There are standards out there that are about straight up MURDER, like “Mack the Knife” (multiple killings by knife in cold blood), “Miss Otis Regrets” (murder with a side of lynching!), and who can forget the Sammy Davis classic, “I Masturbated After Strangling You to Death in Your Sleep?”
But while I generally have to seek out those songs to listen to them, it is hard to escape the Christmas season without hearing “Baby It’s Cold Outside” at some point, thus sparking the annual debate in my mind: which is the more rape-y Frank Loesser standard, “Baby It’s Cold Outside” or “On a Slow Boat to China”?
Since many people today don’t even know “On a Slow Boat to China,” the obvious choice would be “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” right? The song is written as parts not for woman and man but “wolf” and “mouse,” and at one point the mouse literally says “the answer is no,” along with questioning whether a drink has been drugged (or, optimistically, if it just has way more booze than it should, if that particular drink is even meant to be alcoholic at all). It’s more widely known today than “On a Slow Boat to China” as it continues to be played on radio stations every Christmas, and it even won an Academy Award for Best Song.
Of course, there are plenty of things in other Christmas songs, and other songs in general, that take me out of the moment of the song. As a New Yorker, it’s hard to hear the lyric “down to the village” in “Frosty the Snowman” without the image of Frosty smoking a joint on Bleecker Street and then catching a flick at the IFC Center coming to mind. Whenever they sing “caroling out in the snow” in “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” I swear they are saying “Caroline out in the snow” and always yell at my iTunes “THEN WHY DON’T YOU GO GET HER?” until I realize, for the millionth time, that they obviously said “caroling.” And although Barbra Streisand has a beautiful voice, it’s hard not to get a chuckle out of one of the most famous Jewish people in America singing about remembering Christmas as a young child or opening presents by the fire on Christmas Eve. In the future I would like to hear a song about eating Chinese food and going to the movies on this particular holiday, written and performed by a gentile.
There are Christmas songs that aren’t even Christmas songs but have been re-appropriated as such, like “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music, because they fit into the ever-present spirit of commercialism. Why don’t Harry Connick Jr. and Michael Bublé do hokey jazzy covers of “The Lonely Goatherd” on their holiday albums instead?
But no matter how distracting these elements might be, “Frosty the Snowman” or Barbra Streisand or The Sound of Music are never distracting me with, well, rape. Not that I’ve noticed, anyway.
While “Baby It’s Cold Outside” is almost exclusively a duet, “On a Slow Boat to China” is not. When done solo, it is romantic at best, and John Hinckley-esque at worst. Its lyrics are less overt:
I’d love to get you
On a slow boat to China
All to myself alone
Get you and keep you
In my arms ever more
And so interpretation relies heavily on delivery. The slower, the better. If you assume that the singer is alone when singing it, then he or she becomes a stalker plotting to be “melting your heart of stone” and thus knows full well that the person in question has no interest in them, at least not yet.
If you imagine that the singer is singing to another party present, then they’re uncomfortably forward about their intentions. The wolf in “Baby It’s Cold Outside” is persistent, sure, but at least uses the weather as an excuse, and one can assume that the mouse is free to leave when the weather clears up. The subject of “On a Slow Boat to China,” on the other hand, is not only taken against will, but will remain there for an extended period of time, essentially turning the song into, “I’d like to rape you repeatedly and hope that you eventually develop Stockholm Syndrome, and I have no problem telling you this point blank, in fact, I expect it to turn you on, so whaddya say?” (as this is my personal dating strategy, “On a Slow Boat to China” is unsurprisingly one of my favorite songs).
The Jimmy Buffett and Dean Martin arrangements are great examples, especially since Dean Martin usually appears to be drunk while singing, and so it’s that much easier to picture some inebriated fool hitting on some poor schmuck in this fashion. The Jimmy Buffett version is deliberately made to sound like it takes place in a sleazy bar; the song features the host slurring his words while introducing Buffett (and mispronouncing his name), followed by the pop of a cork, glass clinking noises, and various people calling for their waiters. You can just picture Bill Murray singing it to Sigourney Weaver or Andie McDowell or Karen Allen in some cut scene from Ghostbusters or Groundhog Day or Scrooged or, I guess, most other Bill Murray movies, too. This version is just that delightfully cringe-worthy.
The duets of the song are mostly harmless; they usually feature the singers singing the chorus together numerous times and gazing seductively at each other, so the feeling is seen as mutual.
But then there’s the Rosemary Clooney and Bing Crosby duet. Bette Midler and Barry Manilow follow a revised rendition of this arrangement, but it is as hokey as you would expect a Bette Midler/Barry Manilow duet to be, and thus has an entirely different tone from the original. My favorite exchange from the Clooney/Crosby follows as such:
Bing: Get you and I’ll keep you in my arms ever more…Leave all your lovers on the shore…
Rosemary: For me they’d swim to China, to China and back…
Bing: Tell ‘em to bring me an anvil.
Tell them to bring me an anvil. The best line.
There are two ways of looking at this statement, one being that Bing intends to drown Rosemary’s other suitors, adding this song to the list of other murder-y standards, though slightly more understated in its approach. However, as I mentioned earlier, the delivery is key here, compared with the more obvious lyrics in “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” which are creepy no matter who is singing them (though the ridiculous Tom Jones/Cerys Matthews version is among the creepiest and most hilarious; he is the devil who has pointy white fingernails and she is literally in a cage at the beginning of the performance — he’s in the cage by the end). Bing Crosby says “Tell them to bring me an anvil” almost as an aside rather than directly to Rosemary Clooney, as if speaking to a third party. In this context, while the wolf in “Baby It’s Cold Outside” might be drugging the mouse, the aggressor in this arrangement of “On a Slow Boat to China,” if not a murderer, knocks out the object of his affection with an anvil, rendering her unconscious so he can get her on the boat in the first place, unlike the mouse in “Baby It’s Cold Outside” who, even if drugged or blackout drunk, is already at the wolf’s house by will.
And with each listen of “Baby It’s Cold Outside” this time of year, I shake my head and wonder exactly what happened in these fictional rape-y universes penned before my parents were born. I wasn’t there. I’ll never know for sure and neither will anyone else, except for Frank Loesser, who died over 45 years ago.