

Interestingly as casual as the lyrics and Freddie's vocal styling is, the music is a bit more aggressive, illustrating the tension that love can produce whether considered a war or a game. Occasionally May's guitar blasts in to remind us no matter how you look at it, it's never quite as easy as Mercury tries to make it sound.

8.  Radio Ga Ga

This title may have made people tilt their heads a bit when the song came out, but the song itself is infectious. Check out the Live Aid performance and you'll see how infectious it can be. Written by Roger Taylor after he heard his young son describe a bad song as "radio ca ca", Taylor had originally intended it for a solo album, but the band sensed a hit and worked the Queen magic on it. It's a love song to the idea of radio written at a time when videos were force feeding people images of songs that at one time they could only imagine. (Ironically it has one of the most visually interesting videos using scenes from the 1927 film Metropolis that fit the song perfectly). It was a especially popular at live shows since the audience could take part by clapping their hands in unison to the beat of the chorus and became a highlight of their history making performance at Wembley Stadium during Live Aid. By the time they recorded the album "The Game," Queen had embraced the use of synthesizers and used them quite effectively. "Radio Ga Ga," appearing on the album "The Works," is ripe with them to fine affect. When Mercury sings in the chorus, "Radio, someone still loves you!" he sings it almost like a call to battle to save an old friend.

7.  Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy

This is another of those sophisticated songs, the male answer to "Killer Queen" only rather than a high class call girl, we have a charming gigolo at the ready to please you. Sung in the first person, the narrator is a graduate of the "good old fashioned school of lover boy" where he no doubt excelled not only in the art of seduction, but the art of simple companionship as well. He can do whatever your heart desires, more than likely for a price, which is never discussed in the song. That would be uncouth and ruin the romance. Instead it's "Say the word your wish is my command."

Sounding like it would be right at home in a musical, the song with it's touch of ragtime, highlights the musical playfulness the band was willing to take part in so often. The performances, especially the drums and bass, are as clever as the lyrics. With those glorious harmonies that Queen perfected, it's a song I can hear and never tire of, and one that shows the phenomenal creative range the band was capable of.

6.  Don’t Stop Me Now

This song is the musical definition of euphoria (whether sexual or otherwise)! It's pretty obvious what is making Mercury so excited as he races his way passionately through the song. After all, he describes himself as "a sex machine ready to reload, like an atom bomb about to explode." He's also unconcerned with who helps him in this endeavor since he wants to "make a supersonic man" and later a "supersonic woman" out of someone.

But even on a nonsexual level, this is a hell of an anthem. Voted in a Rolling Stone reader's poll as Queen's third top song, it achieves what it sets out to do: Rev you up. Unconcerned with subtlety, it's pure abandon, whatever abandon that may be. Freddie is enjoying life and he's inviting everyone along for the ride. The more the merrier. If you need a booster shot after a long day at work, this is the shot for you.

Next post I'll feature my top 5 Queen songs. 

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Deck the Halls with Boughs of Pity

While rumbling around the Internet, I clicked onto a piece which first appeared Dec. 20, 2016 on Redbook’s site. In it, the author reveals a philosophy that is mind-boggling in its self-absorption.

In the piece, titled “Please Stop Posting Your Christmas Dinner Photos,” Perri O. Blumberg, a former editor at Reader’s Digest and a full time writer, opines that the photos posted on social media of people enjoying the holidays with their families are making her…well sad. No, seriously.

She writes, "For people with families like mine {it was just her and her dad}, the excessive stream of family dinner photos that inundates my feeds during the holiday season just feels exhausting and insensitive.”

Yes, the act of someone posting a photo of an event in which they felt great joy seems "exhausting and insensitive" to this young woman who apparently is unfamiliar with the notion of taking joy in other people's joy.

How does that work exactly?

Is the wife of Chris Hemsworth insensitive for posting photos of her life with him because there are women around the world who would love to be in her shoes? Any grandparent putting up posts about their grandchildren are being terribly hurtful to those people who would love to have grandchildren but don't. Have you taken a trip to Europe? Well the photos you've been posting of your travels are only upsetting those who haven't had a chance to get there.  

To a degree I understand where Blumberg as an only child is coming from. Society stresses spending time with family during the holidays and if your family is small or if you're now on your own, you might yearn for the familial warmth that ads would have us believe go hand in hand with holidays. But don't let ads deceive you.

For example, Blumberg might consider me fortunate since I came from your typical nuclear family. Two parents and four kids. Unfortunately, this typical nuclear family was a mess and the holidays only heightened the adventure. With two alcoholics in a miserable marriage steering the borderline car crash that was the Enright family, the kids woke up, or came home from school, or came home from the houses of friends at night never knowing what to expect. Would mom be drunk and looking for a fight? Would dad be drunk and sleeping it off in bed? Would both of them be drunk and planning to use you as a tool in their matrimonial war? Was this the year Mom kicked Dad out of the house? Was this the year Dad kicked Mom out of the house? Do you know how soul shattering the sound of a pull tab being opened on a can of beer can be at 10 a.m. because you know what the rest of the day will be like from then on?

For some reason Dad's drinking didn't bother me as much as Mom's, possibly because I wasn't around him as much. He was usually off in a bar somewhere or at work. My mom, normally sweet and loving, could be mean and self-pitying about her troubled marriage when she was liquored up. It was heartbreaking to see that transformation in someone you loved so much. Still, the alcoholism of both parents played a part in the darkness of the family in general and cast a pall over the magic of the holidays in particular.

One of my sharpest memories was the night my dad, drunk in bed, told me to remind him of something in the morning. I have no clue what it was decades later, but it was apparently important to him then and he didn't want me to reveal it to Mom. Of course when I walked into the living room, Mom insisted I tell her what he told me. When I didn't, she pounded around the kitchen, going on about how much of a traitor I was, before going to bed, where she eventually threw up. I helped her into my bed (the marriage had deteriorated to the point where my parents no longer slept in the same room) and I took her sheets downstairs to wash. That night, I slept on the sofa, staring at the twinkling lights of the Christmas tree not feeling overly joyful that year.

I reveal that not to take part in a pity pissing contest but to illustrate my next point. I should hate the holidays for instances like that. I don't. December is my favorite time of year possibly because I know how wonderful it can be if treated right. It wasn't the holidays or the joy of others brutalizing me emotionally, it was my family. Eventually I learned that, difficult as it might be to obtain, I could have some control over holiday circumstances. If the parents started acting up, I could leave.

But even in the thick of it, held hostage by my underage status, I don't remember being upset when seeing photos or hearing stories of pleasant family holidays. Sure, when I was younger there was some resentment that I couldn't experience those types of holidays. Then I grew up. Then I realized that in in some situations, not all, but some, life is what you make it. The holidays are no exception.

What I find especially troubling about Blumberg’s piece is its childish need to convince others to temper their holiday joy because of the author’s FOMO. (That’s textese for “fear of missing out”). Apparently that’s a thing.

Those Facebook photos posted of Mary and her mom baking at the holidays might be snapshots of the only time Mary gets to spend with her mom throughout the year and she wants to share her joy. The spate of posts put up by Sam who loves his family so much that he just can't stop talking about how great it was to be with them--why should that negatively affect me? Presumably, since we are friends on FB, one would think I should take a level of happiness in the fact that one of my friends is so happy. Sarah tweeting about the ski trip she and her dad does that plus or minus my life? (unless it's the plus of a smile put on my face at seeing them because I know how strained the relationship was between the two when she was young and I’m glad they worked it out).

Being the woman I am now, I would love the opportunity to square things with my father. I would love to suggest a baking night with my mom and throw the pictures all over social media. I would love to just hang out with my older brother who always intimidated me when I was younger but who I'm sure I could have a lot of fun with being the person I am now, and both of us out of the misery of childhood.

I can't. They're dead. And I never had the chance to alter the course that my family was on up to that point. That's the way it is. Of course I regret not having happier memories of holidays as a child. But how can I, in good conscience, begrudge someone else taking joy in the success I never got to have? 

Blumberg, however, has a different view of things:

"And though I'm sure nobody means to be malicious, it can feel hurtful. Think about it: If one of your close friends just called things off with her fiancé, would she be the one you gloat to over happy hour drinks over ring shopping with your partner? Probably not. That's what perusing social media feeds feels like over the holidays for someone with little or no family."

First of all, that's not what it feels like for everyone who has little or no family. As someone who has frequently been alone on the holidays, I can somehow go on Facebook and not feel tormented at the sight of the celebratory photos people post. In fact this whole idea that Blumberg is presenting, that somehow happy holiday social media posts are partly to blame for someone’s seasonal depression, would never have crossed my mind.

But returning to her fiancé analogy, I guess the first question I would have is: What is the statute of limitations on that sort of situation? If your friend called it quits with her fiancé, how long do you have to wait before you share the news that you've just gotten engaged? Three months? One year? A decade? Or will you have to pussy-foot around the issue for the duration of what doesn't seem like a very solid friendship to avoid upsetting a person who should have been able to deal with it and move on at that point?

The fiancé analogy says more about someone like Blumberg than it does about people sharing such news.

For Blumberg, people sharing holiday experiences on social media are not doing it because they feel so happy that they can't help but share. In Blumberg’s mind, they’re gloating. They’re rubbing it into the faces of those who aren’t experiencing such happiness.

Blumberg goes on to write, "I'm not asking for a pity party here."

Yet the whole piece is a heaping helping of "pity-me" trying to create an issue where really there shouldn't be one. And it’s equally unfortunate that Redbook decided to give this sort of attitude a national forum.

I can understand her occasionally feeling the misties over not having the sort of holidays she apparently thinks she should have had, though I do ask, outside of hiding out at "semi-private yoga classes on official holidays" as she states she does, what has she done to make her holidays more magical than they are? Since time with my family often felt like being held in captivity, once he was an adult, my older brother spent the holidays flittering around visiting family and friends. One year he dressed up as Santa for the children of a friend and just continued on to other houses dressed like that. He'd stop in, give some gifts, swap some stories, then move on to the next visit. Plenty of experiences could be had and photos perfect for holiday posts could be taken during such a time.

To escape the misery of Thanksgiving weekend, for many years I spent time with friends at a big sci fi convention. I still have great memories of those times.

How about hosting a holiday party and inviting family and friends over? Family doesn't need to be blood. Sometimes we work with people so many hours a day for so long that they might as well be family. Happy memories can be made from this.

Blumberg could pull herself out of the semi-private yoga class and volunteer at a shelter, or volunteer at a food bank, or handle the phones at a suicide prevention center where she can help others understand that you don’t have to crawl into the fetal position at the holidays because you’re alone. I have a Facebook friend who posts updates about his trip to the local homeless shelter where he and his wife volunteer to spend the holidays. Does it take a lot of effort not only physically but intellectually and emotionally to bring himself to do this? Hell yeah. But he knows that there are people who aren’t lucky enough to be spending the holidays with family or even having a self-involved pity-party at a “semi-private yoga class.” Spending a day with them can give both the homeless and my friend a boost they don’t feel the rest of the year. And some of the people he’s met there have become like family.

If charity isn’t her thing, then Blumberg could encourage her fellow family-holiday-deprived yoga classmates to leave the studio that night and actually do something more festive. Or do something festive at the studio. The possibilities exist. Someone just has to stop scrolling through posts and make the effort.

Blumberg states that, "Between Thanksgiving and the day after Christmas, I urge myself to deactivate Facebook, I delete Instagram from my phone, and I don't even dream about checking Snapchat unless I want a video montage of reminders that I'm missing out...on everything."

Aside from my desire to suggest that she might want to get more practice spending less time on social media and more time in the real world, as someone who's been in this situation most of her life even when she was with her family, the best advice I can offer Blumberg or anyone who is in her frame of mind, is to be proactive about their misery. If they feel they’re missing out on "everything," that's on them, not the people posting on social media. Those celebrations, whether familial or friendly; whether big parties or little dinners; whether on the holiday or a few days before, whether for one day or for a week, didn't just happen. Someone had to arrange them. Invitations had to be made, schedules had to be considered, supplies obtained, decorations put up. Effort made.

Life is not a two-year-old’s birthday party and you the two-year-old. Anyone planning on pulling themselves off social media to avoid other people’s holiday memories, as Blumberg plans to do, could use the time they aren't constantly staring at their phone effectively and plan to do something to create their own memories.

“This Christmas,” writes Blumberg, “I beg you to think about your audience before you post that ninth family mannequin challenge. Imagine sitting alone on a yoga studio bench or a local watering hole scrolling through a stream of a big family happiness you’ve never known on your Christmas…eve, day, and the morning after.”

Blumberg bemoans the “added layer of FOMO-induced sadness” such holiday posts on social media can bring about. Well, Perri, if you fear missing out on things, then don’t sit alone. Get off the yoga bench and create your own holiday magic. If you spend the holiday crying and not really trying, then you really only have yourself to blame. And people shouldn’t have to send their seasonal joy into radio silence because you need a cruise director to lead you through life.

Does that sound harsh? Life can sometimes be harsh. Growing up an only child when you yearn for me, can be harsh. Having some childhood memories that are unfulfilling (or some that can be down right PTSD inducing) can be harsh. And there is a lot of harshness in life that we can do nothing about. But for what we can change, it's foolish to be crying over the sight of someone else's holiday memories when you could be out making your own.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Baby It’s Cold Outside: Date-Rape or Female Empowerment?

This is my favorite version of a song that has come under a great deal of fire the past few years.

The latest holiday trend seems to be trying to convince the world that the song “Baby It’s Cold Outside” shouldn’t be considered a holiday standard, but rather a song about date-rape. I’ve heard people say that some of the lyrics come off as “a little rapey.”

Cause that’s how you want to describe an act in which someone is forced to have sex against their will: “Rapey.”

Anyway, those who are trying so hard to vilify this song as a date-rape (or at least high pressured sex) song are missing another possibility of what's going on in the dynamic between the two voices within the song. From a different perspective the song is actually quite empowering for the woman.

First a little historical context is important; something many of its critics are ignoring. 

The song was written by Frank Loesser in 1944 specifically so that he and his wife could perform it at parties. Back in the day, it wasn’t unusual for parties to feature songs and dances performed by guests of the hosts or the hosts themselves. Originally it was Frank singing it to his wife, Lynn Garland who, presumably, didn’t consider it date-rapey in any way and gleefully took part in it (though to be fair, she was performing it with her husband). The couple would often perform the call and response song as a last number when it was time to close down the party.

The song's history is easily obtainable through a simple Google search, and many of the detractors pride themselves on being "tech-savvy" so it's interesting that they never seemed to try to do a Google search to help put into historical context the song they're vilifying. But then that would mean they would have to be open to interpretation of the lyrics beyond their own. 

Back to that history: Five years later Loesser sold the song to MGM and it was used in the film “Neptune’s Daughter” where it was actually sung by four people in a scene. First it was sung by Ricardo Montalban to Esther Williams who, throughout the scene seems quite capable of taking care of herself. In fact while her response to his entreaties shows uncertainty, there are moments where she quite clearly telegraphs that the offer to stay is an attractive one for her.

Interestingly, the other half of the scene takes place in a different hotel room and involves Betty Garrett taking on the Montalban role even more aggressively as she sings the pursuer’s lyrics to Red Skelton, who seems even more uncertain than Williams that it’s a good idea to stay.

If this film (or for that matter the song) was celebrating a woman being pressured into sex it was going about it the wrong way.

The fact is that this is a light song about the dance of flirtation that couples engage in when debating how far they want to take their relationship. The couple could be a man and a woman, two men,

two women, heck you could probably adapt it for any number of situations. 

It’s about the people involved, not their gender. There is a difference between pursuit and predation and that’s important to remember.

But sticking with the theme of a romance between a guy and gal, does he want her to stay? Yes. Because that’s what guys wanted back then (and what most would want now).

Does she want to stay? Yes. Because women also weren’t immune to such desires, then or now.

She’s not screaming to leave. She’s debating whether or not to stay, agreeing to “well maybe just a half a drink more” or “maybe just a cigarette more”; looking for excuses to buy time so that she can mull the situation over. That’s not what someone does who doesn’t want to be there.

“Yes,” the date-rape conspiracy theorists reply, “but she asks, ‘Say, what’s in this drink?’ because obviously he slipped her some sort of date-rape drug in an effort to force her to stay.”

Or it could just be a woman asking after the recipe of the drink at a time when cocktails, even at home, were the fashion. Or it could be her questioning her own desire to stay by assuming or perhaps hoping that it’s the alcohol of the drink causing that desire.

Why the debate though? If she really wants to stay, why would she need to be talked into it?

Because she’s working with something that the guy doesn’t have to worry about: The expectations of society. It’s hard to imagine in 2018 but at the time, a guy going around “sowing his wild oats” gained him a hearty slap on the back and an “atta boy!” Boys will be boys after all.

The Village Bride by Jean-Baptiste Greuze
A woman, however, had to worry about being pure and chaste until the day her dad gave her away to her husband (that’s, by the way, what that oh-so-cherished tradition of the father walking the bride down the aisle actually means. He’s handing her off like chattel, swathed in white to assure her new owner that she isn’t tainted in anyway).

Consider the woman’s part of the song. Right off the bat, she’s not worried about the act, she’s worried about the consequences. “My mother will start to worry/father will be pacing the floor.” She feels a need to scurry and yet concedes to, “maybe just a half a drink more.” Still, the second stanza begins with her fear of what the neighbors might think which leads to her to feel that she “ought to say no, no no” but should they find out, “At least I’m gonna say that I tried.”

Now this is where I find the song a bit sad. Here we have a consenting adult woman who has to be so worried about what the neighbors might think if she gets home late, and if they start assuming why, that she feels she has to insist that she tried not to allow to happen an act she wants to engage in. And it’s not only the neighbors who will belittle her. Her own family will have something to say.

In the next stanza she’s concerned that her “sister will be suspicious” and her “brother will be there at the door” (apparently as the other male of the house, he had the right to be waiting at the door and expecting an explanation).

I certainly can’t imagine being in my mind 20s and having a late date become a scandal. Neither of my siblings would care whether I came in late and in fact my older brother probably wouldn’t be at the door because he himself was off partying, taking my younger brother, several years his junior, with him and allowing him to drink to the point of puking. And this was allowed by my parents to continue. Boys will be boys, after all. Meanwhile, in my late teens, I'm given a resounding "no" when I ask to spend the night at my friend's sister's house. I can only imagine mom feared we’d have guys over and didn’t believe that pizza and videos were all we planned. But even in the late '70s, that double standard applied. And while it might apply today to some degree and depending on the area, I don’t think it’s anywhere near what it was decades ago.

Imagine what it was like in the 1940s when a woman, no matter what her age or level of self-sufficiency, could see her reputation ruined simply because she came home past a certain hour even if she was guilty of nothing more than misreading the time. Even her maiden aunt, whose mind was “vicious”, would get in on the shaming (the word “maiden” I’m guessing, used because the aunt never did her womanly duty and married so she couldn’t possibly have anything better to do than to invent all sorts of sordid details about the time her niece came home late from a date).

So there is indeed a debate going on in this woman’s head but her concern seems to be more for what society will say about her than of what the man she’s attracted to will ask of her. With all this going through her mind she still considers staying by accepting, “maybe just a cigarette more,” even though in the next stanza she worries that, “there’s bound to be talk tomorrow/at least there’ll be plenty implied.”

Despite the possibilities for gossip, by the end of the song, while her decision may be a risky one, she finally agrees, “Okay fine, just another drink then.” We can draw our own conclusions upon what happened after that.

Rather than being a song about sexual predation, it’s a song about empowerment. By the end of the song, yes perhaps nagged a little by the man, but after great debate of her own, the woman decides she’s an adult and will not be ruled by societal expectations. She’s staying; what will be, will be.

That’s actually pretty progressive for the 1940s. It’s pretty progressive for the 1950s and '60s. And yet seven decades after the song was written, people want to go backwards and portray the woman in the song as some innocent lamb being led to sexual slaughter. That interpretation might say more about the interpreters, than the song.

Now as more and more radio stations decide not to play any version of this song (which is happening now unfortunately) more and more of those on the other side of the “PC” argument will opine that “social justice warriors are taking things too far!” “Oh no, I refuse to say Happy Holidays!” “They’re RUINING CHRISTMAS!!”

To a degree, they’re right (about taking things too far, not the "Happy Holidays" controversy). As I mentioned earlier, context is helpful when interpreting anything. Even if you want to make a case that this song is “date-rapey”, a case just as sound can be made that there’s more going on with the woman’s part than she’s being given credit for.

But let’s not forget something very important: Date-rape did and does occur. At one time the culture did encourage the sort of predation that the man in the song is being unfairly accused of. Again, men could sow their wild oats all they wanted, whether through seduction or force. The term “wolfish behavior” came from somewhere and that’s exactly the sort of behavior that was winked at back then. And a woman who actually didn’t ask for another drink, who did try to brave the storm to get away from unwanted advances, if she failed, might still find herself slandered by a society too quick to assume that the woman “led him on” or “didn’t fight hard enough.” That’s also a historical reality and an attitude that we are supposed to be evolving away from. 

It’s not a bad idea to examine the traditional. Sometimes when we don’t question, we run the risk of making sacred that which perhaps should be done away with. But when examining the traditional, I think an open mind is important and I don’t think that’s been the case with “Baby It’s Cold Outside.” I think those finding it guilty of glorifying sexual predation are way off the mark and because of this a fun little holiday standard might have less of a shot at withstanding the test of time. 

That would be a shame. Because than we wouldn't have fun duets like the one between Sigourney Weaver and Buster Poindexter. and believe me, if she didn't want to stay, Ripley wouldn't take shit from anyone.