Who Sang It Best? "Baby It's Cold Outside"
Now-Scandalous Christmas Song: Is It Creepy or Are We Overreacting?
Mention this song and you're bound to have a disagreement on your hand. Express a strong opinion about it one way or another, and you're begging for an all-out argument. Is it possible that what how one interprets the song says as much about the listener as it does about the music itself?
There's not much middle ground when it comes to this controversial Christmas song. Some say it's about a man who doesn't understand "no" and uses Rohypnol to engage in non-consensual sex with his date. Others say that's nonsense, we're rewriting history using a cultural context that differs from the era in which the song was recorded. Either way, some radio stations have now taken this holiday song off the air.
Since "Baby, It's Cold Outside" was first released seven decades ago, artists have interpreted this song with varying degrees of sex appeal. Their musical style, quality, and even some of the lyrics also vary. Do you ever wonder, "Who sang it best?" Here's your chance to step up and compare their efforts.
"Baby, It's Cold Outside" is ...
"Who Sang It Best?": Here's How It Works
With many artists singing the same Christmas tunes, the sleigh has become overloaded. Let's rank them and cross some versions off the list.
In the "Who Sang It Best?" series, we start with the original rendition of popular songs that have been covered multiple times. Then we present a set of contenders, artists who have released cover versions in any genre. Some cover versions honor the original artist's style while others are reinterpretations.
Since the original song version is typically considered "the standard," we don't include it in our overall rankings. Instead, we display it first for comparison, with up to 14 contenders presented next in ranked order. Vote on your preferences:
Do you prefer the original song or a cover version?
Of all the cover versions, which you prefer?
The Classic Song
"Baby, It's Cold Outside" by Margaret Whiting & Johnny Mercer (1949)
Back in the 1940s, prominent Broadway music composer Frank Loesser wrote this song to perform with his wife, Lynn Garland, at celebrity parties as a signal that the event was ending. Artists were expected to entertain guests, and the couple was invited to all the A-list parties based on the promise of its performance as a closing act.
Loesser sold MGM the rights to use the song in the 1949 romantic comedy, Neptune's Daughter, thus angering the Mrs. The tune became wildly popular, however, and Loesser won the Academy Award for Best Original Song.
At least eight versions of "Baby, It's Cold Outside" were released by various artists in 1949 alone. The one by Margaret Whiting and Johnny Mercer stayed on the charts for nearly five months. Note that there's nothing in the song's lyrics that reference Christmas per se. Many people mistake the singers in this song for Doris Day and Bing Crosby, but those two never recorded "Baby, It's Cold Outside" together.
Mercer was a well-known singer-songwriter and co-founder of Capitol records, while Whiting was a popular singer for the record label. In this classic version, both the prominent big band sound and chirpiness of Whiting's voice make the whole creative effort seem more campy than seductive. Mercer even chuckles at one point (2:32/"How can you do this thing to me?").
The two artists merrily sing over one another, giving the impression that perhaps the man is pursuing her jauntily around the room. The rapidly increasing pace signals that the cat and mouse game between them is reaching a decision (or crisis?) point. But it's an ending we'll never know.
In years since, artists have delivered cover versions of this song that include role reversals, male duets, sexually amped up renditions, and politically correct editions. Choose your favorite below.
Which version would you rather listen to -- Margaret Whiting & Johnny Mercer's classic song or your favorite cover version?
Cover Versions in Ranked Order
1. "Baby, It's Cold Outside" by Al Hirt & Ann-Margaret (1964)
Far and away, my favorite version of "Baby, It's Cold Outside" is this 1964 rendition. It features the breathy, seductive voice of Ann-Margaret and the pleading reassurance of Al Hirt. Ann-Margaret is a singer, dancer, and actress who was initially regarded as the "female Elvis." Al Hirt, old enough to be her father, was a prominent bandleader and trumpet player. Together the two dance a vocal tango.
Hirt portrays the part of the male narrator in a way that is debonair rather than overbearing, and it is clear from Ann-Margaret's sultry vocalizations (e.g., sighs, mmms) that at least in this version, the narrator is no victim. The two execute their song in a clean call-and-response pattern instead of singing over one another. (Seduction should not be rushed.)
Mutually flirting, the pair play a cat and mouse game, but considering how Ann-Margaret purrs her way through her lyrics, you may find yourself wondering at some point who's the mouse here.
2. "Baby, It's Cold Outside" by Idina Menzel & Michael Bublé (2014)
If the lyrics of the "regular" version of "Baby, It's Cold Outside" cause you great angst, then Idina Menzel and Michael Bublé offer a family-friendly version with sanitized lyrics. Bublé's voice is gorgeously Sinatra-like while Menzel's is playful and feminine without being spill-out-of-the-top-of-your-bra sexy. What works especially well are their harmonies.
When listening to their "clean" version of the song, see if you notice some of the modified lyrics:
- "Maybe just a soda pop more" instead of "But maybe just a cigarette more"
- "Say, what's that -- a wink?" instead of "Say, what's in this drink?"
- "I ought to get home for dinner, so it's time for me to cast you aside" instead of "I ought to say 'no, no, no, sir' At least I'm gonna say that I tried"
- "I simply must go, so thanks for the show" instead of "I simply must go / The answer is 'No'" and
- "But maybe just another dance more" instead of "But maybe just a cigarette more"
Michael Bublé is a Grammy Award-winning Canadian singer known for his jazz throwback style that resembles some of the greatest crooners of yesteryear. Idina Menzel is a Tony Award-winning Broadway actress perhaps most widely known for the triumphant song "Let It Go" from the 2013 animated film Frozen, a song which earned her an Oscar as well as a Grammy.
3. "Baby, It's Cold Outside" by Lady Gaga (featuring Joseph Gordon-Leavitt) (2013)
What a shame! I'm not talking about the fact that this version was performed on a family special during prime time (Lady Gaga and the Muppets Holiday Spectacular on ABC in November 2013). Rather, I think it's a shame that this saucy, creative cover has never been released as a single. Neither, for that matter, has Lady Gaga's duet of the song with Tony Bennett. Their version appeared in a Barnes & Noble commercial in 2015.
Lady Gaga has a strong sense of who she is artistically and is one of the best selling musicians in history. She's been inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame (2015), has snagged multiple Grammys, a Golden Globe Award, and many other accolades. Thus, if anyone was going to effectively flip this song on its head, it would be Gaga.
You'll find a charming reversal of roles in this cover of the controversial Christmas classic, with the woman trying to convince her suitor to stay over. This version is particularly flirtatious and fun, with Lady Gaga expertly offering vocal intonations that beautifully differ from the original. Although Gordon-Leavitt wanders a little off key in parts, we should cut him a break because he's foremost an actor and filmmaker.
By not releasing this as a single with a strong male vocal partner, Lady Gaga deprives her fans of her talent.
4. "Baby, It's Cold Out There" by Darren Criss & Chris Colfer (2011)
This cover version features two men, and it's absolutely adorable with or without the accompanying video. Welcome to the LGBT-friendly twenty-first century.
On Glee, a musical comedy-drama television series, actor and singer Chris Colfer played an openly gay character, and Broadway standout Darren Criss played his romantic interest. Colfer, the one with the angelic voice who sings the traditionally female role, plays it coy while Criss demonstrates just the right amount of confident persuasiveness. Neither overplays his role vocally, thereby resulting in a classy rather than seductive delivery of this Christmas favorite—beautiful.
And since many people ask whether they are both gay in real life, Criss is not while Colfer is. Not that it matters.
5. "Baby, It's Cold Outside" by Haley Reinhart & Casey Abrams (2011)
Two former American Idol contestants team up in this bluesy, jazz-filled edition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside." Haley Reinhart and Casey Abrams render their cover version as it's meant to be—a conversation bouncing about between two people, neither abruptly cutting the other off. Abrams plays his narrator role in an understated manner, and their chemistry doesn't sizzle so much as it simmers. In real life, the two are good friends, and in this cover that shines through.
6. "Baby, It's Cold Outside" by Dean Martin (1959)
Between the buoyant background chorus and perky instrumentals, this classic 1950s tune signals this is the fella your mother warned you about. Dean Martin was known for his boundless confidence and charisma, thus he was an excellent fit for singing the male narrator role. He convincingly portrays the narrator as self-assured, well rehearsed with the compliments, and as having an answer for every objection.
The song's snappy vocals, however, are a little too quick through key phrases (e.g., "if you got pneumonia and died"). Additionally, the use of a female chorus is less convincing than if a strong female narrator had been used. For this reason, I'm partial to Martin's 2006 duet with country songbird Martina McBride singing the female role. It was released after Martin's death and was made possible thanks only to technology.
7. "Baby, It's Cold Outside" by Darius Rucker & Sheryl Crow (2014)
This cover features a delightful pairing of rocker Sheryl Crow and country star Darius Rucker ("Hootie" of Hootie & the Blowfish fame). The background instrumentals let the Grammy Award-winning vocalists take the spotlight. Crow's cherubic voice is balanced nicely by Rucker's low, gravelly vocals. I could do without the extra conversation during the intro and outro, but it's otherwise a noteworthy rendition.
8. "Baby, It's Cold Out There" by Brett Eldredge & Meghan Trainor (2016)
Grammy Award winner Meghan Trainor lends her golden voice to this Christmas classic, and she is joined by ever-persuasive country crooner Brett Eldredge. Together they form a perfect vocal pair in a rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Out There" that is particularly upbeat with a quick pace.
While the quality of their vocals is impeccable, I found the rapid-fire nature of their verbal back-and-forth to be a little overwhelming. What's the rush here? The speed of question-asking seems to pick up just after the half-way point. As a result, rather than dazzling, this version comes across as a bit quarrelsome. Slow it down a little!
9. "Baby, It's Cold Outside" by Jacob Whitesides & Orion Carloto
With more than 1.5 million hits on YouTube, this jazz-inspired cover by singer-songwriter Jacob Whitesides and YouTube star Orion Carloto doesn't rush a good thing. Whitesides, however, doesn't employ much vocal fluctuation, perhaps in an attempt to portray a male narrator who can comfortably lull his date into staying the night. (Carloto's voice has more lilt and thus carries the song.)
Even though both performers could have added expressiveness to certain phrases, this cover represents a laudable delivery of "Baby, It's Cold Outside."
10. "Baby, It's Cold Outside" by Leon Redbone & Zooey Deschanel (2003)
When this cover was featured in the Christmas comedy, Elf, actress Zooey Deschanel didn't yet label herself as a singer. She had been too shy about her singing to share her talent, but that changed as a result of her appearance in the movie.
This cover of "Baby, It's Cold Outside" is slower paced than many, and it is far superior to Deschanel's later release of the song in 2011 as a part of the She & Him duo. In this 2003 cover of the classic, Deschanel's voice is soft, airy, and conversationally-paced without being overly seductive. Leon Redbone's deep voice, however, tips the delicate power balance in their cat and mouse game, and the effect is low-key creepy to me. Redbone is a retired singer-songwriter, actor, and voiceover actor.
11. "Baby, It's Cold Outside" by Lady Antebellum (2009)
As much as I wanted this country version of "Baby, It's Cold Outside" to work, it comes across more as a cheap hook-up in the making than an intimate conversation between two would-be lovers. The male vocalist seems inexplicably restrained emotionally. His casual ad-libbing at the end of the song suggests the narrator's lack of sentimental investment in the woman he's trying to seduce: "Stay right here, baby. You ain't gotta be nowhere." While Hillary Scott's vocals are impressibly flexible, their joint singing of the refrain "Oh, but it's cold outside" especially is strikingly unharmonious.
Lady Antebellum is a Grammy Award-winning country group that is known for "Need You Now" (2009), "Just a Kiss" (2011), and other songs that have crossed over to mainstream charts.
12. "Baby, It's Cold Outside" by Ray Charles & Nina Simone
The brass band intro signals this cover will have an extra dose of drama. Now that the song has captured your attention, you'll nearly need to strain to hear the sultry banter between the couple. The tension they share is palpable. For me, however, they need to dial up the volume on their private conversation so we can all eavesdrop better.
Ray Charles and Nina Simone provide an understated R&B version of "Baby, It's Cold Outside," a little too understated in spite of their raw talent. Ray Charles, nicknamed "The Genius," was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award (1987) and was recognized with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Nina Simone was known as "The High Priestess of Soul." She was both a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee (2018) and the recipient of the recipient of a Grammy Hall of Fame Award.
13. "Baby, It's Cold Outside" by Rod Stewart & Dolly Parton (2004)
In this rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside," Dolly Parton and Rod Stewart go together like peanut butter and pickles—on their own, both artists are grand, but when you combine them like this, something doesn't work. Dolly is a phenomenal country singer, an inductee into the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and a winner of numerous Grammys and other prestigious awards. In this cover, however, her voice inflections are unusual. They distract rather than intrigue, and she sounds like she is asking a series of questions rather than making statements (e.g., "I really can't stay?", "I've got to go away?").
For his contribution, Rod Stewart delivers his lyrics with an air of confidence and persuasiveness that befit his reputation. The raspy-voiced "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy" rocker was named to Rolling Stone magazine's list of "100 Greatest Singers of All Time." Stewart has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth.
But even Sir Rod Stewart's performance isn't without fault. When he joins Dolly for harmonies (e.g., "I simply must go"), the combined effort is ... peanut butter and pickles, somewhat cringe-worthy.
14. "Baby, It's Cold Outside" by Jessica Simpson & Nick Lachey (2004)
Did this really happen? In this unfortunate rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside," former married couple Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey show us how a classic song can be ruined. In addition to being recognized for her beauty and influence, pop and country singer Jessica Simpson starred on the MTV reality television series Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica along with her then-husband. Nick Lachey was a founding member of 1990s boy band 98 Degrees.
Although she would seem to fit the part, Simpson overplays her role, executing the vocals of this Christmas favorite with all the care of a soused coworker at the office holiday party. Simpson is so ridiculously breathy that it's hardly singing. She nearly seems to gag over her words at points (e.g., "There's got to be talk tomorrow.")
Lachey is erstwhile unremarkable in his vocals, as he is overshadowed by his partner. As if that were not enough, the high notes are also regrettable feats, and the jammin' instrumentals in the middle of the song seem to clash.
I realize it's the Christmas season and all, but someone needed to say it.
Readers Weigh In
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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
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