During her performance at a recent Bessie Smith tribute concert at The Cabot in Beverly, blues singer Shemekia Copeland offered her version of the rollicking Smith classic, “’Taint Nobody’s Bizness If I Do.” Watching from backstage, I waited to see if she would sing its most objectionable lyrics:
“Well I’d rather my man would hit me
Than to jump right up and quit me
’Taint nobody’s bizness if I do.
I swear I won’t call no copper
If I’m beat up by my papa
’Taint nobody’s bizness if I do.”
Copeland didn’t, and it wasn’t a surprise. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone these days who would sing lyrics that endorse domestic violence as a key to relationship longevity.
Like an ill-advised spring break tattoo, some standards and pop chestnuts aren’t aging well. In a culture increasingly vocal about whatever demeans women, makes light of sexual assault, or equates violence with love, such songs are rightly being shunned.
That’s why some radio stations are yanking “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” from their holiday playlists. Written by Frank Loesser, it’s been a beloved perennial for decades. At the center of debate is its story line — a man unconvinced that a woman’s “no” really means “no.” She wants to go home; using the lousy weather as an excuse, he’s cajoling her to stay. She also needs a ride, but he makes no offer to oblige her. At the very least, he’s an insufferable jerk.
The creep factor amplifies after she agrees to “just a half drink more,” then asks, “Say, what’s in this drink?” Whatever Loesser’s lyrical intentions were when he wrote it in 1944, it now makes me say, “You in danger, girl.”
Today, the song “seems very manipulative and wrong,” said Glenn Anderson of Cleveland’s WDOK-FM, one of the first radio stations to ban the song. “In a world where #MeToo has finally given women the voice they deserve, the song has no place.”
Of course, the song’s fans are pushing back with cries of political correctness gone wild. To some, this is the latest front in The War on Christmas™ that conservatives pretend is being waged. (After an uproar, at least one station capitulated days after banning the song.) As much as I enjoy the version of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” by Ray Charles and Betty Carter, I’d be fine if I never heard the song again. I can’t say the same for another longtime favorite which I now find disturbing: Aretha Franklin’s “Until You Come Back to Me.”
Co-written by Stevie Wonder, it’s one of the Queen of Soul’s most revered songs. Her vocals are stunning, the arrangements and production perfect, but its lyrics about a post-relationship obsession are troubling. The singer makes plain her intention to “rap on your door, tap on your window pane,” and “camp on your steps, until I get through to you.” Sings Aretha, “Listen, you, until you come back to me, that’s what I’m gonna do.”
After the singer’s death in August, Essence magazine cited the tune as one of her “most iconic love songs.” Iconic? Definitely. A love song? Definitely not. It’s a stalker’s anthem.
Culture evolves. So, too, do our feelings about it. Blackface was once widely accepted as wholesome entertainment; it’s now condemned alongside such racist artifacts as “Charlie Chan” movies and “The Frito Bandito.”
This isn’t necessarily new. Singing with B.B. King, Etta James, and Chaka Khan at a 1987 show, Gladys Knight stayed true to the original violent lyrics of “’Taint Nobody’s Bizness If I Do.” But when she sang about willfully accepting abuse, Knight offered an in-song disclaimer: “It’s a lie. I ain’t gonna have it.”
In explaining his reasons for removing “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” from his Cleveland station’s rotation, Anderson said, “The world we live in is extra sensitive now, and people get easily offended.” That’s not it at all. People are no more “easily offended” than they ever were; the difference is they now refuse to be stifled and marginalized. That’s not being “extra sensitive.” It’s a rejection of the silence that sustains your own oppression.
This isn’t just about a holiday pop song. It’s about representation, inclusion, and decency. A burgeoning moment has become a movement, and those struggling to keep up will be left behind. To paraphrase Knight, we ain’t gonna have it anymore.Renée Graham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.