the jackpot question in advance

Note: this post was originally written a few years ago, and has been revised to include a mention of the lovely new version of “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve” by Kacey Musgraves, which everyone should listen to immediately, and which is part of her completely charming A Very Kacey Christmas live show that came to New York City last night.

Few topics infuriate me more than the annual discussion about whether Frank Loesser’s “Baby It’s Cold Outside” is an ode to date rape, a position that’s taken hold in recent years and is seasonally perpetuated despite the evidence on nearly every version of the song that the woman is having a perfectly swell time smoking and drinking and flirting and that she really must go not because the evening is taking a sinister turn, but because she’s concerned about how her lateness in getting home will cause chatter and suspicion among her family and neighbors. So enough of that nonsense, and enough with calling it a “Christmas song.” It’s just cold outside. It could be Valentine’s Day, or Halloween. Sometimes it’s cold on non-holidays. Loesser doesn’t mention presents under a tree, or insinuate that the woman is afraid if she misbehaves Santa will withhold gifts this year. I’m annoyed that the song has become such a Christmas Album cliche, and that some morons think “What’s in this drink?” means anything except that the guy has been a little liberal with the alcohol in the refill.

Loesser wrote an actual holiday standard that’s wistful and hopeful, “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?,” a song I first heard on an album of duets by Bobby Rydell and Chubby Checker, which sounds very strange, I realize, but it wasn’t like Bobby and Chubby were asking each other out on a December 31 date. As I recall (I might have the LP somewhere, but it’s dreadful, and I have no urge to revisit it), the two singers are complaining that while other people are out celebrating, they have New Year’s Eve gigs. Whatever…I wasn’t impressed as a kid by the tune or its interpretation, but I soon found other versions that brought out all the tentative romanticism in this ballad: the best take on the song is by the great doo-wop group The Orioles, Sonny Til on lead vocals, that starts with a touch of “Auld Lang Syne” to set the mood.

There’s another nice one from a bit later on by Dante & The Evergreens, and although Dick Haymes’ singing is a little too impersonally creamy for my taste, on his “NYE” he’s backed by Les Paul on guitar, and the recording has a sweet post-WWII sentimentality. From the female side, go to Nancy Wilson or Lee Ann Womack. Or Ella, or Karen Carpenter. Considering that the song was written in the 1940s, when girls didn’t invite guys on dates, it’s cool how many women singers have put themselves out there. With Karen, there’s the suggestion that she’s just singing this to herself, wondering about the boy she likes, imagining asking him out.

The song starts, “Maybe it’s much too early in the game,” so it’s possible we’re around Thanksgiving, and the guy (or girl) is making what he hopes is a pre-emptive move, but it’s so doubt-ridden: he wants to be the one to be holding her tight when the clock strikes twelve, getting that first kiss of the New Year, but he knows he has competition, and he wonders what his chances are. He assumes she’s already been wooed with invitations, and in the bridge, he confesses that he might be crazy to suppose he’ll be that lucky. It’s all so aw-shucks (if you want to get all “Baby It’s Cold Outside”ish about it, let’s call him desperate and stalkery. Why not? It seems like any interpretation of anything can get an airing these days), and you’re rooting for him because he’s fumfering with all these equivocations like Hugh Grant in a rom-com gearing up to ask the “jackpot question in advance” (aren’t all dates made in advance? what is this, the end of summer or something?). What if he’s rejected? That would make it the Saddest New Year’s Eve Song Ever. But he doesn’t get the answer in the song; it’s left hanging. We don’t know if she’s flattered, thrilled or disinterested. What is she doing New Year’s Eve?

There are a couple of wonderful modern versions. Zooey Deschanel (she who has been such a part of the 21st Century “Baby It’s Cold Outside” resurgence with her Elfish turn) and Joseph Gordon-Levitt have had a legitimate YouTube hit (over 10 million plays) with their acoustic duet.

In 2005, Rufus Wainwright sang it with its rarely-heard verse, and so has Kacey Musgraves on her 2016 holiday set:

“When the bells all ring and the horns all blow
And the couples we know are fondly kissing
Will I be with you, or will I be among the missing?”

It’s not only about that night, about whom — if anyone — we’ll be with when the calendar changes. It’s about the future uncertain, whether we stand a little chance if we step up, muster up the courage, and ask.

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